The wheel has turned full circle for golf on the Costa del Sol. Forty years after Robert Trent Jones Senior built the first two courses at Sotogrande to kick-start European golf tourism, the scion of another US architectural dynasty has created a comparable masterpiece at the adjacent San Roque Club.
Comparable is an apposite adverb. While the architectural style and terrain are only vaguely similar, Perry Dye’s creation has elevated the stylish San Roque into the exclusive echelons of European golf courses of which neighbouring Valderrama is the flagship.
Known as the New course, it perfectly compliments the David Thomas layout that transformed the site back in the 1980s and which put San Roque onto the world stage of golf. Both Trent Jones and David Thomas had expansive sites on which to practice their arts. In this case, Perry Dye, son of the illustrious Pete, found a limited canvas at odds with the magnanimous acreage to which most US golf architects are accustomed.
The New course is laid over a scant 45 hectares, a vaguely triangular-shaped oblong lying parallel to the ocean and with a sacrosanct nature reserve running along one boundary. To complicate matters, its centrepiece was a huge hill festooned with cork and oak trees. Plainly, “shifting dirt,” as the Dye dynasty has it, was a priority, as was transplanting trees, hundreds of them. Because of a wet winter, two years were to pass before the first ball was struck, in September 2003.
The consensus: San Roque New may be one of the finest new courses in Europe and certainly one of the most beautiful. Visually it is a joy; technically it is a masterpiece of the art, fun for beginners and a thorough test for those capable of strutting the back tees. Because of the shape of the site most of the holes run east to west, or the reverse, so the prevailing winds, from the mountains or the sea, are generally across the line of shot. The exceptions are holes 4, 5, 6, and 13 that lie at right angles at one end of the site. There are sea views from 12 holes, often over a carpet of waving treetops. You’ll gather it is not displeasing to the eye.
Illusion, the architect’s accomplice, is rampant. Stand on most tees and the knuckles will turn white. But a treat, not a trick, lies in wait: the course is much easier than at first it appears. The fairways look narrow but frequently they widen out beyond a mound, or a sand dune that gives a links appearance in places. In the Dye tradition, all the bunkers are visible. Some are strategic, some are penal; some purely aesthetic, some are traditional pot bunkers and some are monstrous. The latter are US-style waste bunkers that, as at the short 8th, stretch the length of the fairway or, as at the 7th and the 9th, act as buffers on the edge of a lake that guards each green.
San Roque New is an all-round examination of ability and character where the major test invariably awaits with the approach shot. This is because the greens, though large, present small targets in that they have a narrow opening or are angled, often side-on and partially hidden by subtle mounding. The lay-up will be a popular option here.
Horticulturally speaking, the New course is unique in several aspects. In what he classifies as his wilderness areas, the architect has introduced a species the Americans know as love grass. Similar to marram grass but finer stemmed and lusher, it lays a knee-high carpet that gives a “Mexican wave” in a breeze. It forms a beautiful backdrop to many holes, along with another innovation: cascading wild flowers, acres of them, whose seeds were brought over from their native Colorado, where Dye is based. The more practical grasses are unusual, too. Dye has used five varieties of hybrid Bermuda on each hole: tees, fairways, green surrounds and on the putting surfaces. On the greens it is Tifeagle, a species ideally suited to the climate of Southern Spain. It is one that doesn’t hibernate in winter. It gives a good matt cover and has a finer grain, too, bringing a more consistent roll than the old fashioned Bermuda. Good putters will be licking their lips, although they’d better be sharp-eyed. The greens get a tad slick down-grain and consequently more than a hint slower against it. On cross-grain putts the ball will wander just a touch at the death so bring your reading glasses!
A compelling vista is enhanced by a series of rock retaining walls, built from material unearthed in the construction, and two large lakes. The latter provide irrigation and add spice to four holes: the 7th and 14th greens straddle one lake; the 9th and 18th are separated by the other. The New Course is simply a celebration of golf in its purest form. We commend it to all who love the game.
Article by Barry Ward.
We last played the New Course at San Roque about 5 years ago, loved the layout and felt that it was an ideal second course on the Estate to the well known Old Course.
But 5 years can be a long time in the life of a golf course. San Roque Old Course has been sensitively modernised at great expense, whereas I am led to understand the New Course has become the subject of protracted negotiation between the new owners and the Local Authority. The result is that this course has fallen into neglect, minimum routine maintenance is carried out but no more in my opinion. Fairways are uneven and scruffy, bunkers largely GUR and the greens run fast but the putts don’t run true on the pock-marked surfaces which are barely covered in grass in places.
Such a shame because in good times the New is a tough and exhilarating course with tight fairways, lots of bunkers and water hazards and some unusual and testing holes. At the moment I guess the very future of this golf course is in doubt, and unless matters are resolved soon I fear for the worst.
For the past ten days, we have heard about San Roque wherever we have played. Fast but fair greens, a gorgeous course and a beautiful new clubhouse were the common thoughts.
San Roque has benefited from very significant investment since its management was taken over in 2019.
We can testify to the magnificence of its clubhouse, having eaten there post-round and the practice facilities, part of the Jason Floyd Academy, bear comparison with its prestigious neighbours on the Costa Del Sol.
However, all of the talk had been about the Old course and, on the final day of our holiday, it was undergoing maintenance.
Therefore, noting its sister New course was no.32 in Spain on the top100golfcourses website, I believed it would be a more than adequate replacement.
I was wrong. It has become the Cinderella of the San Roque development – bags of potential but rather unloved.
Even the friendly staff seemed underwhelmed by the prospect of playing on it.
For starters we had the pick of tee-times – due on at 11.40am, we arrived 90 minutes early and were told we could play when we wanted either side of a party at 11am.
Meanwhile, the impressive new signage at San Roque pays little heed to the New course.
We struggled to find it and when we asked, we were simply told it was through the car park and across the road.
No starter’s hut or niceties here - it was a case of finding our own way and discovering a rather unkempt tee box and a presumption of the direction of the first hole.
Straightaway there are signs of neglect. Inconsistent fairways, raggedy bunker edges and greens which appear to have signs of disease.
The shame is that the course could be very special. Its bunkering is like none other I have experienced, its water features have great potential and the views are impressive even though we played it in ferocious wind and, in part, howling rain.
The daunting challenge of San Roque New is apparent on the par-five second. I counted 20 traps included one which runs down much of the right-hand side of the hole. The par-four third has even more.
The short 4th heralds ‘Seve’s Tee’ with a sign which points to a spot which appears to be its tip. Ours was significantly further forward but we still had bushes and a huge sand-trap to avoid.
However, after negotiating both, I discovered that the greatest danger is behind the target. Thus, after hitting a short chip too hard, my ball disappeared over the green and down into bushes never to be seen again.
Sloping fairways are one of the hallmarks of the course. Both Mrs W and I were driving well but often found the ball on the opposite site to its landing point.
Meanwhile, finding narrow entrances to greens such as the raised fifth was a huge challenge.
With a little love, the 7th could be a remarkable par-five with trees either side of an undulating fairway.
It leads down to a green between dunes and bunkers to the right and a lake, complete with fountain and huge sand trap with a tree in its centre, to the left.
Nowhere is the unique use of sand more evident than on the short eighth where the railway-sleeper-lined trap runs the entire length. We were both thrilled with par threes.
The eccentric use of sand takes another turn on the ninth which has tiered bunkering to the right of a green which has another lake to the left.
By comparison the opening holes of the back nine should be much more sedate but by now the wind and rain were so fierce we even contemplated giving up.
However, never-say-die spirit saw us on until the 18th which brings water back into the equation at the front right of a relatively small green.
I thought I had hit a perfect four-iron approach only to see the ball find the camber and roll into the murky depths.
And that was it. We dropped our clubs in the sparsely populated car park before returning to the swanky clubhouse where adverts to entice would-be members highlighted an eye-watering €23,000 joining fee as if it were a bargain.
Well, the folk of Sotogrande certainly aren’t short of a bob or two and the new investment might be all the lure they need.
However, if they were to play regular golf on the New course, it would need a heck of a lot of work to justify that price.
The San Roque club is currently experiencing what could best be described as a period of transition. The Old course and clubhouse were acquired by new investors in January 2019 and they’re now operated by Golf Estate, a golf management, development and marketing company. The New course, which is owned by the local authority, is leased by the club at the moment.
When I visited two weeks ago, the Old course looked like a battlefield, with the empty clubhouse just a pale imitation of the building it once was. When the extensive renovation work to both is completed later this year, San Roque is set to rise once again like a phoenix from the flames. In the meantime, members and visitors satisfy their golfing needs on the Perry Dye-designed New course.
I’d only ever played one Perry Dye layout before (Lykia Links in Turkey, which didn’t particularly impress me) so I was a little wary of what to expect here. Sure enough, there were a few things going on that surprised me (and had me wondering at the thought process that must have occurred when setting out some of the holes) but there’s nothing wrong with a few edgy design features, of course, as long as they work…
As early as the 3nd hole, the distinctive nature of the scooped mounding alongside the greenside bunkers really catches the eye and this theme is repeated at several other holes throughout the round. I’ve seen a very similar design trait at Courson, where Robert von Hagge designed the two 18-hole courses a decade earlier, but I doubt very much if Perry Dye took his inspiration from the other American architect’s project located almost 2,000 kilometres north of San Roque!
The long, skinny fairway waste bunker on the left side of the par four 5th (pictured above) was a bit of a head scratcher, as it constricted what was already a very tight approach into the green. This rather unconventional use of sand was nothing compared to the downhill par three 8th, measuring 206 metres from the back tee, where a long, narrow bunker runs from tee to green all the way at a lower level down the left side of the fairway, with wooden sleepers placed at an angle between the sand and the grass – it’s a totally bizarre set-up (pictured on the right) but what an interesting hazard from an architect who was obviously thinking out of the box when he designed the hole!
There are more mad moundings and whopping waste areas – even a couple of beach bunkers – to contend with on the back nine (along with a few tee box placements where the back markers are set at a substantially lower elevation than the others) but, despite the nonconformist nature of it all, the New course is actually rather an entertaining romp across a landscape that isn’t short of movement. You’ll be able to compare and contrast against the Old course when it returns at the end of this year. I suspect they’ll be like golfing chalk and cheese.
The New course was in terrible condition. There were huge areas in the fairways with almost no grass. Some of the bunkers had new sand and some had none.
I understand this course has just been sold to someone interested in improving it, which is great as the layout is excellent. Would never return until I was convinced the conditions were improved.
Great holes especially on the back nine although a bit scruffy in places it was great value and an enjoyable 3 hour round