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.
For me, Perry Dye’s New course at San Roque is better than its sibling the Old. I agree with some of the points mentioned in the earlier review below, but found the New course to be in excellent condition last week (including the greens) and felt the course was one of THE most natural and least manufactured on the Costa Del Sol. OK, so there are buggy paths, but this is a course that can easily be walked. But how many golfers want to fry themselves in the Spanish summer sun? The aesthetics of cart paths are not great but sadly needed. I found nothing tired about San Roque as a whole, in fact, to the contrary, I felt the whole club was lively, vibrant and rather up market. The New course is the most technically challenging of the two San Roque courses and it feels more mature than the resort-like Old course… better players will favour the New and from a design perspective I think Dye’s New is a cut above Dave Thomas’s Old, which I also think is a nice course. Take a look back at Seve’s tee on the spectacular downhill 4th which is an incredible one-shot hole across a deep chasm to a Donald Ross styled raised and domed green perched some 200 yards distant. I loved the links-like feel of the course and I would add it to my personal itinerary ahead of most other Costa Del Sol tracks.