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Mountain golf in Gaucho land

14 September, 2015

Golf by the mountains in Gaucho’s Land

By Javier Pintos on Patagonia's golf courses

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Golf was first played in Argentina in the Buenos Aires City surroundings when the first courses were laid near the new railway stations built in the early 20th century. Not long after the first courses were created, the sport started to grow across the country. During the 1930s many more courses were opened in Buenos Aires including both Jockey Club layouts created by Dr. Alister MacKenzie and now the sport has become even bigger in Argentina after Angel Cabrera’s two Major championship victories (2007 US Open and 2009 Masters Tournament).

Before 1990, Golf in Patagonia was not that big, with just one 9-hole course by the Hotel Llao Llao near Bariloche laid out between the forest with the last two holes adjacent to lake Nahuel Huapi. In the 1990s Arelauquen Country Club (with the help of European Tour and PGA Champions Tour Winner Vicente Fernandez) opened a very nice course by Lake Gutierrez, with majestic views of the snowcapped mountains and the Cerro Catedral Ski Center where golf can be played almost all year round. During the early 2000s Llao Llao completed the 18 holes which were opened with a Junior Tournament where current European Tour player Estanislao “Tano” Goya fired an opening round of 63 (28-35, -7) to win the Tournament with 133 strokes.

Left 15th at Arelauquen and Right 18th at Llao Llao, both par 3s

I have been able to play both courses in the past and they are totally different from each other: Llao Llao is friendlier and playable in the most spectacularly scenic spot in Patagonia while Arelauquen is a more demanding course, longer and tougher. The setting is really nice as well, but nothing to do with Llao. Both courses make a great combination with some fly fishing and sightseeing for maybe a four-day stay in Bariloche.

It was around this time when an undiscovered golf destination was starting to rise. San Martin de los Andes, located 170kms away from Bariloche, was chosen by Jack Nicklaus to build Chapelco Golf Club which opened in 2006 located 15kms away from the downtown.

I was lucky to first play Chapelco in 2008 in a team competition. “La Copa Molitor” is a Ryder Cup format competition and I played Chapelco for five consecutive days and it was love at first sight. The course has a great setting with a beautiful landscape, especially in spring when gorse turns yellow and the course becomes very challenging and demanding. Jack Nicklaus has used his best creative effort to build this fantastic venue, which will for sure be always in South America’s Top 5 courses.

I went back in 2010 for two rounds and 2015 for two more rounds and the love grows deeper every time I get to that first tee. It is not close to Bariloche, but it's easy to combine with the other two courses to create a great golf holiday.

11th and 12th at Chapelco (me in 2008 and 2015 respectively)

Just across from Chapelco, a new upcoming project is under construction with a Signature Greg Norman Course: El Desafío Mountain Resort. The course has 9 holes open to play (the front 9) and is expected to complete the 18 early in 2017. This course is located a couple of hundred meters higher than Chapelco with great views of the course, the polo fields and the Andes Range including the majestic Lanin Volcano that stands just in the limit between Argentina and Chile.

El Desafío was designed to become one of the best courses in Argentina. Greg Norman was given free rein to choose the best land from more than 1,000 hectares to build a masterpiece. The course takes up a massive 90 hectares (222 acres) for a 7,100-yard par 72 track. Interestingly, it includes five par three and five par five holes, so it plays somewhat longer than a normal 7,100-yard course and it is a more fun routing.

Greg Norman designed a very wide course with plenty of strategic options within the wide fairways, with as many as four target options from the tees. Placing the ball on the right side of the fairway is important for the scratch player in order to score, but higher handicap players can use other parts of the fairway easily. The course has practically no out of bounds with the exception of the par 4 second.

Tees, fairways and rough are pure fescue grass allowing firm and fast conditions and plenty of bounce and roll for some very long drives. Combined with shortly mowed green complexes, El Desafío plays similarly to a links course allowing for the ground game bump and run. Large greens and naturally rugged bunkers complement the huge natural scale of the site.

The par 4, 450-yard opening hole starts with a blind tee shot over a wide ravine to a generous fairway that does not present much difficulty, but favors a straight shot for best angle to the flag. As you get to your ball the green opens up below. To the right, several bunkers protect the green and provide some safety from a ravine. A large bail out area to the left allows for balls to trickle down to the green.

The par 4, 365-yard 2nd hole appears intimidating from the tee with a very deep canyon in front and the fairway several feet below the tee. It is also amazingly beautiful with the snowcapped Andes in the background. The long hitter can play to the left to a split fairway with the 3rd hole and away from trouble, leaving a small pitch to a well-protected green.

The 3rd is a brutal par 4 of 457 yards playing uphill from the tees. If the drive is not long enough, the second shot will be blind to a green with all sorts of trouble to the left. We anticipate this to be the toughest hole on the golf course.

The 4th hole is another par 4 measuring 466 yards from the tips, but considerably shorter from the remaining tees. The pro tees are narrow and require a strong drive. But the hole plays quite a lot shorter than its yardage as it is all downhill. This hole required little or no shaping. The green is protected by a large bunker on the left and a steep slope on the right.

4th hole from one of the highest points on the back 9

The 5th hole is the first par 5, measuring 555 yards. A dogleg left, the tee shot is wide open to the right side of the hole, and shots right of center will tend to roll down to the middle of the fairway. The player wanting to reach in two shots might want to risk cutting the left corner by carrying the very deep bunkers, but the consequence of being left or short will cost you at least one shot.

The first par 3 arrives at the 262-yard (!) downhill 6th hole. For the pro golfers it is a challenging shot to a green that slopes away and slightly from right to left with no bail out areas on either side and narrow long bunkers on the left side. However, the hole plays much shorter than the yardage indicates. For the least aggressive players, a shorter shot to the fairway will funnel balls towards the green. It is possible to play a 6-iron from the 230 yards tees and reach the green.

The shortest par 4 on the card is number seven, measuring only 340 yards and it's one of the most beautiful. Multiple target areas from the tee include going for the green. However, anything long or left of the green is in deep trouble. The safest drive line short left leaves you with a strong uphill shot over deep bunkers to a narrow right to left sloping infinity green. A more aggressive drive over the fairway bunker on the right will bounce towards the green and leave you with a short chip shot.

7th from the tee - a great reachable par 4

The par 5 8th hole heads back up the mountain and measures 540 yards with a prevailing head wind. A straight long drive will leave you with a decision between going for a smaller upper section of the fairway with a perfect level line to the flag, or going for a lower wider section of the fairway that leaves an uphill approach protected by bunkers to a left to right green. The views from the tees are simply gorgeous.

8th hole from the tee on a sunny January day

The 167-yard par 3 ninth hole showcases the rugged beauty of Patagonia and is exposed to the wind, making it a challenge. The infinity green is built against a giant rock with views of Chapelco Golf below.

I played the course on December 31st on a very cold summer day, where in the higher parts of the course we had some snow during play, but it was an amazing experience and I feel this course will be a real blast for first time visiting golfers. The course will be open for the new season starting in November. To play, contact WeGolf Argentina in advance.

5th tee (left) when a “Tero” bird dangerously crosses my line - 8th tee (right) with my Wegolf/Top 100 shirt ready to play one of the best par 5s in South America

9th green in January 2015 just weeks before opening for play

Undoubtedly a great golf destination inside Argentina is emerging. Together with fly fishing and delicious gastronomy, the land of the Gaucho is fast becoming one of the best tourist experiences on the planet. Llao Llao and Arelauquen have been the foundation stones, Chapelco Golf Resort arrived giving the destination a higher status and now El Desafío Mountain Resort will complete the equation to make our beloved Patagonia a must-play destination.

To see our current list of Argentina's Top 20 golf courses, click the link.


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