Costa del Sol, the sunny coast of southern Spain, has always had an allure for golfers, who are drawn to its 40-plus courses, several of them championship venues. Now the newly renovated San Roque Club offers a calming, cloistered setting where you can indulge your game without having to face the overbuilt, overcrowded carnival scenes on the beaches of Marbella and Puerto Banus. Perched in the Andalusian foothills on 340 private acres of rolling countryside, San Roque is the former summer palace of the Domecq sherry dynasty. Its whitewashed casitas blend Moorish and Spanish architecture, with domed chimneys, beamed ceilings, marble-tiled floors, and private patios for each of the 50 suites. From there, you can sample three of the most fabled golf courses in Europe, the so-called Golden Triangle—San Roque, Sotogrande, and Valderrama—and then retreat to the confines of the club for fillete de pargo and wine from the Domecq line of delicate, well-crafted Marques de Arienzo Riojas.
The San Roque Club
Set amid cork woods, the par-72 San Roque is the youngest of the three top-ranked courses on the Costa del Sol. Designed in 1990 by two Englishmen—former Ryder Cup captain and player Tony Jacklin and former Ryder Cup player turned golf architect Dave Thomas—it has few architectural tricks or gimmicks. "It is a golf course that helps golfers play well," explains Thomas, "because you can see the good shot, you can see what you have to hit, and if you hit it, you get rewarded."
That does not mean The San Roque Club, which hosts the finals of the PGA European Tour Qualifying School, is lacking in challenge—quite the contrary. The course measures just 5,658 yards from the forward tees, but at 7,102 yards it plays considerably longer from the back tees than either Valderrama or Sotogrande.
Conquering San Roque requires power, finesse, and strategic thinking. A perfect example is the 526-yard par-five fifth hole. The fairway is straight, but the ideal landing area is pinched by a pair of bunkers bordered by grass mounds. If you challenge the bunkers, you have a chance to get home in two, but that demands a 270-yard drive, followed by an approach that carries at least 240 yards to a steeply elevated green. But even if you take the seemingly safer and wiser option of laying up off the tee, you still must contend with trees and two more fairway bunkers on your second shot, and negotiate a tricky approach over yet another pair of bunkers on your third.
The back nine at San Roque boasts two of the finest holes on the Costa del Sol. The 11th is a 443-yard dogleg-left par four that invites you to cut the corner with a draw off the tee while carefully avoiding fairway bunkers on the left and right. You are then faced with a slightly downhill approach shot to an olive-shaped green fronted by a stream, flanked by a pond, and backed by a view of the Mediterranean.
The 428-yard par-four 18th, which also doglegs left, is even more demanding, with two ponds and a stream that come into play off the tee and around the green. The first time I played the 18th, I attempted to cut the corner of the dogleg with a driver, only to overcook my draw and drop the ball in the first pond. Fearful of landing in the water again, I took a strategic route with a three-wood off the tee the second time around. That left me with a 200-yard approach shot into the wind, which I might have deposited in pond number two were it not for a lucky bounce off a nearby rock; I stole a scrambling par.
Greens fees: Hotel guests pay 11,000 pesetas (about $55); nonguests are charged 16,000 pesetas (about $80). Rooms: $152-$231. CN. 340, Km 127, 11360 San Roque, Cádiz; 34-956-613-030; www.sanroqueclub.com.
Club de Golf Valderrama
Many experts proclaim that big-time Spanish golf begins and ends at Valderrama. This par 72, which ranges in length from 5,351 to 6,987 yards, is certainly one of the best golf courses in all of Europe. Like Sotogrande, the course was originally laid out by Robert Trent Jones Sr. But it was Seve Ballesteros, the Arnold Palmer of Spain, who contributed Valderrama's most notorious feature—the 17th hole. Ballesteros redesigned it for the 1997 Ryder Cup to create, in his words, "one of the most strategically challenging holes in the world." And so it is, with a green that slopes perilously forward into a pond (see Sheer Treachery). A dogleg-right risk-reward par five, the hole plays anywhere from 487 to 536 yards. The tee box offers dramatic views of Gibraltar to the south, and on especially clear days, the North African coastline.
In retrospect, I wish I had brought a small bucket of range balls to the 17th. After launching a respectable drive in a following wind, I could not resist the opportunity to go for the green in two from about 240 yards out. On my first attempt, the ball carried to the steep slope on the far side of the pond, clung to the grass for half an instant, then rolled back into the water. The results of my next three attempts were splash, splash, and splash. I finally laid up with a seven iron.
Ironically, the 17th is something of an anomaly at Valderrama, an exception to the rules that govern the prevailing design. The dominant features of the course are not its few water hazards but its trees—2,200 cork oaks, 3,000 pines, and 500 olives. Where the 17th is relatively open from tee to green, most of the other holes are tightly guarded by leaves, limbs, roots, stems, stumps, and gnarled trunks.
Tree trouble haunts you throughout Valderrama's front nine. At the 421-yard par-four second hole, a cork tree smack in the middle of the fairway complicates both your drive and your approach to the green. On the beautiful 564-yard par-five fourth—named La Cascada for its gurgling greenside waterfall—tall trunks line both sides of the fairway all the way from the tee. The same is true on the slightly shorter par-five seventh, and the long par-four ninth. At the 381-yard par-four fifth, you encounter what architect Jones once described as "a bunker in the air" in the form of an ancient cork overhanging the right side of the green.
One of the most demanding holes on the back nine is the 547-yard par-five 11th, which plays uphill between seven fairway bunkers to a perched green that is only ten paces wide. The arduous battle to reach the putting surface is rewarded by a view of the Mediterranean to the southeast and the Serrania de Ronda Mountains to the north.
At the 12th hole, a 212-yard par three ranked the second-hardest on the course, a cork tree sprouts right out of one of the four greenside bunkers. The 16th, a 422-yard dogleg-right par four, offers another glimpse of the Mediterranean. You then plunge back into a corridor of cork trees at the 18th, a 454-yard dogleg-left par four. Although I was still reeling from the 17th, I somehow managed to send a drive around the corner that enabled me to put a cork in the round without another scrape with the trees.
Valderrama takes understandable pride in its competitive pedigree, and expects visitors to pay for basking in its reflective glories. Valderrama's golf museum features a rare collection of golf manuscripts, clubs, and balls, including "featheries" (the original handsewn leather golf ball) made by legendary professional Allan Robertson of St. Andrews, Scotland.
Greens fees: 35,000 pesetas (about $175; but the thrill of testing your golfing skills on the 17th hole is worth the price of admission). Nonmembers are required to tee off between noon and 2 p.m. 11310 Sotogrande, Cádiz; 34-956-791-200; www.valderrama.com.
Real Club de Golf Sotogrande
Shortly after World War II, the late Colonel Joe McMicking, a former aide to General Douglas MacArthur, purchased three vast estates on the then unspoiled Andalusian coast, later consolidating them under the name Sotogrande. In 1964, the late golf architect Robert Trent Jones Sr. designed his first European links on the lower portion of the property.
The par-72 Sotogrande—rated 74 from the tips—can be played as a pleasurable resort track or as a diabolically challenging championship venue. Many of the fairways are 40 or 50 yards wide, and Jones' trademark runway-style tee boxes offer yardages ranging from 6,807 yards at the back tees to 5,649 yards at the forward tees.
In keeping with its European locale and American design, Sotogrande's routing has a kind of split personality. The opening and closing holes are on a flat coastal plain studded with palms and willows and bisected by shimmering lakes, a Floridian look. The middle holes, however, rise and fall through hills lined with dense forests of pine and oak, evoking a mysteriously medieval feel. The course's personality is further split by two prevailing winds that blow in opposite directions—the hot, dry poniente from the west and the humid levante from the east.
My favorite hole on the outward nine is the 418-yard par-four seventh, a stout dogleg left that plunges over a hill toward a kidney-shaped green defended by five bunkers and a pond. The short holes, however, are undeniably the most difficult, especially when played into a poniente wind.
It is rare to encounter a par three that is rated the number-one handicap hole on a course, but the fourth, which measures 227 yards uphill to a double-bunkered green, justly deserves that distinction. The eighth, another uphill par three that measures 202 yards, is the number-three handicap hole. I busted drivers off the tees of both the fourth and the eighth holes, and still failed to reach the greens.
Sotogrande's inward nine gradually descend from the foothills back to the flatlands. Three par fours present exceptional challenges—the 443-yard tenth hole, where you face a blind tee shot over a grove of trees; the 429-yard 15th, which rollercoasters over a humpbacked fairway; and the 433-yard 18th, which often plays into the teeth of the levante wind.
The real test of your golf game, however, comes on the lake-lined par fives. The 571-yard 12th makes it tempting to go for the water-guarded green in two if you feel a levante at your back. The deceptively long 495-yard 14th requires a water carry off the tee: The more water you are able to carry, the greater your chances of reaching the steeply elevated green in two. Feeling the wind at my back, I tried to take a heroic line off the tee at the 14th, only to drop a sleeve of balls into the pond before I found a route to dry land.
Sotogrande hosts regular weekend club-member matches, as well as the PGA European Tour Qualifying School tournament and the Copa Jerez, a prestigious amateur event twice won by Spanish prodigy Sergio Garcia, also known as El Niño.
Greens fees: 22,000 pesetas (roughly $110). Open to visiting golfers Monday through Friday. 11310 Sotogrande, Cádiz; 34-956-785-014; www.sotogrande.com.
It may look serene, but the 17th green of Valderrama has a gentle downward slope that coaxes balls to roll right off the grass and into the surrounding pond. Anyone who watched the 1999 American Express World Golf Championship will remember defending champion Tiger Woods doing exactly this not once but twice, thus losing the title.
La Bodega Domecq
The sherry capital of the universe is a two-hour drive northwest of San Roque via La Ruta del Toro, the Road of the Bull. It winds through the vast undulating countryside and past patches of pastureland and ranches dotted with cork trees and dried-out riverbeds bordered by fantastical rock formations before arriving at Jerez de la Frontera.
Just as Champagne must come from the eponymous region in France, sherry must come from around Jerez to qualify as the real thing. (The word "sherry" is actually an anglicized version of "Jerez.") Back in the early 19th century, Don Pedro Domecq, an English-educated second-generation Spaniard of French descent, made two lasting contributions to the sherry industry. One was the introduction of the Palomino grape to local vineyards. The other was the development of the solera system, in which old wines are mixed with new wines to maintain a consistent quality. This meticulous blending explains why sherry, although technically classified as a dry wine, does not have vintages.
Located in the center of the old town, the Domecq bodega is guarded by a battered stone wall originally built as a defense against invading Moors. Within are cobblestone patios, walkways that used to be public streets, and a dozen or so barn-sized buildings filled with long rows of oak barrels. The barrels are organized by age, with younger wines on the top rows and older wines closer to the floor. The sherry that is bottled always comes out of the barrels on the bottom row.
The most popular sherries among Spaniards are the finos, such as Domecq's La Ina. Aged in oak barrels for between three and eight years, finos are the youngest and driest of the sherries, and have a pale-straw color. They are often served with olives, almonds, and dried fruit. Amontillados are older and darker, and go well with cheeses, chowders, and bisques. The most popular sherry in America is Harvey's Bristol Cream, which is also owned by Allied Domecq. It has a dark-brown color and the sugar-sweetened taste of a dessert wine. Sampling sherry fresh from the barrels makes a visit to the Domecq bodega well worth the trip from San Roque.
Harry Hurt III wrote about custom golf clubs for the July/August issue of Departures.