There are five courses above Real Club Valderrama in our Continental European Top 100 but it is entirely possible that for the majority of golfers, this would be the most coveted round in our ranking. Valderrama has an aura, a status and a mystique that only a few courses around the world possess. Its lustre and buzz may have faded ever so slightly since the halcyon days of being the first European course to host the Ryder Cup, but it is still unquestionably a green fee ticket to savour.
Whether that allure comes from its Marmite design among the omnipresent cork oaks, from its fabled level of presentation, from its Ryder Cup heritage or from its colourful history, there is a common link to them all; Jaime Ortiz-Patino.
The Bolivian industrialist bought the Los Aves course – initially known as Sotogrande New owing to the fact it neighbours Sotogrande Old – in 1985.
He brought in the era’s biggest name in architecture, Robert Trent Jones, to overhaul his new purchase and by 1988 the newly named Valderrama staged the first of its multiple Volvo Masters.
There are as many as 5,000 cork oaks, lining fairways, in fairways, in bunkers, and more pertinently of all, in your mind.
Great tales abound of this period: Patino asking for astonishing membership fees of £750,000 (in today’s money)…and getting them; when a cow wandered on to a fairway prior to the first Volvo Masters legend has it that he shot it; when it looked as if Las Brisas was slated to get the 1997 Ryder Cup, he found a way to land the matches at the last minute.
Patino’s prize was Seve’s captaincy, Tiger’s debut and a rain-soaked but dramatic final day that put Valderrama on the map worldwide, where it remained for over a decade.
Its star had waned a little by the time of Patino’s death in 2013 but American architect Kyle Phillips – a Trent Jones protege – had already been drafted in to revise his master’s work and in tandem with conditioning that has legendary status, Valderrama regained its allure.
What has never altered is its challenge. A mid-range 6,500 yards off the white tees and not much more than 6,000 off the yellows, few courses are less in need of length to test players than Valderrama. It probes all aspects of the game relentlessly and rarely veers from Trent Jones’ ‘Hard par, easy bogey’ philosophy.
The most obvious reason are the infamous cork oaks. There are as many as 5,000, lining fairways, in fairways, in bunkers, and more pertinently of all, in your mind.
With your putter, fail to detect the subtle borrows and your ball is carried dispiritingly wide of the hole by the slick surfaces.
They reduce your margin for error to infamously small levels and playing here requires one to adopt a different type of game than many of us are used to. Valderrama requires finesse not force, precision over vigour; imagination before perspiration.
The challenge does not end there though. Only four par 4s are under 400 yards and there are only three par 5s to attack. The greens and their surrounds make it very easy to turn a chance of a par save into a double bogey.
With wedge in hand you have to contend with either a deep-pile carpet of ‘first cut’ rough, a thicker outer rim or tightly-mown aprons. With your putter, fail to detect the subtle borrows and your ball is carried dispiritingly wide of the hole by the slick surfaces.
So, there is every chance higher-handicappers and those unwilling to adapt could have an underwhelming time here. Adapt and enjoy the creativity required to prosper – finding yourself punching a 5-wood under branches – and it is one of the continent’s most memorable experiences.
It is an all-consuming start both in terms of the unremitting challenge and the feeling of being fortunate to be undertaking the examination.
This truly is millionaire’s golf, where the trees offer isolation on every hole and from only the highest points do you peer over their tops and see any residence.
It begins exactly as you’d expect, a tight avenue down which to drive from a row of tees that resemble a snooker tables sitting higher than the fairway like an inviting launch pad. Not for the last time in the day reaching for driver is a decision you might soon lament. It turns to the right as it sweeps gently round to a green that is noticeably long and almost preposterously narrow.
The 2nd is named El Arbol ‘The Tree’ due to the pine in fairway. It turns in the same direction, even more acutely and so it is easy to nudge yourself out of position with something even vaguely offline, for the gap between the trees at their peak – where you fly your approach – is narrow and the further left your drive slides, the more slender the gap becomes on the angle. The green slopes back to front and you need the touch of a surgeon to hold the green if chipping onto it.
The cute par-3 3rd is played downhill with absolutely no future for a miss to the left of an oval-shaped green that feels like it is no bigger than a coffee cup coaster.
Then comes the all-world par-5 4th. ’La Cascada’ is ‘picture postcard’ stuff, with an elevated, tiered green draped on the edge of the waterfall below.
It is an all-consuming start both in terms of the unremitting challenge and the feeling of being fortunate to be undertaking the examination. Happy smiles verging on smug are never far away from your lips.
Some respite arrives at the 5th and also the 6th, a gorgeous par 3 even if the latter is well bunkered (six); these are two holes to be enjoyed rather than endured.
The 7th offers a wide driving area but narrows the further you hit it; a gorgeous straight hole that oozes class. The slopes makes the green akin to putting on glass.
The short, downhill 12th is arguably the best one-shotter, a simple, gorgeous par 3 with bunkers surrounding a tiny, acutely-sloping green.
The controversial 8th is a sporty par 4 where the trees sneak in from the left pushing you right where you are then snookered under oaks with bunkers in front of the green preventing a running escape. The heart-shaped green has a little mound in its centre that slopes front to back.
The nine ends with a solid par 4 up to an elevated green, one of the toughest two shotters on this half. The green repels anything short to the point of humiliation like another well-manicured 9th, inconspicuosly located at Augusta National.
‘El Lago’ begins the back nine, playing downhill as it turns left-to-right. Water lurks on the right and the left-to-right slope in the land encourages your ball into it. It then turns steeply uphill to a green that is so hard to hold when approaching with a 5-iron.
Now there is a sudden change of feel, because the 559-yard 11th, ‘El Sueno’, is an uphill hole littered with sand a la Chart Hills or Penha Longa. At the end lies a seriously small, narrow green surrounded by bunkers, slopes and mounds. No easy birdie is made here but there is also tremendous ‘top of the world’ view.
The short, downhill 12th is arguably the best one-shotter, a simple, gorgeous par 3 with bunkers surrounding a tiny, acutely-sloping green and a steep fall-off to the left that you need to locate with a fairway wood or long iron.
The 13th – ‘Sin Bunker’, no bunkers – is one of the holes where you’re more than likely to find yourself manufacturing an approach from under branches. It dog-legs to the right at 90˚ where trees overhang meaning a clear shot in is so rare.
And despite the inherent difficult of Valderrama, surely almost everyone reading this will want to savour this experience for themselves.
The tee of the 15th offers a spectacular mountain view over the tree tops and is played downhill between trees that form a V-shape for you to hit through to a more open green akin to Augusta, while its name, ‘Muy Dificil’, gives you an idea of the 16th. It turns right to a green defended by sand and run-offs.
That takes you to the last of the stellar par 5s, ‘Los Gabilones’. It was here in 1997 that Tiger putted into the water and it has been revised more times in its life than the American has had Ryder Cup partners.
Phillips’ latest renovation has returned it to close to the hole Trent Jones initially envisaged – one akin to Augusta’s 15th – but was not able to produce. You drive over the summit of the hill to get a view of the amphitheatre green and then must decide whether to have a crack in two over the lake that eats in from the left, or lay up.
The green slopes right to left with typically subtle borrows but none are more extreme or unforgiving than those at its front…unless you are safely on the surface, your ball will roll back into the water.
The last, ‘Casa Club’, has an almost an S shaped fairway and this awesome par 4 of 456 yards is a three-shotter for almost everyone reading this. And despite the inherent difficulty of Valderrama, surely almost everyone reading this will want to savour this experience for themselves.