Course spotlight: La Manga (West), Spain
It’s entirely plausible that plenty reading this article will assume La Manga has opened a new course when they notice it concentrates on the West.
Lots of golfers will have visited this Spanish super-resort and not realised the West has even existed never mind played it, even if they stayed for as long as a week.
It is the North and South courses that surround the hotel and sit under the noses of many of the townhouses that have always been mentioned prolifically when La Manga’s golf portfolio is discussed.
But up in the hills half a mile from the hotel sits what this golfer believes to be the best of the three. And not by a fine margin either, by a comfortable one.
Its distance from the centre of the resort has probably reduced the exposure it has historically received – as will the fact the other courses do not lack for pedigree in Continental European terms.
The South has been touched by the celebrated hands of Seve Ballesteros and Arnold Palmer and is the best known of the trio. It begins right next to the hotel with a hole typical of the ensuing challenge, a large lake eating into the fairway at just the length most of us will land our tee shots.
This is a common theme – water pops up at just the moments you would really rather it doesn’t on the South – as is the backdrop of the Arizona-like mountains.
The North is a friendlier 6,328 yards so receives a lot of play. It includes one of the best holes at La Manga – the 4th. This is a gorgeous par 3 to a green seemingly floating in the air, with the mountains sitting handsomely beyond.
Barrancas – natural storm gullies – play a key part on the North, as they do on its sister courses. And they leave an impression on even future superstars. “La Manga has so many good memories for me; it’s where I started the game of golf… with my Dad and my brother. A good drive for me was anything that got over the barranca,” says Luke Donald.
The first of these big barranca carries comes on the 5th and the rest of the front nine is terrific, a level of quality that is matched by the last five of this excellent resort course.
Troubled times and ‘Gazza’
La Manga has famously lured plenty of celebrities to its lush fairways over the years, not least when Glenn Hoddle selected his 1998 World Cup squad there, an announcement that didn’t go down too well with the axed Paul Gascoigne.
That attention, and more notoriety provided by Leicester City’s footballers, burdened La Manga with an indifferent reputation it did nothing to encourage or deserve.
That coincided with the financial crash of 2008 and placed La Manga’s future in serious doubt.
But a decade on, this giant of golf travel is now flourishing. It is more like a town than a golf resort, with eight full-size football pitches, cricket facilities and tennis courts among hundreds of houses, shops and restaurants.
Enter the gates of La Manga – where you are greeted by the iconic emblem (which now looks retro cool) of the white palm tree edged by green, aqua and navy – and you know you will be totally content without leaving again until you need to depart for your flight home.
For every golfer who visits, the West ought to be a part of that contentment. To get to the course necessitates a five-minute transfer from the five-star Hotel Principe Felipe and the other advantage of making that short journey from the resort’s main hub is that the clubhouse’s restaurant, La Princesca, serves superb paella as a daily special.
Playing through pines not palms
It is instantly clear the West – developed from nine to 18 holes in 1996 by Dave Thomas of The Belfry fame – is going to be very different from its sisters given it is set in a huge protected forest.
So the supposed ‘third course’ at La Manga plays between pines rather than the palms of the North and South.
Its routing sees the first six holes form a loop around the clubhouse then the next three take you along a narrow strip of the site to the main thrust of the back nine, with holes 11 to 17 fitted tightly together into an S-shape, with constant changes in direction a strong feature.
In addition to the sporty routing delivering frequently swaps in direction, there are also constant changes in elevation. It means the West is never, ever boring.
While it is the best course at La Manga, it is also the toughest. Tight to the point of claustrophobic at times, it makes you think over most of the shots you hit, certainly when standing over every drive; this is a shotmaker’s course, rather than one ‘bombers’ will relish. They can have their carefree fun on the North and the South courses.
You are punished for errant tee shots – with nothing more adventurous than chip-outs from behind trees routinely necessary – so this is the time to pack every fairway wood you own… and then probably end up opting to nervously steer your hybrid off the tee.
Most approaches are complicated by being either up or downhill while the greens are relatively small, so it is inevitable you miss them on plenty of occasions. The subsequent recovery shots never seem to be straightforward, either.
All this combines to make a second round here likely to be more enjoyable and successful, because not only do you accept from the first shot of the day that it is a course to plot a route round, you also have a better feeling for the distances to the corner of dog-legs, which are at times acute.
Thankfully, the West is not a long course, coming in at just over 6,300 yards off the whites while it is under 6,000 off the blues. To a par 72, it means hybrids off the tee are viable.
While the front nine is characterised by ‘barrancas’ – natural storm gullies – the back nine is assembled higher up among the hills. Across both nines, it is hard to think of any two holes that are the same.
It begins as it means to go on, a short par 4 where a 336-yard hole is made tricky by a pond in front of a small green whose contours make chipping exacting.
Quirky mixes with classy
The first of a fine set of par 3s is next, a cute hole over a ravine to a green enclosed by pines. It might be the pick of the 3s but the 4th – played between two well-sculpted bunkers – plus the sweet-but-exacting 13th and the teak-tough 16th are hardly letdowns.
There are plenty of quirky challenges, and the next hole is the first of those. After the 5th, the 11th, the 14th, the 15th – which might be the best on the course, a par 5 from an elevated tee to a split fairway between timber, then over a barranca and finally over trees to the multi-tiered green – and the 17th follow in similarly head-scratching fashion.
The West isn’t always fiddly though; the 6th and 8th are especially good driving holes, a par 5 and 4 that sweep to the left and right respectively and are beautifully defined by bunkering, pines and contouring.
The former asks you to play over water on two occasions then hit a semi-blind approach and is one of the holes where you can realistically hit driver with confidence. The 8th, meanwhile, begins on an elevated tee then sweeps to the right.
You’ll also enjoy the acute par-5 9th that rises as dramatically as it then falls, as well as turning sharply as it drops to a green protected by a ravine and lake.
Casting a spell to the end
The West’s best four holes might then follow from the 10th, with the 12th – asking for a very tight drive and an approach to a small, undulating, well-guarded multi-tier green – such an easy one to make a total mess of.
The 15th, too, is ludicrously tight while the 16th is one of the best holes on the resort. Its elevated green is set in splendid isolation among tall pines and would not look out of place on Britain’s best inland courses.
Then a different challenge appears on the 17th, a 90˚ dog- leg where a rare barranca, the first proper sight of water for a while and a tiered green make this a stiff par 5.
That brings you to an excellent finishing hole, with a great view over the resort and the bay beyond. You might feel sufficiently invigorated to get your driver out and free shoulders that have felt tight for some time. Or, you might have a nice score going on this distinctive, awkward, charming course and decide a boring par here would sign off a very satisfying round.
La Manga’s West can have that sort of strange effect; try it for yourself some time and see if it places you under its spell.