As boutique providers of upscale golf travel to exceptional destinations worldwide, we take the opportunity from time to time to share our findings regarding some of the great new courses in our footprint, which covers the U.S. West Coast including the Pacific Northwest, Europe and Argentina, among other dynamic destinations. One needs to be prudent when booking golf vacations outside the U.S. As you might also find with hotel properties, you simply can’t believe everything you read in a guide book or on the Internet. Have you ever been to a hotel or resort that hasn’t met your expectations or is living on past glories? Probably so! That’s why we personally play and inspect the courses we recommend to our upscale clientele.
In the past year, we have either played or inspected more than 40 golf courses in Spain and Portugal. While Spain golf and Portugal golf experiences are tops in the continent, what we found was surprising. Specifically, we uncovered some very strong new courses we had never heard of both in golf-rich regions as well as provinces not known for golf. Additionally, we found some much-heralded courses that no longer make the grade, in our professional opinion. With careful planning and expert counsel, your Spain golf vacation or Portugal golf vacation can be the stuff of lifelong memories.
So here are the unvarnished reviews of what we consider to be the top Destination Golf Courses in Spain and Portgual. Our criteria are based on a U.S. perspective from the point of view of a golf professional or scratch amateur (yes, I am a former PGA professional), which means we match our courses with the wishes and abilities of our guests as we place the highest value on the following course attributes:
Spain Golf – Destination Golf Courses:
When Americans and Brits think of Spain golf, they naturally think of the Costa del Sol, which straddles the Mediterranean coast from Malaga to near Gibraltar. Yes, some of the best golf courses lie in this year-round resort area, but golf in Spain is about much more than the Costa del Sol. One can experience championship golf in the Barcelona area, in Seville, and we even found very strong courses in the Basque region (most notable are Izki Golf, a Ballesteros design, and Jose Maria Olazabal’s Golf Artxanda). Here’s our take on the best of the best of Spain golf:
o RCG El Prat is the private, but accessible, Greg Norman-designed complex of 45 holes set in the upscale western suburbs of Barcelona. As all of the nines were designed and constructed simultaneously by the same architect, players can forge ten distinct 18-hole combinations that fit together seamlessly. As expected from Norman, most fairways are reasonably wide, but trouble lurks beyond their borders and approach shots challenge your iron skills. You will feel like a member for a day when you experience Real Club de Golf El Prat. This is a lovely setting and very relaxing getaway from the energy of Barcelona.
o PGA Golf de Catalunya is one of several properties owned and operated by the PGA European Tour, and is the only one in Spain. It’s easy to fall in the love with this place that is located in the Costa Brava (“Wild Coast”), just 75 minutes from Barcelona. There are two courses on the site, Green and Red, with the Green being the longer and stronger test of the duo. The Green is a big, tournament-ready course nestled in the forest just a bit inland from the Costa Brava shore. Mature “umbrella” pines and cork oaks line the well-manicured fairways, and the smooth but undulating greens will test one’s short game. The Verde is simultaneously challenging and fun. There are quite a few elevation changes on these tracks and the scenery is outstanding. There’s just something about those symmetrical umbrella pines that spells relaxation.
Costa del Sol Golf
o Valderrama arguably is the finest course in Continental Europe. The course is located in the upscale Sotogrande development that includes some of the finest golf courses in Spain. Sotogrande is located approximately 45 minutes from Marbella, the gem of the Costa del Sol. Valderrama is literally a legend in mainland Europe, having hosted the 1997 Ryder Cup, the World Golf Championship and countless Volvo Masters tournaments. That tournament elevated the stature of Spain golf to completely new heights. This Robert Trent Jones, Sr. gem is a must-play for the serious golf enthusiast touring the Costa del Sol. One can easily be distracted by the spectacular scenery and mesmerizing cork oaks that line the fairways, but this course demands your undivided attention. You can measure yourself against the best players in the world as you tackle the infamous 17th. The service is outstanding, the design is challenging and the conditioning is nothing short of world class. This is European golf at its very best and a must play for any Spain golf vacation! Maximum handicap: 24 Men; 36 Women.
o Sotogrande is the granddaddy of Costa del Sol golf and perhaps of Spain golf. Sotogrande is Valderrama’s older and less-menacing sibling, located at a lower elevation than most of the others courses on the Sotogrande property. Approximately ten years the senior, she provides wider landing areas and less intimidating greens complexes. Nevertheless, the ever-present breeze is enough to heighten the challenge on this nearly-seaside track. Although Valderrama tends to overshadow it as the best of Spain golf, Sotogrande remains one of the top five venues in mainland Europe.
o La Reserva is an impeccably-maintained and relatively new private club on the Sotogrande property. This Cabell Robinson design stretches to more than 7,300 yards from the back tees. Fortunately, there are four additional sets of tees from which to choose, so choose appropriately! La Reserva’s length is somewhat mitigated by meticulous grooming and generous fairways and greens, so relax and enjoy the wonderful Costa del Sol setting. Few courses offer such incredible curb appeal. The course straddles the rolling hills of the Western Costa del Sol, making this one of the most beautiful golf courses in Spain. The course view from the drive to the club house alone is worth the trip.
o Santana Golf is not a course you read so much about as it is new, but rest assured that it is one of the most talked-about new golf courses in Spain. Set in the hills above the coast in a beautiful, former avocado orchard, Santana is the young upstart of the Costa del Sol golf scene. This track blends a beautiful setting, quality design, attentive service and splendid conditioning to create a grand Spain golf experience. Santana Golf is easily walkable, employs water hazards and bunkers prudently and offers breathtaking views of the surrounding mountains and the Mediterranean. The par-72, 7,000-yard Cabell Robinson design offers four sets of tees so that you can bite off as much or as little as you desire of this wonderfully-diverse layout. If you are in the Costa del Sol, experience Santana while it is young and relatively undiscovered.
o Finca Cortesin is another newcomer to the Costa del Sol. The course is located near the mountaintop “white village” of Casares, which looms like a beacon amidst the majestic Sierra Bermeja mountain range. This new Spain golf course opened in early 2007 and is quickly making a name for itself as one of the best golf courses in all of Spain. The Cabell Robinson design offers a challenging variety of holes, as evidenced by the scenic par-4 13th that confronts the player with two water hazards, yet sooths with eye-pleasing green complexes. As bonuses, the routing remains unspoiled by development, the modern practice facility is quite extensive and the customer service is absolutely among the best we have encountered in all of Spain. We suggest that you play this one before the word gets out about one of the best new Spain golf courses!
Portugal Golf – Destination Golf Courses:
As is the case with Spain golf, Portugal golf is much more than a slew of courses situated in one location, which, in this case, is the Algarve. Sure the Algarve has long been known for great golf and great beaches! Quieter and less overbuilt than the Costa del Sol, the Algarve is experiencing a bit of a golf course building boom. There are no fewer than 10 Algarve golf courses either under construction or on the books. But there also are some very strong golf courses on or near the coast in Lisbon. Here’s our take on the best available Portugal golf experiences:
o Vilamoura-Old Course is the elder-statesman of golf in the Algarve. Owned by the Oceanico consortium, this landmark course was constructed in 1969 by Frank Pennink and has been consistently refurbished over the years; however, it has not lost its original and classic parkland charm. The many umbrella pine trees that border the fairway corridors are definitely in play, the rolling landscape challenges your club selection and the undulating greens test your short game, but all the difficulties are mitigated by meticulous grooming. Add to all that the soothing views of the surrounding hills down to the coast. We love this property.
o Monte Rei is a course that you definitely will hear quite a bit about if it hasn’t already come to your attention. This delightful new Jack Nicklaus design, located in a pristine natural setting in the eastern Algarve not far from the border with Spain, is winning the hearts of all those who play it. The first of two Jack Nicklaus Signature golf courses, Monte Rei North, opened in 2007 to rave reviews. The second is in the advanced stages of construction. Nicklaus has utilized the natural landscapes to sculpt a unique layout of approximately 7,200 yards, with eight par 4s, five par 3s and five par 5s – of these eighteen holes, water comes into play on eleven. Monte Rei is a must-play on the Portugal golf scene, especially while it remains somewhat undiscovered. That won’t last long!
o San Lorenzo Golf Club is located in the central Algarve, which is the most developed part of the region. This Joe Lee design undoubtedly is one of the best Portugal golf courses, as it combines a fabulously diverse layout with a gorgeous setting. You will likely use every club in your bag as you traverse this track of slightly less than 7,000 yards, and you will believe that the scenery cannot get any better until you reach the 17th and 18th holes, which are set in the serenity of a bird reserve. On the downside, San Lorenzo gets quite a bit of play, but once you experience it, you will understand why.
Lisbon Area Golf
o Praia d’El Rey is links golf at its best and ranks near the very top of the Portugal golf list of best courses. In 2003, Golf World ranked it the 13th best course in Continental Europe, and we do not argue the point. Cabell Robinson has done another masterful job creating a Portugal golf course that exemplifies tasteful diversity. Ten holes meander along the coast in a links fashion, as the other eight twist their way through a thinly-forested section. To top it off, all the holes offer strategic bunkering and quick greens with plenty of movement in them to keep your attention. There has been some recent real estate development on the perimeter, but so far, not so much as to destroy the ambiance. Praia d’El Rey is Portugal golf at its best!
o Oitavos Dunes is a newcomer to Portugal golf, having opened in 2001. This Arthur Hills design is one of the most intriguing that you will find anywhere and it reminds us quite a bit of Bandon Dunes in Oregon. The design itself is excellent, as the par-71 layout can stretch to more than 7,000 yards and the fast, undulating greens challenge even those with the finest short games. Add all of this to spectacular ocean vistas on one flank and mountain views on the other, and you get one very special property. You might not want to worry about your score here, at least not after your first round, for the course’s challenges and the distracting scenery can create some high numbers. Oitavos Dunes is a great addition to the Portugal golf scene and is worth every additional stroke!
So that’s our take on the best of the best of Spain golf and Portugal golf. The Ryder Cup at Valderrama in part contributed to a golf course construction boom on the Iberian Peninsula. Thankfully, we’ll be back there soon to check out new courses such as the second course at Monte Rei and Nick Faldo’s Oceanico course, also in the Algarve.
Gene Holland is a principal of CORK & TEE http://www.corkandtee.com a boutique travel company that specializes in customized Epicurean Golf Travel, blending championship golf with insider wine and interactive culinary experiences. He has more than 15 years of experience in the golf industry. He spent 11 years as a club professional and also was a member of the varsity golf team at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he played with notables such as Davis Love, III and Jack Nicklaus, II.