Who is the finest Spanish golf course architect?by Colm Gill
Here's a discussion for you as you sip your whiskies on the terrace of the 19th hole...Who is the finest Spanish golf course architect ? Put your mind to it and you will find there are a few names to debate.... Arana (El Saler, El Prat, Río Real, Guadalmina) Gancedo (Torrequebrada, Montemayor, Las Ramblas) Espinosa (Bonalba, CC Mediterraneo)- just for starters. Then there are the professionals turned designers: Ballesteros, Olazábal, Piñero, Cañizares, Garrido and, lately, Jiménez. One name that might not immediately enter the debate is that of Enrique Canales, but, less than a year after it has opened, Canales' work at Santa Clara has focused attention onto the design skills of the quiet man of Spanish golf course architecture. The man with an impeccable golfing pedigree spoke to Colm Gill about his career.
Canales' career began 32 years ago when the untimely death of Javier Arana caused the Banco Bilbao Vizcaya to request the assistance of a trusted low handicap, amateur who was already a successful local businessman in his own right. The course in question was Aloha - later held to be one of Arana's finest .
" I reached an agreement with the President of the BBV who was, and still is, a good friend of mine" recalls Enrique. "Aloha was unfinished, only the greens had been seeded; the bunkers had been placed but were without drainage and sand.
" After I finished the course, the next project I undertook was at Los Naranjos where I oversaw the re-styling in collaboration with the developer Hermann Sauer, who was later to become a partner of mine at Dama de Noche, which I also designed."
Together with Prince Alfonso Hohenloe, the trio were responsible for Europe's first floodlit golf course.
Enrique Canales was then commissioned to design 36 holes at Islantilla Golf Club in Huelva.
"If Islantilla was on the Costa del Sol, it would receive greater recognition" asserts its designer.
That may be so, but Islantilla is still considered amongst Spain's best tournament courses; in 1995 the immature course stood up to the challenge of hosting a European Tour event - the Turespaña Masters won by Alex Cejka - and is used by many of the elite Tour golfers for training in the weeks prior to the Volvo Masters.
" I'm not saying it for myself, but it is a very, very good design - the best that I have made. It could perhaps be a little prettier, but it has the nuances for every hole to be a challenge for the top players"
Enrique's portfolio also includes the nine hole practice course at Aloha and the excellent, short, par 3 course of La Siesta. "During the nineties, I was asked to carry out many course modifications, re-styling etc., until the Santa Clara project came along" he continues. "With Santa Clara I have had the chance to be responsible for the whole the project - I designed it, built it selected the personnel and now I'm overseeing the management of it. I'm not one of those who get paid and disappear. I'm here now to watch the maintenance, the machinery, the development..."
True to this sentiment, Enrique has clear ideas on the tendency for players to turn designers. " One thing is to play well, another is to design. It's a commercial decision to use a famous signature." It should be pointed out here, that the photographs on the walls of Malaga's Parador clubhouse attest to the fact that Canales has indeed played amateur golf to a high standard "I used to have a low handicap, I play a lot worse these days but it doesn't worry me too much as, when I play holes now, I like to keep an eye on course maintenance."
It was more difficult to explain the logistics behind good course design. Enrique says " A designer needs many years of experience in golf. He also needs to know the basic laws and statutes concerning building permits, norms and suchlike before he even thinks about the design of a particular course." He continues, "It is vital to respect the natural charm and beauty of the land." To achieve this end many preliminary meetings are necessary. " I listen to the promoter, listen to his plans for the land surrounding the course, I ask to what end is the course to be built...is it an aim to host tournaments? what are the characteristics of the majority of the golfers who will play it?..what financial limits there are"
Enrique Canales then consults with a team of architects experienced in urban development, landscape gardeners, constructors, agronomists and engineers. Ideas are put forward and discussed with the developers; often compromises are made between profit and design. Many designs may look attractive on the drawing board but would prove too costly, or would delay building companies for too long. "
Climate is not as much of a consideration on the Costa del Sol as one might think as "we have an effective system for recycling water, so, ensuring the installation of an efficient watering system served by a plentiful supply is more of a concern. In Madrid and Barcelona, the cost of boring for water is considerably higher than in Málaga. There is a big difference between an inland course and one on the Costa del Sol as one must take into account such things as ease of maintenance. In the end, the designer must have created a course which, at the same time, is challenging for the expert without being too difficult or uninteresting for the average player."
"Many people believe that it is the characteristics of the architect that count, it should be recognisable as "one of theirs" but a good architect must be able to adapt his designs within the parameters laid down. I have always been a perfectionist and always try to create a perfect course. But a course that is perfect in one context is not perfect in another. Personally, I am very happy with Islantilla, Aloha and Santa Clara and I would rather the golfers judge me on those"
"The construction at Santa Clara is very good - the drainage, paths, walls, irrigation system are all first-class. However, the course is built on a relatively small piece of flat land which demanded more imagination with regard to the placement of water hazards and bunkers."
Enrique has an office at Santa Clara where he has stayed on as a Director. He arrives at the office shortly after 7am most mornings to inspect the course and chat to the greenkeeper and staff about daily maintenance requirements. "I am fortunate to have my liberty, I have no family commitments and my other businesses are well-run and successful. I work because I like to, I have a passion for it..."
What, then, of the future ? The enthusiasm is noticeable as Canales replies " I am currently working on a design for a course in Granada. It is completely different to Santa Clara as the estate is much larger and much fewer houses are planned. It is in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada so the land is uneven and allows me to play with the natural conditions. After that ? I am also a qualified sea captain and somebody has mentioned a marina project in Almería....one never knows"
One thing Enrique does know is that he doesn't want to receive any more awards "After Aloha, I was given a gold medal for the best touristic development, but, at my age, I would rather not receive them... the more I get, the closer I am to dying !"