Golf - Articles

Another Golf Rush

by Colm Gill

The winning combination of golf and gastronomy, balls and bars, tee-times and tapas is unmatched by any other golf destination and has established the Costa del Golf as the premier destination for holidaying golfers.
Colm Gill considers the story behind the great Costa del Sol golf rush.

Quite a few changes have occurred since fishing and agriculture formed the backbone of the Costa del Sol economy. As recently as the 1970s Spain's "Coast of the Sun" comprised a smattering of fishing villages either side of Málaga, itself a relatively sleepy provincial capital. In 2002, the landscape is transformed beyond anything imagined in the wildest dreams of the pioneering promoters: tiny fishing villages have turned into resorts; thousands of hotel rooms have been built; yacht harbours dot a landscape now connected by a fast motorway. And, of course, there are golf courses - lots of courses. The largest concentration of golfing facilities in the whole of Europe.

Whilst many things have changed, it is also true that others remain the same. In many ways, the aspects of coastal life that remain unchanged are those that have attracted tourists and golfers to the area for the last three decades. The climate: the southern coast of Spain continues to enjoy the most agreeable climate in the Mediterranean, an annual average temperature of 19ºC (65ºF) boosted by 320 sunny days a year. The capacity of the local population to enjoy life, even between their many colourful fiestas, continues to amaze visitors. The great cities of Seville, Córdoba, and Granada are only two hours away, Ronda remains where it has always been, and Africa is still visible on clear days.

The Prospectors

Although the first golf tourists would have viewed the mountains of Morocco from the fairways of the Real Club de Campo de Málaga back in the 1920s, the rush to build golf courses is a comparatively recent phenomenon. Rome was not built in a day and neither were the forty-four courses, spread along little more than 50 miles of coastline, constructed overnight.

CG Guadalmina, RCG Sotogrande and Río Real appeared around the same time as the Beatles, after which Las Brisas and Atalaya Park added their particular contribution to the swinging sixties. Gary Player designed El Paraíso in 1974; Aloha, the second course to be constructed in Marbella's famed 'Golf Valley', followed a year later. And Pepe Gancedo's masterpiece at Torrequebrada opened for play in 1976; Los Naranjos, the third Golf Valley layout, came on the scene a year after that.

Nevertheless, it was only when the Costa del Sol experienced a renaissance as a winter golf destination in the late eighties that the local tourist board coined the phrase "Costa del Golf". In the intervening period only three 18-hole courses had opened for play, Los Olivos at Mijas Golf (1984) CG Valderrama (1985) and La Duquesa (1987), all by Trent Jones Sr.

The First Golf Rush

The renaissance of interest in the newly christened 'Costa del Golf' came about after a series of top class professional tournaments highlighted the quality of Malaga's courses. In 1988, the first edition of the Volvo Masters took place at Valderrama; in 1989, the World Cup was celebrated at Las Brisas; a month later, the B&H Trophy paired professionals from both the men's and women's tours at Aloha. Frustrated, snowbound golfers from northern Europe watched on TV, read their golf magazines, then headed south in droves. With existing courses saturated, the demand initiated a veritable frenzy of course construction. Between 1988 and 1991 no fewer than sixteen new golf courses opened to cater to the northern invasion.

" There's Golf In Them Thar Hills"

As large tracts of land near the beach were, by then, something of a rarity, in time honoured fashion, investors in the new golf rush headed for the hills. Some of the Coast's most spectacular courses saw the light of day during this building frenzy, however, building a course was an enormous investment. A minimum of 50 hectares of land - multiply by five for the adjacent real estate - design and construction could easily burn a hole in three million pounds. And if the fairways had to wend their way through a mountain, earth moving alone could add as much as four million pounds to the bill. Successive openings of clubs such as Montemayor (1989), La Quinta (1989), Miraflores (1990), Sta.María (1991), Los Arqueros (1991), La Cala (1991) and Alhaurín (1993) confirmed the Costa del Golf as Europe's number one destination for golf tourism - but they did not come cheaply.

El Chapparal Bites The Dust

The downturn in the world economy at the start of the nineties, caused palpitations amongst the accountants advising the Belgian, S.African, Swedish, Arabian, Irish and Spanish investors behind many of the projects. The price of green fees rose excessively as accountants attempted to recoup the capital investment with undue haste. By an unfortunate coincidence, the bust in the economies of the principal golfing countries happened when the worst drought in decades blighted the Costa del Sol. Golfing tourists, being asked to pay exorbitant rates to play on immature tracts of dry land, turned their backs on the Costa del Sol in favour of Florida or Portugal's Algarve. The combination of depression and drought proved too much for one of the posse of new courses and Pepe Gancedo's delightful design at El Chapparal bit the dust.

Sr. Patiño Puts On The White Hat

Just as the first golf rush was initiated by the top players of the day participating in top level professional tournaments on the Costa del Sol, so it was that the Costa del Golf was saved by the media attention attracted by a premier professional tournament.

When Jimmy Patiño, the owner of Valderrama, launched his personal crusade to bring the Ryder Cup to Spain, he might have been cast as the good guy who was to bring peace and prosperity to the troubled township. Whilst the Bolivian billionaire might favour a red Valderrama club blazer over a white ten-gallon hat, the effect was much the same.

The celebration of the Ryder Cup matches at Valderrama acted as a catalyst as the golf coast reclaimed its rightful claim to being Europe's golf destination par excellence.

Prior to the 1997 Ryder Cup: a four-year drought ended with the rains that fell in 1996, the most recently opened courses had matured somewhat, and prices had once again been forced down to competitive levels. Consequently, the Costa del Golf was ready to take full advantage of the huge, media-generated global interest in the biennial shoot-out between the top guns on European and the American Tours.

The undoubted success of the first Ryder Cup to be held in Continental Europe brought universal recognition of the Costa del Golf as the finest destination for golf tourism in Europe. The subsequent World Golf Championships reawakened the traditional British and Irish markets, attracted the presence of a growing number of Scandinavians, and had bold Americans clamouring to experience the place they had seen Tiger play.

Golf Crazy

That the Costa del Golf is once again proving irresistible to a new generation of golfers desperate to play in the sunshine, is proved by the 450,000 golfers who passed through the Pablo Picasso Airport in Málaga in 2000. The income provided by this second golf rush has, in part, been re-invested to improve both infrastructure and the quality of the existing courses further. The road to Montemayor is no longer approached along a dirt track, but a brand new access road jointly funded by new owners, La Perla Living, and the adjacent Marbella Club Resort; Taylor Woodrow, the UK construction giant, bought Los Arqueros and has used a greatly improved course as the focus for a luxury urbanization. The design and conditioning of the courses at Alhaurín, Estepona, Dama de Noche, and Marbella Golf have all been significantly upgraded. Members clubs, such as Royal Las Brisas (the royal decree dates from the mid-nineties), Guadalmina, Aloha and Miraflores, are all at different stages of five-year programmes of course investment. By 2004, the 36-holes at Mijas Golf will have been totally renovated. What is more, most of the courses are now connected to the water recycling plant at Cancelada, thus assuaging fears of future water shortages.