Here’s an admission to kick off with: I’ve never been on a golf trip before.
Golf has been like an old friend to me; floating in and out of my life, squeezing in time together when we can and picking up where we left off after long periods of separation.
It’s constantly in the back of my mind; I wonder how it is, follow its stories on the internet and keep telling myself I MUST check in with it when life is a little less hectic. But I’ve never thought to take it on holiday, just me and golf.
Languishing in the barn, my neglected clubs were, unsurprisingly, keen to join me when a Sotogrande golf trip was suggested. Sotogrande is the jewel in the golfing crown of the Costa del Sol. It was founded nearly 60 years ago by Joseph and Mercedes McMicking, industrialists from the Philippines whose global interests saw them settle in Spain, Manila and San Francisco. They bought five neighbouring farms, set in idyllic countryside, with the vision of creating a luxurious residential retreat, replicating the resort city of Palm Springs in the Coachella Valley.
You can still imagine yourself among the glamour of 60’s California today, particularly down in the original development at Sotogrande – around the Real Club and the Trocadero beach club, where you can picture the eyeliner, kaftans and cocktails that would have first filled the sea-side sun-loungers 60 years ago. The Trocadero, by the way, still does an excellent line in paella and Rioja.
Sotogrande is bigger now, of course. Covering 25 square-kilometres, it’s a labyrinth of exclusive gated communities and stunning golf courses, snaking up into the foothills of Sierra Almenara. We’re taken to see a slice of luxury Sotogrande golf life: a €14m home with views out over La Reserva golf course. Rentable for €50,000-a-week, it has 5 bedrooms with incredible views down to the Mediterranean, an indoor and outdoor pool, a cinema, a cigar room, and the biggest front door I’ve ever seen. Down the road, an “entry level” development of apartments is under construction, where flats will cost at least €700,000.
The place exudes exclusivity, but it’s increasingly becoming more of a community, as second homers find, post-pandemic, that they can live and work here. The excellent International School just down the road is a big lure too.
Sadly, we’re not here to settle – just to soak it up for a few days. And our base is the brand new SO Sotogrande Hotel. Here, the Californian vibe matches that of the exclusive villa we were taken to see. Those building their homes in the surrounding hills are turning away from the traditional terracotta-tiled Spanish style and opting for ultra-modern, ultra-luxury homes, and SO Sotogrande gives guests a five-star slice of that too. My room is a haven of calming earthy colours with a spa-like bathroom and a bed the size of a football pitch.
The main buildings are super-slick, single-storey boxes with vast panels of glass, pushed back to take in the views and the warm breeze. Rendered in Balearic white like a re-imagined Pueblo Blanco, they nestle into the hillside around the turquoise infinity pool. Ibiza-style scatter cushions cover every flat surface – there’s a perfect nook wherever you turn.
Rising out of the valley to meet the hotel is Almenara – a Sotogrande golf course that pours through its canyons, the fairways like a smooth green river flowing round three loops of nine holes. We played the Pinos and Lagos loops to make up a hugely entertaining 18 holes.
The 1st hole tumbles away from the SO Sotogrande hotel, down the hill between pine-clad banks, a narrow dogleg that pools into a green protected by bunkers of talcum-powder sand. The course plunges down the hill before climbing steeply back up. The ribbon-thin fairways are the big challenge of this portion of Almenara and an arrow-straight drive can end up anywhere, thanks to their perilous contours; there’s barely a flat landing zone to be found.
Up the 9th, an uphill par-3, you burst out of the pine-scented corridors and return to the hotel – ideal if your golf has left you in need of a refreshing drink, or if you just want to dump the clubs and head to the pool. But it’s worth carrying on to the frankly bonkers Lagos nine. Here, at times, it feels like full-size crazy golf; designer Dave Thomas has had some fun. The opening holes bely what’s to come, when the course reaches the water. Terrapins plop into the shallows as you play the par-5 4th, perched above the first of two lakes where cormorants dry their wings in the Mediterranean sun.
The 5th and the 6th are a total rollercoaster: they’re the crook of the course, where it bends round the farthest shore of the lake, giving rise to two crazy doglegs. On the 5th, choose how much of the pine trees to fly, but the big call comes on the 6th; follow the sinuous fairway over the bridge to the green – giving yourself a target to hit that can only be four metres wide at its narrowest. Or go straight for the green over the water. The big hitters I was with took on the glory shot, the rest of us tiptoed over the bridge like the Billy Goats Gruff. Only a handful of us made the green either way. And then there’s the 7th, back over the water; Almenara’s answer to the 12th at Augusta. There are two quieter holes to finish, the 8th and 9th, but by then you’re more than ready for a cool drink in the hotel bar and to marvel at what you’ve just taken on.
Speaking of Augusta – just down the road from Almenara, is Real Club de Sotogrande, where I haven’t seen such pristine fairways since the Masters. The verdancy is that particular shade of green, the grass carpet-like, and one or two of the lakes that suspicious Augusta blue too.
The course itself was designed by Robert Trent Jones – a man with Augusta pedigree. One of the huge draws of Sotogrande golf is the variety on offer. Almenara and Real Club could not be more different. Real Club sits on the seaside plain, it’s opening and closing stretches wide, inviting and relatively flat. Palm trees reach for the clear blue sky, clustered on curving lakesides. The lawns of enviable homes roll down to the fairway.
Joseph McMicking was trying to recreate Palm Springs and the Coachella resorts – but he already had the blueprint for Mission Hills et al right here. There’s no mistaking the fact this is a Spanish course, though. The atmosphere here is much more traditional and authentic.
The clubhouse is rustic and charming, decorated in patterned tiles with a broad balcony that looks down the first and up the eighteenth. It serves an excellent anchovy salad and it’s chicken schnitzel is as big as one of its monogrammed dinner plates. Away from the broad sweep of the opening holes, the course narrows as it climbs into the hills. The palms are replaced with fascinating Mediterranean oaks, their bark gnarled as dinosaur skin, and their acorns scattering onto the devilishly difficult greens. At each hole we reached, a debate would begin about whether this latest tee shot was more beautiful than the last – but this course isn’t just a stunner, it’s a real test.
Hitting the fairway is vital, or you’ll be behind one of the twisted oaks or sucked down into the bouncy Bermuda rough. The lies around the green are so tight and smooth that coming up onto the putting surface requires skill, and once you’re there, the greens that look relatively benign are deceptive, ready to lure your ball away. You may be able to tell that I didn’t play well on the day we played here. But even that couldn’t mar the experience – and I will go back to Real Club to take my revenge on the Queen of Sotogrande golf.
Bolstered by a fabulous dinner at Cancha II, the Argentinian steakhouse next to Sotogrande’s world famous polo ground and some expertly-made cocktails in the hotel bar, the next morning I was ready (ish) for the final challenge of the week.
La Reserva has hosted the LET for the past 4 seasons. This summer the Korda sisters did battle for the title with Olympic champion Nelly coming out on top, shooting at final round 65 (-5) – so that’s something to aim for. We arrived with more realistic expectations golf-wise, but the place itself exceeded our hopes. Among the younger Sotogrande golf courses, it’s fast become one of the area’s must-play destinations.
Set in the first ripples of the Andalucian mountains, the clubhouse sprawls on a hill top; a series of stone-clad courtyards and tinkling water. It’s the centrepiece of the country club, which also has a racquets club, watersports and a man-made beach so visitors don’t have to travel to the coast to feel the sand on their toes. The first tee shot makes your mouth water – curving down the hill and out of sight – but every tee is an invitation.
The course nestles down among the hills at times, and climbs upwards at others, with views up into the sun-baked mountains or tantalising glimpses of the glittering Mediterranean. The slopes and contours form La Reserva’s main defence; there are no flat lies and both the fairways and greens have precarious run-offs. The greens themselves are like putting on a mirror; if you find yourself downhill, down-wind and aiming down the grain, then best of luck finding the hole. On top of that, there are lakes and creeks and bunkers spread like scattered white doilies. It’s a ravishing course. The par 3s in particular are postcard-perfect.
Sitting with a cold beer afterwards, and sharing our stories, we all agreed that on return to November in Britain, it may be quite some time before we encounter three courses in such mint condition. Or play three such different courses over three days, all within a few kilometres of each other. The thrills and spills of Almenara, the majesty of Real Club, and the immaculate Championship test at La Reserva – it’s a golfing feast for the game and the senses.
And that’s before we even peek at the infamous Valderrama, glowering through its gates next door. That’s for another time, when I’m feeling braver… maybe on my next golf holiday; just me, some friends and the good old clubs.
- To discover more visit Sotogrande.com