Normally, you would expect a super successful golf resort in Southern Spain to have a healthy footfall and a vibrant trade. Nothing could be further from the truth at La Zagaleta Golf Club, in the glorious hills high above San Pedro.
The estate was once owned by the arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi, who held parties on the old hunting estate that is now the heart of the most exclusive golf facility in Europe; the views of the Mediterranean were a match for the glamour of hedonistic gatherings of the very rich and famous. Khashoggi eventually fell out with his clients and his hold over the estate was essentially passed to the current owners, who decided to build the ultimate, up-market golf club for serious high net-worth individuals. Many golf complexes have started with similar ideals, but few have stuck to their original idea, as the temptation to free up a few extra rounds, or sell some additional memberships, is normally too great for most operators to resist.
In a nutshell, the deal for the estate was cast as this: planning permits were granted for golf, providing that the 2000 acres had no more than 400 dwellings built. The enterprise is dependent on the goodwill of the existing residents, who do not want their exclusivity to be watered down for a few more plots and the constant grind of diggers and cranes, messing with the tranquility of these super-rich investors. The scale and extravagance of the dwellings is remarkable, with all of the plots occupying great vantage points with dreamy views over the Mediterranean towards Gibraltar and North Africa. Perched on top of ridges and crests, with some cut into the sides of very steep rock faces, the engineering behind these designs is highly advanced. The land surrounding these villas is elegantly worked to maximise the views, whilst allowing for the most opulent of living away from prying eyes of the press and the clamour of every day life.
There are two courses on the estate, La Zagaleta and Los Barrancos - par 72 and par 70 respectively, with two nicely balanced halves of similar golf. A golf buggy is essential to maximise the enjoyment of the golf, as there are some serious climbs involved in playing both courses and often a major hike between tees. This is a joy in a golf buggy, as it gives a chance to fully absorb the wonderful vistas and the gravity-defying feats of the civil engineering providing homes for the really rich.
The courses are in perfect order, particularly La Zagaleta course, which has near perfect greens, and neither suffer from problems of over playing. La Zagaleta was laid out in 1991 and opened for play at the end of 1993. There is not a blade of grass out of place and every thing is tended to the highest standard. Greens run at least ten on the stimp meter, and actually play faster due to the undulations.
There are a number of valleys that make up the estate, which the courses meander through, with the wind flicking around with a mischievous habit of switching direction when you least expect it.
The clubhouse has the best views of the whole site with the 9th and 18th both finishing below the clubhouse, which dominates the top of the valley over looking the golf, the gorgeous man-made lakes, and Gibraltar in the distance. It is a match for the elegance of the Pebble Beach finale. The course was designed by the American architect Bradford Benz, and he has done an astoundingly good job.
Los Barrancos, is slightly lower down the valley and although the two courses are connected, many drive rather than use a buggy to reach the other location, as it is quite a way. The par 70 layout, opened in 2005 and is slightly shorter but also in blissful condition and a joy to play. It has its own clubhouse, but most of the socialising goes on in the main clubhouse serving La Zagaleta.
In mountainous terrain, golf can be played with great style, especially if scant attention is paid to keeping the build costs to a minimum. Rich, older golfers will not join if they cannot use a buggy, so courses built in such settings must be safely accessible for golf buggies. A quality buggy path can cost £500,000 for an 18 hole layout. Cutting equipment and other maintenance vehicles will also have to negotiate the areas. The design is eye-poppingly daring, with ribbons of perfect emerald fairway clinging to hillsides towards greens tucked into improbable locations. Some are protected by additional water, or accessed only across rocky valleys, spelling doom for wayward shots.
There are four different tees for both courses, giving options for playing courses of the right length for each player. The changes in elevation take quite a bit of adjusting to, with modest drives sometimes careering down steep fairways, whilst uphill shots will often fall disappointingly short if several extra yards are not added to the reckoning of a target higher than the golfer.
The whole experience was such a treat to the eyes that you can only admire and enjoy, but playing such courses is punishing on golf ball supplies and also on the mind. Hitting the ball straight is vital - or the course will win.
Inside the clubhouse and on the patio, there is a wonderful choice of food and refreshments to enjoy, but I am sad to say with very little buzz. Many may like this, but most of us prefer a slightly busier environment to dine and socialise. From time to time great events are held to bind together the residents and club members. This is tricky as most of the super rich have several other homes and are not often in residence. Others have invested for the privacy and do not want to socialise at all. Some are so security conscious that they do not go out without their bodyguards, which can put a slight dampener on even the most elegant of cocktail parties.
Casual green fees are not available and so you have to play as a members' guest. It would be silly to turn down an invitation, as this is a really special and thrilling golf complex. On a daily basis though, this was a bit too rich for me, in all meanings of the word.
Further details are available from the website: http://www.lazagaleta.com/golf.htm