A Polished Diamond

Golf Monthly – March 2009

From Sotogrande New to Las Aves and now Valderrama, Malcolm
Campbell celebrates just how far Europe’s finest course has come.

“Rumours are rife of an announcement coming shortly on a new event for Valderrama”

Athough it does not seem like it,it is a quarter of a century since I took my first step onto the opening tee of a golf course that was then called Las Aves. At that time the course was barely known, other than to a fortunate few. It had not long changed its name from Sotogrande New. My old pal Derek Brown had decided to swap the decidedly chilly Perthshire winters of Gleneagles for a move to the Costa del Sol to join Tony Jacklin at what was then a fine, but rather remote, golfing outpost lying within earshot of the screams of Gibraltar’s Barbary apes.

I still recall the perilous journeys from Malaga airport along the road they called “Suicide Alley”. The fear was only overcome by the anticipation of playing the course where Jacklin held court. Even then, it was a beautiful place to play among the cork and pine trees.

In those days Tony wore the Las Aves crown. But, there was always more than a suspicion that it was Derek who was the power behind the throne, setting the course on track to becoming what is for me – and has been for many years – the finest golf course in continental Europe.

It was Derek who had the ear of the people with inf1uence, and it was he who encouraged them to seek out this Robert Trent Jones creation high on the hill of the exclusive Sotogrande estate then. Word soon got around, for if there was anyone better connected in the world of European golf to get the message out than Derek then I have yet to have had the privilege of meeting them.

Today, that golf course is called Valderrama, an internationally famous and exclusive club that guards its privacy with jealously. It has moved on many miles since Jacklin relinquished his Las Aves crown to become the most successful European Ryder Cup captain and Derek Brown took his talents to other developing parts of the Costa.

In the interim, Las Aves found a new owner in the person of Jaime OrtizPatino, one of the first homeowners at Sotogrande. Ortiz-Patino managed to acquire the course in 1984 after some years of nursing secret ambitions to take it to far greater heights. He brought Robert Trent Jones back to redesign the course with a stated ambition to make it the finest in Europe.

And it was hardly any surprise that it became just that after years of loving and lavish development. It drew nothing but rave reviews from everyone who played it, including the cream of the European Tour thanks to the Volvo Masters. Even the rain-soaked Ryder Cup of 1997 did nod1ing to dampen Valderrama’s standing.

Two years ago Patino’s son Filipe took over as president. He had a new vision and new ideas to move the club into the next phase of its remarkable history. Filipe called in Kyle Phillips to make some subtle, but significant, changes; lengthening it a little here and there and realigning several tees to return it to the original Trent Jones “runway” style tee layout.

Recently, I retraced my steps along Suicide Alley – now of course a swift highway reflecting Spain’s European standing – to see the changes Filipe is planning and hear his ambitions for this most ambitious of clubs.

“Whatever Kyle sees as being necessary, we are doing,” said the president. “Mostly the changes are to tees, with some repositioning and adding length where necessary. But, over the next two years, we will also make changes to several fairways.

“We are confident we will have another Tour event to replace the Volvo Masters before long, but in the meantime, we need to continue to move forward and confirm our place as the top course in Europe.”

It is no surprise that rumours are already rife of an announcement coming shortly on a new event for Valdenan1a, although there still remains no official confirmation. Nevertheless, it is clear that Felipe remains committed to giving it every chance.

And that will be a great source of pride and satisfaction to Derek Brown. The fom1er
Gleneagles man, who worked so hard to put Las Aves on the map, has been back at Valderrama for several years now as general manager and has watched the course emerge as the jewel in the continental crown.

When I met up with Derek again he recalled a phrase I had used to describe the changes that were being made back in the early days on an already first-class course. I described it as “polishing the diamond”.

Today Felipe Patino is repolishing the diamonnd – and what a sparkling job he is making of it.



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