They were different times when, in the early 1960s, Sotogrande founder Joseph McMicking told renowned designer Robert Trent Jones that he could personally choose the land to build a prime 18-hole course – with no restrictions or restraints. It was Jones’ first project in Europe, and it marked a milestone in golf course construction on this side of the Atlantic, not only for his superb design but also for the innovations surrounding the project. It was the first course in Europe to be seeded with Bermuda 419 grass and the first to install a fully automated irrigation system.
Half a century later (the course was inaugurated in 1964), Royal Sotogrande Golf Club required an upgrade, and in 2015 renovation work began on two phases that were eventually completed in July 2016.
To celebrate this significant event, a re-inauguration tournament was held, with 400 members taking part and Royal Spanish Golf Federation president Gonzago Escuriaza hitting the honorary first tee shot together with Royal Sotogrande president Felipe Oriol. The day’s play was followed by a magnificent dinner that brought together 500 members.
Club general manager Agustín Mazarrasa explains why the renovation work was undertaken. “The course was half a century old and needed an upgrade. It’s a great course but, like all old courses, it had its problems: lack of drainage and loss of the original Bermuda grass. There were also aspects lacking in the design, although our objective has always been to carry out a restoration and retain the original design. That’s why we hired Roger Rulewich – a Jones protégé during 35 years – and his partner David Fleury, to ensure this design was preserved while at the same time upgrading it, especially the shape of the bunkers, and restoring the original designs of the greens – because 40 per cent of the surface area had been lost.”
The actual work was carried out by people contracted by the club. Forty-four kilometres of high quality and efficiency piping was installed throughout the course. The greens were re-turfed with certified Bermuda 419 – In total, 37 hectares. “One very important aspect of the renovation,” notes Mazarrasa, “is that half of the holes were clay soil, which meant a considerable quantity of siliceous sand had to be provided, in total 71,000 tonnes for the whole layout, 64,600 for the fairways and 6,400 for the greens.”
Comments about the finished result have been hugely positive. “Everyone in general is very pleased with the renovation work, and we have truly returned the course to its origins. Many of the members who have been involved with the club right from the start tell us every day that the course now really reminds them of Sotogrande at the beginning, with Bermuda grass, the original greens, a course with little rough, the lakes coming into play more often… All of these factors remind them of its origins. What we have gained above all else is an impressive level of quality when it comes to maintenance – and each month that passes this will become even better.
The improvement work at Royal Sotogrande hasn’t ended with the renovation of the 18-hole course, but rather is ongoing and will involve the rest of the club’s golf amenities. In April, for example, work began on the putting green next to the first tee, the short game practice area and all the green areas near the clubhouse. The putting green had become very small and had also been contaminated by weeds. “We want to build it with the same specifications as the greens on the course,” says Mazarrasa. The green areas will be levelled out and re-turfed with certified Bermuda 419. As for the short game area, Rulewich and Fleury have completed an upgraded design optimising the available space. There will be an expansive chipping area with two greens: one large one with three bunkers, to facilitate an extensive range of shots; and another chipping green for bunker shots. This practice area will also have a substantial putting green, “the same as the green on the first hole, also designed by Rulewich and Fleury”.
These revamped amenities are scheduled to be opened on 15 July, but the improvements don’t just end there. Over the next few years, the club plans to renovate the practice range, create a short game practice area at the back of the practice range and renew the whole nine-hole layout with the same specifications as the main course. “That will then complete the renovation project,” says Mazarrasa.
A Major Tournament
In 1966, the Spanish Open was held at the Sotogrande course, the first major professional tournament played on the Costa del Sol, and the club’s executive committee is disposed to once again host a European Tour event. “We would like that a lot,” says Mazarrasa. “Our immediate aim is for the course to flatten out and settle down, and from now to August there’s going to be a huge improvement because the Bermuda is growing and eventually is going to be of a particularly high quality. And as soon as the course has a little more definition we will be ready to host a tournament if the occasion arises and the members are in favour. It’s not our objective, but if it arises we’ll study the proposal.”
The club has 1,950 members, representing 27 different nationalities, most of them Spanish (around 60 per cent) and British (25 per cent more or less).
Years ago Royal Sotogrande Golf Club held down number one spot in Spain in the main international rankings, an honour that was passed on to Valderrama. “All this with the rankings is very subjective,” observes Mazarrasa, “but I believe we are in the top-three in Spain, and I’m sure we are one of the best parkland courses in Europe.
“It’s difficult to say which course is better than another one. I, for example, am from Pedreña, and for me Pedreña is in the top-five. Neguri is another magnificent course, but hardly ever appears in the rankings, and for me they are two of the best courses in Spain. El Saler has an amazing design… Sotogrande is an exceptional course in Spain, an American-style course, very wide – no other course is as wide as this one. It also has very fast greens and wind is a key factor… so all this sets it apart from others.