Son Gual

By DS

Toby Ingleton visits a new course in Mallorca with big ideas.

Mallorca is the largest of the Balearic Islands, which lie in the Mediterranean Sea off the south east coast of mainland Spain. A popular tourist destination for holidaymakers, in particular from the UK and Germany, the island draws visitors looking to laze on long stretches of sandy beach and visit towns that offer history and culture, and a lively nightlife. But unlike other Mediterranean resorts such as the Costa del Sol in Spain and the Algarve region of Portugal, golf hasn’t traditionally featured too highly as a reason to visit.

This isn’t due to a shortage of supply; there are 19 courses on the island, 16 of which are 18 holes. The Mallorca Classic event on the European Tour is held at Pula GC, a 12-year old course that recently received a makeover under the banner of Jose Maria Olazabal . There is a Robert Trent Jones course at Alcanada and a new Nicklaus design at Puntiro. Hawtree’s Son Vida is the oldest and perhaps most highly regarded on the island, but none of these rank on many golfers’ ‘must play’ lists. The island lacks a marquee name to draw visitors in; a Valderrama or Vilamoura. And it is this very fact that led to the development of Son Gual.

Adam Pamer, the German businessman who developed the club, has a second home on the island, and had long been frustrated that the quality of the golf on offer didn’t match experiences to be had elsewhere. His vision was to create a highly-conditioned course with a golfing experience to exceed all others in Mallorca, and match up to its illustrious neighbours on the southern coasts of Spain and Portugal. He also wanted the experience to be relaxed, limiting the number of visitor rounds available and insisting on 15-minute gaps between tee times. At Son Gual, five-hour rounds are positively encouraged, so long as that includes a lengthy stop for tapas after nine holes.

Thankfully, the golf itself isn’t sedate, with drama unfolding at every turn. The golf covers a plot of 175 acres, and Himmel has done a fantastic job in turning this moderate parcel of land into a bold and exciting course, which never feels limited for space. The availability of a contractor offering earthmoving rates significantly lower than expected allowed for more landscaping than was originally planned. Himmel has separated holes with large, natural-looking slopes rather than small scale mounding, turning the originally uninteresting terrain into a rollercoaster of a course.

A part of the course that could have easily felt a bit cramped is the early stretch between holes two to four. Mallorcan authorities decided to eat away at part of the land as part of a road construction project, and this meant rethinking original plans to accommodate the holes into a significantly narrower space. Himmel has used bunkering to overcome this obstacle, with an expanse of sand separating the third green from the second teeing area, creating a feature to the holes that also serves to address safety concerns.

That wasn’t the only stumbling block beyond the control of the club. During the grow-in phase, the greenkeeping staff found they were losing their fledgling fairways due to high quantities of salt in their irrigation water. The local water supply had a tendency to deteriorate in quality during the night, so the club has since installed a reverse osmosis plant on site and constantly measure salt levels. Water is now desalinated before it enters the irrigation system, and two large irrigation lakes on the lower side of the property act as hazards for five holes.

So, is there a style to the course? Is it of a certain ‘type’? Many of the greens are positioned at an angle to the line of play, and from the fairway can look like extremely tough targets, particularly if the pins are placed in Sunday positions. But there’s some visual deception at play, as most greens have sufficient depth or surround to accommodate less precise shots. This has the satisfactory effect of making the average golfer feel able to meet the challenge of very tough-looking targets. Even when the green is missed, the large and very closely mown aprons mean that the putter is often still the wise choice for saving par.

At Son Gual, both strategic and heroic play is accommodated for, the former in particular on an excellent set of par fives, all of which feel reachable in two but at risk of finding water along the way. On the fourth the green juts out into one of the large irrigation lakes at the low side of the property. The sixth, teeing over the second such lake, will catch greedy drives. And every shot risks water on the twelth and eighteenth, as the holes run alongside the man-made stream that cuts through the middle of the course.

The closing stretch of the course really captures the imagination. The green site for the par three fifteenth is spectacular, with a ‘palacio’ that dates back to 1919 as its backdrop, and a huge bunker stretching the length of the hole and eating into the front left of the green. At the par four sixteenth drives fall out of sight and extra length is rewarded by a kick down the sloping fairway, allowing a shorter iron approach to a green with a right-hand side protected by water. Club choice is critical at the par three seventeenth and will depend on the wind and hole set-up; another huge teeing ground means tee placement could alone count for as many as four clubs difference in length. The lake shouldn’t come into play as there is plenty of room short and left of the green to bail out.

The final hole demands a good decision with every shot. Leaving the driver in the bag will minimise the risk of water for those with a tendency to go long or left. For most mortals, the second shot will then be about what distance to leave for the approach over a small lake. If the long and safe option is taken, the player is left with a tricky chip back where an unwanted burst of adrenalin will bring the lake back into play.

Water is frequently in play, giving the course something of a resort feel, but this really works when it comes without the hotel block or apartment-lined fairways. The club can be forgiven for installing a waterfall between the lakes alongside the ninth and eighteenth greens, as it is not too ostentatious. Neither is the clubhouse, but it still exudes style and sophistication. Its central feature is a huge panoramic window (supplied by the owner’s firm) offering sweeping views of the course, enticing the visitor to get straight out onto the manicured tees. The whole project is estimated to have cost in the region of €30 million, but it’s money that seems to have been wisely spent.

With such a big budget available, why Himmel? There is no doubting his architectural credentials but, despite Himmel’s three German amateur titles, there must have been a temptation to replace his signature with a Nicklaus or Trent Jones, as has been done elsewhere on the island. As with many great collaborations, you get the impression that the complementary personalities of architect and client were of great significance. The absence of an overpowering ego in the partnership seems especially key. And we might be grateful that the signature temptation was resisted, as the result is impressive.

The success of Son Gual might largely be attributed to the free rein given by client to architect. “He asked for two things,” says Himmel of Pamer’s brief. “A stream and an island with palm trees on it. Otherwise it was pretty much a blank canvas.” The result is a routing that is technically excellent. Walks from green to tee are barely noticeable, uphill stretches have largely been limited to two strong par-fours, the seventh and fourteenth, and where hazards loom the golfer always has an option to play safe. The routing is well balanced too, with no monotonous stretches. The owner is planning to add more holes on the other side of the clubhouse, and with the land there already full of natural interest, little earthwork should be required to make another exciting nine.

What is most impressive about the course is that there isn’t really a weak hole, a hole that won’t be remembered after the round is complete. Where the landscape doesn’t have much to offer, on holes two and three for example, the outstanding green shaping more than makes up for it. The 40-yard deep third green (pictured on p66-67) is perhaps the best on the course, with plenty of rise at the front and a large fall to a distinct lower rear portion. Moving the pin placement from front to back completely redefines the hole, and gives scope for some fearsome putts.

The land was virtually treeless when work began, so hundreds of olive trees – some as many as 1,000 years old – were shipped in to give the course a more mature feel. But Himmel takes a refreshingly philosophical view on the trend towards naturalism: “It’s not nature, it’s a sports playing surface,” he says. “People find it easy to criticise a certain type of layout, say ‘American-style’ golf, but I think that every course should be judged on its own merits, on whether it’s enjoyable to play or not.” The fun factor exists in spades at Son Gual and Pamer’s desire to create an experience that combines luxury and relaxation has been well achieved. Among many nice finishing touches are the small vineyards that have been planted on the course, from which the club hopes to be able to serve its own wine in the clubhouse within a few years. If it matches up to the golf, it should be a good vintage.

This article first appeared in issue 11 of Golf Course Architecture, published in January 2008.

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