A Spanish jewel from Philip Mackenzie Ross

A Spanish jewel from Philip Mackenzie Ross
Alejandro Nagy
By Alejandro Nagy

Golf came to Spain 125 years ago courtesy of a group of British, who decided to use one of the best climates in the world to practice their favourite game. That 1891 course no longer exists, but the course created by Philip Mackenzie Ross in the 1950s is an icon of Spanish golf.

In the late nineteenth century, a group of English golf fans based in Gran Canaria started golf in Spain by creating the Real Club de Golf de Las Palmas. Although there are references to playing golf on the island for several decades, it was not until 17 December 1891 when the appearance of golf was formalised by the founding members. During its first years of life the country was visited by various British golf eminences, including Open champions John Ball and Harold Hilton in 1898, and Henry Cotton in 1949.

By the time of Cotton’s visit, the growth of the city of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria was absorbing the course, eventually reducing it to just two holes. Slightly more than half a century after its inauguration, and just after the Second World War, therefore, in 1946 the board members of the club began searching for a new location to create a new course and clubhouse that could cope with the volume of members. The current course at Bandama was begun in 1953 to a design by Scottish architect Philip Mackenzie Ross, after a first study made by Londoners AG Backhouse and WD Keggin.

Mackenzie Ross, the creator of Southerness and remodeller of Turnberry, designed a very technical course with generous tee boxes but demanding on the greens, shaped on land that once was a volcanic wash. He was brought into the project because of his friendship with Juan Dominguez, one of the promoters of the project. The Bandama course opened in 1957. Ever since then, the course has been a tourist attraction – in early 1959, the distinguished Welsh player and Ryder Cup captain, Dai Rees, paid a visit.

The course was built without modifying the natural terrain in an area that previously housed potato plantations, a few trees, a number of cactus and cruets, and large areas of black lava stones, between tee platforms and the beginning of the fairway of each hole. The design included a number of features, common back in the day, but rare now, such as continuity between holes (the second and sixth practically share a fairway), and crossing holes. It was a very British course located south of parallel 29! There was virtually no earthwork and only slight shaping at the final stage of its creation. The course may not have lakes or ponds, but it does have the almost constant north wind for players to deal with.

The front nine starts at a high point, with a short par four that long hitters can reach with some ease. The next three holes border an out of bounds ravine; the second a par four, the third an uphill par three, of which Mackenzie Ross was especially proud, and the fourth a long par four with a narrow green. The fifth resembles the fourth but in reverse, while the sixth and seventh are par fours with especially complicated greens. The eighth is a par three which gives a respite before the ninth hole, a demanding par five with a valley in the middle of the fairway.

The back nine starts with a tough par three that Seve Ballesteros described as ‘the shortest par four I’ve ever played’! Eleven, a long par four from an elevated position, ends with a green well defended by deep bunkers. Twelve and thirteen are two par fours defined by an undulating finish followed by a strong headwind. The fifteenth is a par three to allow us to prepare for the final stretch: a par five with a strong dogleg to the left, a par four with an almost hidden green and a long par five, parallel to to the ninth with the same valley in the middle of the fairway.

All the greens are undulating. Two of them were remodelled in the 90s by Pepin Rivero and Miguel Angel Martin, Spanish members of the European Tour. Bunkers are strategically placed. The course has a length of 5,636 metres (6,164 yards), a little short by today’s standards.

Initially the course was planted with chewings fescue and Kentucky bluegrass, though the greens were changed in the 1980s to bentgrass. On the other hand, tees, fairways and rough are kikuyu, a species that invaded the course in the 90s and, after unsuccessfully trying to eradicate it, is now controlled efficiently based on deep mowings and verticutting around the greens. Though kikuyu is seen by many courses as a weed, it does guarantee golf in summer, when water is scarce – and when it looks more yellow than green.

The course has hosted several Challenge Tour and other events, such as a skins game in 1991 to celebrate its centenary, between Seve Ballesteros, Jose Maria Olazabal, Sandy Lyle and Ian Woosnam, and the 1995 match between Spain and Scotland featuring Ballesteros and Olazabal, Sam Torrance and Colin Montgomerie. More than just a golf course, it is part of golf’s history, which each day dawns ready to surprise the player.

Alejandro Nagy is founder and director of golfindustria.es, the most important source of information in Spain for golf industry decision makers and professionals, as well as a member of RCG Las Palmas

This article first appeared in Issue 46 of Golf Course Architecture