Aguilón Golf: Desert design

  • Aguilon

    The par three seventeenth hole was created while protecting the site’s natural creeks and ravines...

  • Aguilon was the par three twelfth hole

  • Aguilon

    Salt tolerant paspalum grass has been used throughout the course, including here on the par four second hole

  • Aguilon

    Each nine closes with par fives that feature lakes. The eighteenth is on the left side of this image, the ninth on the right

  • Aguilon

    The course features bold contouring, as seen here on the par four sixth

Toby Ingleton
By Toby Ingleton

On the journey to Aguilón Golf from the nearby small town of Águilas on Spain’s southeastern coast, you pass what at first glance seems to be an expanse of desert wasteland. But closer inspection reveals an irrigation lake and a network of cart paths, the few remaining traces of a golf course that is rapidly being reclaimed by nature.

So, what is it that destines some to fail, and others, like Aguilón, to thrive? Clearly not location alone, as these two courses, whose fortunes have taken opposite paths, are little more than a kilometre apart.

Location was the factor that most concerned golf course architects Marco Martin and Blake Stirling when they were first introduced to the project. Both former designers for the Dye family and now principals of the transatlantic firm Stirling & Martin, the architects’ first question to the telecommunications entrepreneur developer was ‘why here?’

Aguilón sits in a wilderness between southern Spain’s golf hotspots. Malaga is three hours west, Alicante two hours east. If, like most golfers in southern Spain, you’re a tourist or expat, Aguilón is not likely to be the most convenient course to visit.

It’s not like the site was perfectly suited for golf either. The course lies among mountains about three kilometres inland and in the driest part of Spain – it typically rains on just one day per year, says Martin. It was always going to require substantial cut and fill to be playable and some expensive engineering to provide a water supply.

So far, this isn’t sounding like a formula for success. And to make matters worse, Aguilón opened in 2008, just as the Spanish property market – upon which the development’s business model relied – was, like the rest of the global economy, in freefall.

But people are coming, and they are coming in droves. On the week in November when GCA visited, the course was welcoming over 160 players each day. In 2017 it expects 35,000 rounds. All without a permanent clubhouse or a single property sale.

The answer to Stirling and Martin’s question, ‘why here?’, is that the developer had invested in the land before he had decided exactly what to do with it, and eventually settled on a golf-oriented real estate project. Golf course architects frequently emphasise the importance of engaging with them before land is purchased, so they can advise on suitability of the site in terms of ease of construction and the market for golf in that area. But often, the architect is presented with a site and must make the best of it.

The viability of this project hinged on the availability of water. The developer’s solution was to construct two huge pipelines from the nearby towns of Pulpí and San Juan de los Terreros. These towns are founded on agriculture, growing crops like tomatoes and lettuce. Water used to wash the crops could not otherwise be reused due to its resulting high salt content. But Martin took the decision to use salt-tolerant paspalum grass at Aguilón, meaning the course could survive on this water, recycled from agricultural processes and pumped up the hillsides to four large irrigation lakes on the property.

The developer incurred substantial cost in constructing the pipelines and also an ongoing cost of purchasing urban wastewater from the towns, which, while providing local communities with a new source of revenue, meant the development was facing a considerable financial drain before it even got started.

How then, is Aguilón thriving?

There are several reasons, first and foremost of which is the golf experience. Stirling and Martin have turned the challenging location to an advantage, successfully incorporating the natural characteristics of the site to create a desert course that is more typical of golf in Arizona than Andalucía. When golfers make the journey to Aguilón, they are rewarded with an experience that is different to what they are used to.

One of the planning conditions of the development was that all the natural ravines and creeks should remain intact. These have been expertly integrated within the routing, notably on the par three twelfth and seventeenth holes, both of which are near-island greens, albeit without any surrounding water, as the ravines are almost always dry.

At first glance, the predominance of the native landscape makes the course look extremely difficult. But Martin has succeeded to deceive, wayward shots are often diverted back into play. And where a ravine carry is required, it’s either short enough to be straightforward, or far enough away that a lay-up is the obvious option for all but the expert or foolish.

Led by general manager Jose Javier Serrano Peñas, the club has excelled in its marketing too, making extensive use of a Eurosport journalist’s description of it as ‘the best desert golf course in Europe’ and succeeding greatly in encouraging golfers to choose the tee that best matches their abilities.

The club highlights ‘the five courses’: eagle, falcon, partridge, sparrow and red lory, and provides clear signage for golfers to assess, based on their handicap, which set of tees is most appropriate for them.

Martin’s tee placements provide a wide range of distance, from 4,500 to 6,600 yards in total, and those who bite off more than they can chew will be regretting – and probably changing – their decision after the first three holes. The first requires a carry over one of the irrigation lakes, the second over a ravine, and the third a long iron to a green protected by water. Choose the correct tee and you will comfortably negotiate these hazards. Choose badly and you’ll likely be moving forward by the fourth.

By encouraging the correct tee selection, Aguilón’s visitors are more likely to have a pleasurable golf experience and therefore also more likely to return. Since the course first opened, Martin has made tweaks to the design to enhance playability, grassing over some of the bunkers that were aesthetically impressive but punishing, like on the par three eighth. The sprawling front bunker has been grassed over, which makes it easier average players, who can now chip or putt from the resulting deep swale onto the green, without compromising the challenge good players face in getting close to the pin.

Other bunkers to be grassed over include those on the right of the thirteenth fairway; golfers are now more inclined to aim away from the course’s perimeter and the housing development on the left, although the further right they hit, the more the greenside pond comes into play for the approach shot.

The course was already bravely contoured, perhaps evidence of the architects’ background with the Dyes, and the removal of bunkers brings more fairway contour into play. Interestingly, Martin has noticed that some nationalities, including the English, are more comfortable with this rolling terrain than others – he says the Spanish tell him they want flat fairways! From my (English) perspective, the contour is a redeeming characteristic of the course – it feels appropriate to the mountain environment, and makes low scoring difficult without overly punishing or instilling fear in average players.

The course presents many strategic choices, most notably on each nine’s closing hole, both par fives with water the primary hazard. On the ninth, an iron is likely to be required off the tee, and then the braver the second shot, the easier the third. On the eighteenth, a good drive will leave you with a choice of almost any club in the bag, and multiple ways to negotiate two lakes. The temptations offered by this closing hole will ruin a few scorecards.

Despite the challenges of the location, Marco Martin and the team at Aguilón have done a lot right: they have created an enjoyable golf course that looks harder than it plays, focused on high standards of maintenance, marketed the course well, and taken pride in the friendly and welcoming service offered. And the location isn’t all bad: there’s a year-round near-guarantee of good weather and views out to the ocean from almost every hole.

Aguilón Golf is now owned by Metrovacesa, Spain’s largest real estate company, backed by Banco Santander and BBVA. Undoubtedly, financial strength allows some to weather the storm when others would fail. But when a golf course can sustain itself, owners can hold out for the property market to recover. Good golf design and sound management have been crucial to this project’s success.

This article first appeared in the January 2018 issue of Golf Course Architecture.