European golfers – especially British, Germans and Scandinavians – have been travelling to the Costa del Sol in southern Spain for so long, and in such numbers, that there is little along the coast now that can come as a surprise. The region has been developed so thoroughly that there really are very few plots of land that would make suitable new golf projects; certainly not any that offer land good enough to attract significant international attention (with the notable exception of the ‘second Valderrama’ course that has been mooted for at least fifteen years). Which is why, when I was asked to visit Hacienda Alcaidesa, right at the west of the Costa, near the British enclave of Gibraltar, I was so surprised.
Alcaidesa is not a new development. It is a very large mix of golf, housing and hotels, developed initially in the early 90s by the British construction group Costain. Its two golf courses, called – rather incongruously – Links and Heathland, were designed by the British teams of Clive Clark and Peter Alliss and Dave Thomas respectively. But it is fair to say that, golf-wise, Alcaidesa has never really achieved much of a profile. That, I think, is set to change. With a bang.
The Alcaidesa golf courses were acquired in December 2019 by Javier Illán Plaza, boss of Spanish development company Millenium Hospitality Real Estate. Fairly quickly, he resolved to renovate the Links course, and hired American architect Kurtis Bowman to do the job. Bowman, who is ex-Nicklaus Design, has previously been most active in Latin America; this is his first foray into Europe (he got the job through a mutual contact with owner Illán from the Dominican Republic, where he has worked extensively). Although the architect would have preferred to do the renovation over two years, nine holes at a time, commercial imperatives meant that the bulk of the work was done in a four-month period during 2021 – with a target opening date of 1 July 2022 – and with Bowman on site for over 100 days during that period.
The most striking thing about Alcaidesa Links is the piece of land it occupies. True seaside golf is very rare (indeed almost unknown) on the Costa del Sol; invariably, coastal land is reserved for hotels or other higher yielding forms of development, with golf relegated to inland sites. Even the Costa’s best courses, such as Valderrama or Sotogrande, do not really touch the sea.
That is emphatically not the case at Alcaidesa. In fact, the course’s original clubhouse was situated down by the Mediterranean, though it was moved inland when the Heathland course was added. Now, from the fifth tee to the fourteenth green, the golf course occupies land that is right next to the sea, with nothing except a small amount of seaside vegetation between golf and beach. Although, in common with most of the golf sites on the Costa, it is quite severe – in places, perhaps a little too severe to be ideal golfing land – it is pretty much unique for the Costa del Sol. You would have to go two hours further west to Portugal’s Algarve, to find golf that has this sort of connection with the sea.
Given the time and other constraints imposed on him, Bowman has not been able to do as comprehensive a renovation as he might have wished. The new hotel – planned, apparently, to be a five-star Fairmont property – has taken a certain amount of land that used to be occupied by golf, and in front of it the gap between hotel and beach is rather narrow; it is a choke point for sure. Because of the clubhouse location, everything from the fourteenth tee (which is located at that choke point) onwards is quite steeply uphill – not ideal for any golf architect, least of all one who trained with Nicklaus, who famously said that if he could build a course with eighteen downhill holes, he would. For all that, though, there is a lot of compelling golf out there.
After the first three holes – a short par five, a brutal 230-yard par three (half-par holes are a major characteristic of the course) and a longish par four with a semi-blind drive but an excellent green site – the real drama begins. The fourth hole is a short four, not really driveable for normal human beings, with a fairway landing zone that appears, from the tee, to slope from left to right at about forty-five degrees. Of course, it doesn’t, and the wide fairway landing zone offers golfers a range of options as to where to place their tee shots. The best line will depend on the pin location, your appetite for risk, and your preferred length of pitched approach. A good hole.
But it is the par-five fifth that is destined to be one of the most photographed holes in Spain. Severely downhill from the tee, the golfer must ensure their tee shot stops before a ravine that crosses the fairway (I don’t think this will be a problem for anyone not named DeChambeau). The closer one can get to the ravine, though, the better, because it will give a better chance to get home in two – to a 21,000 square foot double green, extravagantly contoured, that sits just above the beach – Bowman has filled the green site to make it stick out further towards the sea. With the pin set left, close to the beach, it will be an epic approach shot.
A long par four, the seventh hole plays across a rather odd cut-and-cover tunnel used by pedestrians going to the beach; the tucked green is set behind a water hazard. The ninth, high above the water at the top of the beachfront parcel, is one of only a small number of holes that Bowman was able to completely regrade, and it shows – it’s a very strong hole.
The uphill run to home is where Bowman’s skills have most been tested. The fourteenth is a steep, but for all that compelling, short par four; driving over a pond, golfers will find their wedge game sternly tested by the green, which is closely guarded by sand. Sixteen, a par five, features a substantial ‘donut’ bunker to the right, separating it from the third, and a very severe, steeply flashed bunker, inspired by the fourteenth at Pebble Beach, protecting the left half of the green. I suspect this will be controversial, as it completely blinds that part of the green, unless the golfer has hit their second hard to the right side. It is strategic for sure, but I don’t think it will be loved. The seventeenth is a short and pretty par three, while the home hole has overtones of the eighth at Pine Valley, because Bowman has chosen to build two greens, separated by an enormous bunker.
It should be said that there is more that could be done at Alcaidesa Links (it’s not a links, of course, but given how little Costa golf is on the sea, perhaps we can forgive the name). There are a number of spots on the course where if Bowman is given time and budget for some additional regrading, it would help.
But for all that, there will not be many more compelling golfing experiences on the Costa del Sol. Bowman’s greens are dramatic, but not, in pinnable areas at least, especially severe. There are a number of quite spectacular sucker pins: for example, the area that connects the double green of the fifth and thirteenth could easily be used for the fifth pin, and it would be remarkable, if a little brutal on the part of the pinsetter.
I find it remarkable that neither I, nor my fellow guest, Jim McCann of top100golfcourses.com, one of the best-travelled of British golf writers, knew anything about Alcaidesa before we visited. It is, without a doubt, the most dramatic piece of golfing property I have seen on the Costa del Sol, and no matter how good Kurt Bowman’s work there, he did not create that drama. Yet drama and severity are two sides of the same coin, and, as with many courses in the area, there is no getting away from the fact that the site is quite severe. It is not, for example, a course that anyone short of a masochistic mountain goat would choose to walk, and I do fervently believe that golf was intended to be a walking game. But it is absolutely to Bowman’s credit that he has, within a pretty stringent set of constraints imposed upon him by the circumstances of the development, found a way to tame that severity, at least to the point of making the golf course eminently playable. He – and the rest of the team that has been working at Alcaidesa – should get a lot of credit for that.
This article first appeared in the July 2022 issue of Golf Course Architecture. For a printed subscription or free digital edition, please visit our subscriptions page.