It’s not often that a new golf course is built in the centre of a major European capital, so for one firm to have two such projects in the works is particularly rare.
Stirling & Martin, led by two former Pete Dye associates – American Blake Stirling and Spaniard Marco Martin – is currently one of Europe’s most prolific design teams. The duo has seven new courses either in construction or recently completed, two of which are in capital cities. One of those has just started to take shape in Bucharest, Romania, while the other, La Finca Golf Los Lagos in Madrid, is expected to open in 2023, almost 25 years after the architects were appointed.
Residents of Madrid will be very familiar with the La Finca brand as the exclusive residential estate in the west of the city, preferred by celebrities and superstar footballers for whom privacy is paramount. Their multimillion-euro homes are only glimpsed by those with credentials to access the gated roads of the peaceful and impeccably landscaped haven.
The group behind that development has been thrashing out the details for another project since before the turn of the millennium. Having considered multiple configurations (including an incredible 84 iterations of the golf course routing, including 36- and 27-hole options) for 75 hectares of land immediately south of the La Finca neighbourhood, the button was eventually pushed in the late 2010s. The new development would also focus on the luxury market and carry the La Finca name.
The northern strip of the land will comprise a series of luxury apartment blocks and villa complexes, at the heart of which will be the ‘Grand Café’, a complex of high-end restaurants, shops and office space. This ‘premium lifestyle centre’ overlooks a lake that will incorporate sunken dining areas destined to become the city’s most prized reservation. It’s a remarkable vision and, with the homes being sold quicker than they can be built, a reminder that the cost-of-living crisis is not felt so keenly by everyone.
The Grand Café’s centrepiece lake is one of ten that are interconnected and act as a buffer between the real estate component and the golf. They also give the course its name – ‘Los Lagos’ translates to ‘The Lakes’.
The excavation of these lakes was part of a major earthmoving exercise that was required for work on the course to begin. Marco Martin explains: “The areas set aside for real estate and golf were fixed by planning authorities very early in the process, but created a problem in that the homes on the eastern side of the development would face out to a large rise in the land, and therefore have very limited views. To give property owners an outlook over the lakes and to the course, we had to flatten this area of the site, moving more than a million cubic metres of earth to other parts of the site.”
The most obvious destination for this fill was the southern side of the property, where the land sloped steeply towards a stream that runs alongside the boundary. The earth was used to reduce the severity of this slope, and in the process saw the banks of the stream built up considerably.
Once this major earthworking was completed, Spanish golf course contractor GTM could turn its attention to shaping the golf course.
The opening three holes were the first to be completed, having been grassed in 2021 and now fully established. The entire left side of the par-five first is protected by two of the interconnected lakes that demark the course from the real estate, while five bunkers are set into a bank that runs along the right side of the hole. Despite these hazards on each side, the opening shot is very inviting, thanks to ample fairway width for all but the longest hitters. The green is reachable in two but nestled against the water, so most players will look for a safe spot to lay up.
The par-three second plays perpendicular to the first, with the green extending into the lake and protected on three sides by water. The hole is relatively short, maxing out at 170 yards from the back tees, but tee shots will need to cover an imposing front-left bunker to access a tiered green that tilts from back to front. Pin positions at the back will entice players to aim beyond the safety of the centre of the green to the narrower top tier.
At the par-four third, which takes golfers to the south-east corner of the property and towards the distinctive headquarters of the local television network TeleMadrid, a long drive will catch the downslope towards the green and set up a good birdie opportunity.
Holes four to nine were seeded this year and play over the landscape that was created using the fill generated by the major excavation work. The highlights of this stretch are the snaking par-five fifth, where three thoughtful and accurate shots will be required to cover its gently climbing 580 yards, and the fifth and sixth; respectively a long and a short par four, both with water to the right of the green.
The back nine is shaped and will be grassed in 2023. Holes fourteen to seventeen lie on the very western portion of the property, which was previously occupied by the nine-hole Somosaguas course. The mature umbrella pines in this area, and those that frame the tenth and thirteenth greens, will give the back nine a very different character to the front, at least until the 1,200 pine saplings that have been planted are much more established.
The island par-three fifteenth pays tribute to the architects’ mentor Pete Dye and from the back tees plays at the same distance, 137 yards, as the seventeenth at TPC Sawgrass. “There was some concern that it could be too penal for the membership,” says Marco Martin. “But from our front tees it’s less than 70 yards, so every player will have a fair chance to hit it.”
The island will be a highlight for many, but the sixteenth is also very memorable, with water again dominating the hole. The tee shot plays over the edge of the previous hole’s lake to a landing area protected on the left by more water. But that side of the fairway provides the best window of approach through the pines to a green that sits on the edge of a third lake.
The picturesque yet long par-three seventeenth brings golfers to the final hole, the last of an impressive and varied set of par fives, which will be punctuated by a volcano-style bunker alongside the green. The designers presumably wanted an explosive end to an exhilarating round.
At the centre of the property a double-sided driving range has been built, with a short game area alongside it. Next to that there is space for further development – enough for a short course, but the owners are currently preferring a country club element, with tennis courts and pool.
The number of golf members will be limited at 777 (a number arrived at with a degree of mystery by the head of La Finca), making Los Lagos a more intimate proposition than Madrid’s other upscale clubs, like La Moraleja and Club de Campo, each of which has multiple thousands of members. Only homeowners will have a guaranteed option of membership, a decision that may well be contributing to the success of the real estate operation.
La Finca’s corporate slogan is ‘Always Exceptional’, and it is clearly committed to carrying this ethos to the golf course. While seeking to deliver a highly manicured course, it remains conscious of the need for good environmental stewardship. This has included the preservation of trees, and respecting the existing waterways, plus the investment in a Rain Bird IC system to give them precise control over water use.
While Stirling & Martin continues to pick up new commissions in Spain, Europe and beyond (their current workload includes a new course in Paraguay, for example), Los Lagos will always be exceptional for them too. When appointed in 1999 for a project a couple of kilometres from their design office, they cannot have imagined that it would be almost 25 years until a course emerged on the land. But the wait is almost over, and Los Lagos will headline the firm’s portfolio.
This article first appeared in the October 2022 issue of Golf Course Architecture. For a printed subscription or free digital edition, please visit our subscriptions page.