Polishing a gem in the mountains of Marbella

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    The second hole at La Zagaleta is the first of an excellent set of par threes

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    Westenborg has repositioned the sixth green, which now has extensive contouring

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    The thirteenth, another drop-shot par three, with renovated bunkers

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    Bunker work is at its boldest on the seventeenth hole

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    Close-up of the renovated bunkers on the seventeenth

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    Properties overlook the course, but never interfere with play

Toby Ingleton
By Toby Ingleton

The owners of La Zagaleta – an ultra-high-end residential estate and country club with two golf courses, located in the mountains above Marbella, Spain – have plenty to keep themselves busy.

In early 2016 they were announced as the surprise new owners of Valderrama Group, and therefore also the Valderrama golf course, designed by Robert Trent Jones in the early seventies and host to the Ryder Cup in 1997.

On a site just northwest of Valderrama they are now planning the much-anticipated ‘Valderrama II’ development – likely to comprise a five star hotel, multi-million euro mansions and brand new golf course. It will be fascinating to discover which architect is selected to design the new course, surely one of Europe’s most prestigious projects for the foreseeable future.

A visit to La Zagaleta demonstrates that Valderrama is not proving too much of a distraction for the owners, if its pristine condition is anything to go by. In stark contrast to the vast majority of developments in southern Spain, La Zagaleta is gloriously sprawling, with residences dotted, rather than packed, on the steep slopes surrounding the two golf courses.

Once through the security gates, the private roads meander through the countryside, punctuated by imposing entranceways that provide a glimpse into the lifestyles of the rich and famous. It’s a classic case of ‘if you have to enquire about the price, you can’t afford it’.

La Zagaleta was developed in the early 1990s, when Enrique Perez Flores bought the land from Saudi arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi, who was using it as his private hunting estate. Flores had planning permission for thousands of homes, but built just a few hundred. It turned out to be a shrewd move, attracting the type individual whose net worth is generally too large to be inconvenienced by recession.

It’s also great for the golf, with the impressive properties overlooking, rather than interfering with, play. Many are supported by giant ‘ecowalls’, which provide a level base for foundations and are then covered with vegetation to blend into the mountainsides.

The original golf course on the estate was built by American architect Bradford Benz (who passed away in March 2017) and opened in 1993. Its mountainous setting makes for plenty of drama (a second course at La Zagaleta, Los Barrancos, designed by Steve Marnoch and Jonathan Gaunt, opened in 2005 and occupies land that is even more extreme).

The clubhouse overlooks the first and eighteenth holes, separated by a large lake, and has expansive views out to the ocean and the rock of Gibraltar. Only a few handfuls of golfers set foot on the beautifully manicured surfaces each day.

In line with the owners’ commitment to excellence, a decision was made in 2015 to replace the course’s aging irrigation system and to change the grass from creeping bent throughout, which was difficult to manage in the summer, to Bermuda 419 on tees and fairways and T1 creeping bent on greens.

Golf course architect Marc Westenborg, who worked with Martin Hawtree before setting up his own practice in 2013, learned of the club’s plans to close the course for this work and saw it as an ideal window of time in which to make further improvements. He convinced the owners that the closure represented the perfect opportunity to renovate the bunkers, which had become old and ragged over time, plus make a few other tweaks to the layout.

Westenborg explains: “The bunkers were a little on the plain side, a style that we did not feel blended with the spectacular backdrop of hills and mountains. We therefore designed bunkers with more shape and flair; a style that better reflects the surrounding topography. Additionally, some bunkers were found to be out of position or not required, while some holes would benefit from new bunkers adding to the visual and strategic strength of the holes.”

Westenborg’s work is of suitably high quality. The new bunkers are both more imposing and artistic, and the improved visibility gives the holes greater definition.

Westenborg also re-profiled green surrounds, did some levelling of the fourteenth fairway and adjusted the orientation of some tee boxes. And, notably, a completely new sixth green was built.

“The sixth is an excellent par five but was spoilt by a steeply uphill blind approach to a tiny green located high above the golfer,” says Westenborg. “It was an arduous and unpleasant approach. We therefore lowered the green complex by over six metres, shortened the hole by 30 metres and created a much larger green surface tiered into the steep slope where it is located.

“The approach is now hugely improved; significantly easier and the surface of the green visible from start to finish. To negate against what will become a relatively short par five, we made sure that putting will be significantly more challenging. The green is now almost Augusta-like, with some large breaks and what will be some very slippery downhill putts if the ball finishes above the hole.”

The new sixth green will delight those who successfully navigate it (and frustrate in equal measure those who don’t!), but the real highlights of La Zagaleta are the outstanding par three holes. The drop-shot second and thirteenth holes are wonderfully inviting, and on the seventeenth Westenborg’s new bunkering is at its boldest, as was necessary to avoid being lost against the long mountain backdrop.

Would La Zagaleta’s owners consider Westenborg for Valderrama II? He laughs at the suggestion, but his work on their first course represents a brave pitch for the top job.