Whenever a club or course is especially venerable, there is an extra responsibility on the shoulders of those who steward it. Golfers are by nature relatively conservative: witness the difficulty in getting alternative forms of the game, whether they be courses of non-standard length, new formats for competition or whatever, accepted by the mass of players.
As the oldest club in Spain, therefore, Real (Royal) Las Palmas on the island of Gran Canaria, is a precious artefact. Established in 1891 by British military and commercial gentlemen resident in the Canaries – the island was an important staging post for British maritime interests – the original course was located downtown in Las Palmas, next to the iconic Santa Catalina Hotel, which remains to this day the grandest address in the city – and whose founders were also instrumental in the foundation of the golf club.
Exclusively a British club for the first forty years or so of its history, the club transitioned to being authentically Spanish over a twenty-year period. But the growth of Las Palmas made the course untenable after World War Two (as club member Alejandro Nagy of golfindustria.es wrote in the October 2016 issue of GCA) and so, in the 1950s, the club upped sticks and moved out of the city to a spectacular site in the mountains, right next to the caldera of the extinct volcano that created the island. British golf architect Philip Mackenzie Ross, the man who recreated Turnberry after the war, was hired to design the new course, and the club has gone on very happily ever since.
Although short, at little more than 5,500 metres (6,015 yards), the course is no pushover. Mackenzie Ross’s greens are its principal defence, and they do the job stoutly. The site, at 37 hectares (91 acres) is tiny for an eighteen-hole course, and it is to the original architect’s credit that he managed to fit eighteen interesting holes, with, in most places, more than adequate width (there are a few tight spots, but they are the exception to the rule) into such a small parcel. There is no prospect of extending the property; in places the course is hard against roads, and in others it comes right up to the volcanic caldera (the view from the clubhouse is quite remarkable; more of that later).
Elsewhere, though, the course is not without its problems. Water is hard to come by on the island; the main source of drinking water is desalination, while the golf course is irrigated with wastewater. This is all very well, but good management demands a fallback plan, and some sort of water storage is certainly desirable; but there are few good places to build such storage on a mountain plateau. The bunkers – many of which are not original – are not in the best of condition. But in my opinion, the most pressing problem is the tree stock. The property, which was barely treed at all when the course was built in the 1950s, now has over 3,000 trees and, being a tight site, these mostly stand, sentry-like, in lines between the holes, far from the sort of clumped planting that looks natural. There are many different species, from the indigenous Canarian pines, through yellow mimosas and any number of palm trees. It is, frankly, something of a mess, and the course would benefit hugely from a strategic plan to reduce the number of species and focus attention on those that actually belong there, principally the Canarian pines.
With these priorities in mind, the club has engaged British architect David Williams (who has been working at Pedreña on the Spanish mainland, a club to which Real Las Palmas is close, for some time) to produce a long-range master plan for improvements. The plan was initially produced in 2018, and now the club is just about ready to start executing it – Williams submitted a final revision to the club in early March.
“The course has changed massively since it was built,” says Williams. “The greens were all rebuilt in the 1980s, every hole is now played through a corridor of trees, and there are a lot of non-original features. I’m not a fan of bunkers behind greens, and there weren’t any in the original design. Now there are half a dozen.”
Williams agrees that the proliferation of trees is the course’s biggest problem. “The property is small and tight, and it really can’t hold as many trees as are there at the moment,” he says. “On several holes, there are trees right in the middle of the fairways – which are not wide enough to accommodate them – and at a distance from the tee that really affects average golfers far more than the better ones. On the fourteenth hole there are some lovely native trees that you really cannot see, because they are surrounded by planted ones!”
The architect has plans for a reservoir between the first fairway and the rather unusual practice facility, which really cannot justify the title of ‘range’ – it is a practice tee hitting into a large depression, nowhere near big enough for golfers to hit long clubs. The twelfth hole currently has two greens – the newer one, further back and right, was built to give extra distance, but is essentially blind from the fairway. Williams prefers the old one. “I think it’s a better hole to the old green because it is visible and makes for an interesting driveable par four,” he says. “Because the new one is near the clubhouse of the equestrian club, where they have some facilities, I suggested making the new green into a short game practice area. However, there is reluctance to surrender length, because the course is short enough as it is.”
Although the course is short, there is one group of players for whom it is too long. “The ladies play from far too far back. At the time it was built there weren’t that many ladies and invariably the tee was just built on the front of the men’s tees. We’re going to do something about that,” he says. “Also, a lot of the bunkers are hazards to lesser golfers and not in play for better ones, we need to sort that out, as well as introducing new drive bunkers on all three par fives to make better players think a little. But in general, it’s tweaking, rather than reinvention.” He also plans to introduce native vegetation into carry areas to reduce the irrigation requirement.
If Williams’ plans are properly executed, Real Las Palmas will be significantly improved. And if plans to build an extended clubhouse terrace with billion-dollar views over the volcanic caldera come to fruition, the club will truly be making a splash. After over a hundred and thirty years, the club seems set fair for the same again and more!
This article first appeared in the April 2022 issue of Golf Course Architecture. For a printed subscription or free digital edition, please visit our subscriptions page.