When the 2023 Solheim Cup tees off on 22 September at Finca Cortesin on Spain’s Costa del Sol, all the biggest names in women’s golf will be there.
Yet it will be one of the least known names in golf course architecture whose work will provide a testing stage for the biennial competition.
The 82-year-old Cabell Robinson, designer of the course at Finca Cortesin, came to Spain in 1970 to establish a European office in Málaga for his boss, Robert Trent Jones Sr. He never left.
Robinson led the European efforts of Jones’s firm until 1987, when he went out on his own. He has since compiled a roster of course designs, largely around the Mediterranean rim, including Las Colinas and La Reserva in Spain, Royal Palm and Amelkis in Morocco, and Aphrodite Hills in Cyprus.
But it’s his impressive work on the hilly site at Finca Cortesin that will garner Robinson international attention. The parcel of land posed a particular challenge, he recalls. “It was difficult due to being divided by a road, but the owners were willing to spend a considerable amount of money to create an underpass to eliminate that problem. There were also some environmental issues. The tenth hole was originally a dogleg left par four playing down to an arroyo. But we couldn’t cut down a number of trees, so that hole was shortened into a downhill par three.”
Finca’s origins, like many courses on the Costa del Sol, revolved around real estate. “The developer and owner, Javier López Granados from Madrid, did not know anything about golf,” says Robinson. “He did the project, like a lot of developers here in Europe, because if you are going to do a real estate development, you ought to have a golf course. But he was very understanding and learned a lot about golf. It was never initially designed to host a major tournament like the Volvo World Match Play Championship (played there from 2009 through 2012) or the Solheim Cup. To be honest, most of the courses I have done here on the coast are probably capable golf-wise of hosting tournaments, but I think that was an afterthought because it costs a lot of money to host a tournament. I think he got the idea that having a major tournament would benefit real estate sales.” Judging by the massive properties now overlooking the first six holes alone, he was right.
The course routing will change for the Solheim Cup. “The big change is starting out with a driveable par four, the fourth hole in the regular routing,” says Robinson. “It’s an exciting hole, and they thought it would be a better start, photographically, because they can get a lot of camera angles on it.”
What the teams from Europe and the US will encounter after that opener is a layout quite generous off the tee and a collection of strong par fours, highlighted by the uphill fifteenth which could be the deciding hole in many matches. “I’ve always believed in making the fairways fairly wide,” says Robinson. “But if you go off course at Finca Cortesin, you can be in deep trouble because it gets impenetrable quickly.”
No expense was spared, either on the course or at the adjoining 67-suite luxury resort, where both Solheim Cup teams will be staying. “The one thing I am very complimentary to Javier about is that while he knew nothing about golf, and didn’t know much about it during construction, when it came to doing the right thing or the cheap thing, he always opted for the right thing. I had no real problems, economically, to do what I wanted to do there. He wanted quality above anything else. Even the clubhouse, which is certainly not very large but very tastefully done, really proves that you don’t necessarily need to go huge to hold a major tournament.”
Robinson says the biggest change in European golf design during his career involves course maintenance.
“When Jones did Sotogrande [in 1964], his first work over here, he had the owner send a team member to America to travel around and see courses and their upkeep. Now an awful lot of superintendents over here, the better ones, have gone to schools like Penn State or Michigan State, not necessarily for a full three-year term, but they come back with a much better knowledge of maintenance. I think 50 years ago the courses here were in alright condition, but they weren’t quite up to the American level. That has improved a lot.”
Another difference Robinson has found is that American developers, the majority of them, either play golf themselves or know a lot about golf. But the majority of European golf developers only do a golf course because they feel they have to have them as part of their development. “Some learn, like Javier at Finca Cortesin,” he says. “He knows a good deal about it now. But they are really neophytes when it comes to understanding what it’s like and I think that now, because of some of the success of American-designed courses – especially from Jack [Nicklaus], who has done some very good courses – there’s a more ready acceptance of the cost of an American designer. And we are more expensive than virtually anyone in Europe. But in the end, I think the courses Americans have done here have stood up pretty well for the most part.”
Robinson was not surprised about the growth of the game on the Costa del Sol. “When I came over here, I told Mr Jones I would stay for at least two years,” he says. “He had done Sotogrande and Real Club de Las Brisas in Marbella, and we had some other leads. He was very confident this could be a big area for development. I didn’t speak any Spanish at the time, but I did feel climate-wise it could work, and I knew that he was pretty much a visionary in many respects. He really believed in the destination. There are other golf destination points in Europe, but none of them have the variety or number or courses in a small area that the Costa del Sol has.”
The first course Robinson worked on in Spain was Valderrama, which opened as Sotogrande New in 1974. It was then known Las Aves in the early 1980s before receiving its current name under which it famously hosted the 1997 Ryder Cup. “It’s a Robert Trent Jones course, but I was there during the whole construction,” he recalls. “At that time, we did not have a shaper, which is common today but certainly not back then. We had construction supervisors who knew how to build a course, and they would work with local people and direct them. I would go back and forth overseeing the supervisor there. I never take credit for Valderrama because it isn’t mine. It’s Robert Trent Jones.”
At age 82, Robinson says he should be slowing down. “I think I’m officially retired,” he says. “But in the golf course business, none of us have the sense, if we’re moderately successful which I guess I am, to retire as long as we can move about and travel. I have another project east of Málaga, and there’s talk of a third course in Cyprus, but I’m not looking for work. If it comes to me and I’m interested, I’ll do it.”
He’ll be waiting for opportunities at his home in Mijas, a mountain town halfway between Málaga and Marbella. “For the number of years I’ve spent in Spain, I’m either stupid or I like it,” he says. “I do miss the States and get back several times a year. But I don’t spend much time looking back on my career, and I haven’t tried to set goals to achieve. It is what it is. If people like what I’ve done, so much the better. I think I have caused more headaches than pleasure for people playing my courses. But I probably have a couple more courses in me that I can do.”
Robinson does plan on attending the Solheim Cup in September. “Yes, definitely. I’ll probably be embarrassed and criticised! But I have a good relationship with the greenkeeper there, and they have called me back from time to time for minor changes.”
Which team will he be rooting for though? “I’m an American. But I have lived here in Spain for so long that I will try to be a little impartial,” he says. “Emotionally, I will kind of be with the Europeans because it’s my course and I’ve been in Europe 53 years now, so I’m as much European in a sense as I am American. But if you scratch me, I bleed American.”
This article first appeared in the July 2023 issue of Golf Course Architecture. For a printed subscription or free digital edition, please visit our subscriptions page.