The unsung hero of Spanish golf

The unsung hero of Spanish golf
Sean Dudley
By Alfonso Erhardt Ybarra

Alfonso Erhardt profiles Spain's little-known premier golf architect, the creator of Club de Campo, Neguri and El Saler.

A true pioneer in the purest sense is the best description of Javier Arana, a great amateur golfer and Spain’s finest golf architect.

This sounds like a bold statement in a country which has produced a number of great golfing figures in recent years, but we must look back at Arana’s accomplishments both as a player and more importantly as an architect to fully understand the impact that his activity has had on golf in our country.

Javier Arana was a groundbreaker by nature. He was the first Spaniard to win amateur tournaments against international players in the 1930s, when golf in Spain was more of a curiosity than a sport. He later evolved to become Spain’s first golf architect, building most of the country’s courses before the tourism boom of the 1970s brought international designers to develop resort golf.

Since his main concern as a designer was that a golf course would appeal to players of all condition, we can imagine that he would be a happy man: today, all of Arana’s golf courses are heavily favoured by amateurs and Tour pros alike – Club de Campo, El Prat, Aloha and Neguri have hosted European Tour and Challenge Tour events in recent years – and compare favourably with most of the 500 courses which populate Spain, many of which have been designed by better known international architects. Not bad for a man without any specific engineering or architectural education, who suffered from low construction budgets and who developed most of his architectural career with no external influences due to his dislike for travelling and Spain’s political isolation.

Javier Arana was born in Bilbao in 1905, the son of Luis Arana and Dolores Ybarra. Golf in Spain at that time was a minority sport and was limited to three clubs: Madrid Polo Club, founded by King Alfonso XIII and the Duke of Alba, and two clubs in Huelva and Las Palmas, both founded by British residents. It was not until 1911 that Bilbao had its own golf club, the eleven hole Real Sociedad de Neguri, of which Arana’s father, a very competitive golfer himself, was a founding member.

Although exposed to golf since an early age, the young Arana devoted most of his early sporting endeavours to sailing. He was a very accomplished sailor and a skilled craftsman, who enjoyed woodworking on his own boat. His competitiveness took him to represent Spain, at 21 years of age, in the 1926 Amsterdam Olympics. A broken mast, 500 metres from the finishing line, left him without a medal and was responsible for his quitting sailing. All Spanish golfers should thank that mast, given what Arana would do for the sport in the years to come.

Arana’s successful amateur golfing career took off in 1926, when he won the Campeonato de Vizcaya; he, along with his brother Luis Ignacio, was to dominate Spanish golf until 1936. However until the incorporation of the Spanish Golf Federation in 1932, elite golfers competed mostly in domestic events. It was in 1934 that Arana made his first inroads to competitive golf outside Spain, entering his first and only Open Championship. He did progress through qualifying, carding 77 and 78 at Deal and St Georges. No records exist documenting any return to the British Isles for competitive play.

Javier’s first success came later that same year, at Chiberta, where he won the French Amateur after beating Jacques Leglise, HG Bentley and Captain Francis Francis of Sunningdale in the final. Arana, in fact, became Francis’s nemesis: they played against each other in the French, Belgian and German Amateurs, Arana always winning. It was the first time a Spanish golfer had won an event abroad.

In 1935, he engaged in a broader schedule, winning the Belgian Amateur, and reaching the finals of the French and Swiss amateur and the semi-final of the German Amateur. In Switzerland, he beat the famous American actor Douglas Fairbanks by 5&4 in a game which gathered a lot of media attention. He reached the final, but lost to his brother Luis Ignacio.

Arana’s successful amateur career came to a sudden halt in July 1936 with the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, which would last well into 1939. It was during the war that Arana developed topographic and map reading skills, which were to be of great benefit in later architectural efforts. In the final stages of the war, Arana travelled to Argentina with his friend José Vallejo to play some exhibition matches. He returned to Spain with a drained competitive spirit, following the death of his friend in a flight accident while in South America. His last foray into competitive golf was to the 1940 Spanish Amateur in which he finished second behind Luis Ignacio.

Golf was slow to pick up in Spain after the Civil War. Europe was fully immersed in World War II and the country was slowly reconstructing. A minority sport before the war, golf remained so immediately afterwards, with only 744 active golfers at the time, according to the Spanish Federation’s records of 1944.

We know little of what ignited Arana’s architectural career, but we can speculate from his letters that he was engaged by the Federation to supervise reconstruction of Spanish golf courses due to his knowledge of maintenance practices and his familiarity with some of the best courses in Argentina, Britain and, especially, Continental Europe. He had played competitively on courses such as Deal, St Georges, the Jockey Club, Zoute, Hossegor, Chiberta, Morfontaine, Bad-Ems, Granville, Lombartzyde and Villa d’Este, as well as those in Spain like Puerta de Hierro, Pedreña and Lasarte (designed by Herbert Fowler in 1919, this last no longer exists). The unavailability of the architects who had been active in Spain prior to the war – Colt, Simpson and Philip Mackenzie Ross – meant that reconstruction had to be carried out locally.

Arana’s earliest architectural records date from 1940, when he started planning the reconstruction of the Club de Campo in Madrid, a new layout over an earlier 1932 Mackenzie Ross course which had been destroyed during the Civil War and which would not be completed until 1955. In 1946 his activities really took off: he remodelled Sant Cugat, a Colt layout from 1922, and designed a private baby course for the Riviere family in Puigcerdá, close to Barcelona.

Arana, who had previously lived in Bilbao, moved to Barcelona in 1946 as a result of his divorce and the amount of work from other clubs in the area. He reconstructed the Pedralbes golf course (1947-48) and Real Club de Golf de la Cerdanya, his first original 18 hole layout (1948). Ironically, Arana’s first golf course was missing two holes: he considered that available land was only apt for 16 holes and was not willing to compromise his routing to fit the missing holes – which were later added by the club. When members inquired how 18 hole play should be conducted on a 16 hole course, Arana replied that they should play 16 and repeat the two holes they liked most.

Although not much evidence exists of the depth of Arana’s relationship with Tom Simpson, it is clear from some of his earlier works and letters that the English architect took him as a partner for his Spanish efforts and became his mentor. Simpson spent three winters in Madrid, redesigning Puerta de Hierro from 1946- 1949, and it must have been then they developed professional ties. In fact, Arana referred to Simpson as his ‘master and partner’ when asked to provide his opinion on Simpson’s work at the Madrid club and there are Simpson drawings used in some of his earlier designs. But Arana built his best-known courses between the mid 50s and mid 60s, some time after Simpson’s last architectural efforts – which allowed his style to evolve on its own.

In the mid 1950s, Spain’s economy started picking up, allowing the building of new courses and providing Arana with the opportunity to develop his architectural genius. Between the opening of El Prat in 1954 and the 1968 completion of El Saler, he was responsible for laying out some of what remain Spain’s most interesting courses such as Club de Campo (1956), Guadalmina Sur (1959), Neguri (1961), Rio Real (1965) and RACE (1967). Though Arana only opened eleven courses throughout his career, he must be considered prolific given the low number of golf projects at the time.

Other reasons exist for this apparent low level of activity. First, Arana could not rely upon remodelling work, as there were only twelve courses in Spain before 1939. He mostly worked alone, was a perfectionist, was scared of flying and avoided nine hole assignments (which were quite abundant at the time in Spain). Most importantly, he had learned his commercial skills from his master Tom Simpson: he despised greens committees, calling them ‘spontaneous architects.’ He accepted no interference in his designs, nor would he compromise a course for surrounding real estate developments.

Despite his lack of commercial skills he did manage to convince the Spanish government to build a golf course where today lays El Saler, his masterpiece. It was the beginning of the Spanish tourism boom and golf was thought an interesting addition to a planned hotel located in a 30km stretch of dunes and pines set among sandy soil south of Valencia.

Legend has it that on the opening day, sitting on a bench on the first tee, Javier Arana said: “I have created a masterpiece,” while shedding a tear. He was 63 at the time, and swore never to return to El Saler after a centreline fairway bunker was removed from the sixth hole (the bunker was restored to its original state in the 1980s). After El Saler, Arana lost interest in design due to the increasing real estate compromises that needed to be made when designing courses.

In 1974, following a petition from a friend, he designed his last golf course, Aloha, in Marbella, for which he personally selected trees and plants to ensure that each month of the year there would be flowers in bloom around the course. He died just a couple of months prior to the course being opened in 1975.

There is not much written evidence of the design philosophy behind Arana’s golf courses, although his letters repeat the principle of enjoyable layouts that encourage players to return. He was not fond of time wasted searching for balls, or water obstacles, which are very uncommon on his courses. His other greatest concern, probably due to the lack of golfing experience of most people he dealt with, was maintenance and proper construction. His correspondence with clients was focused on ensuring that adequate building techniques were employed, experienced contractors used and that the proper seeds, irrigation and water supply were available. For a course to be successful, it needed to attract every type of golfer, regardless of skill or handicap, while fulfilling the desires of different types of players, which according to Arana were six:
• The ambitious, who are constantly seeking to improve
• The nostalgic, seeking to repeat a particular drive, hole, putt or birdie
• The sportsmen, who seek the thrill of the game
• The gambler
• Those in search of lost appetite or thirst
• Those who believe golf is an elegant sport.

Not fond of earthmoving, probably due to the associated cost, Arana held that 80 per cent of the course was nature and that man should only be responsible for 20 per cent of the final design. He was lucky to develop most of his work at a time when many good sites were available, such as the Mediterranean coastal sandy soils of El Prat, Guadalmina and El Saler, or the Atlantic pine forest of Neguri. Good routing and usage of available land was one of his main strengths: in flatter seaside property, he excelled at minimising green-to-tee walks, fitting the 7,000 yard long Neguri in less than 100 acres.

On rolling terrain, such as the hillier Club de Campo in Madrid or Aloha in Marbella, he managed to route the courses with very limited earth movement with holes adapting to the undulations of each property, generally using elevated tee boxes and par threes to cope with differences in altitude and ensure a flow of holes with good playability. His preference for minimising disruption of natural elements extended to the use of existing vegetation and trees to limit bunkering and dictate strategy. Some of Arana’s best designs are located close to the sea where wind plays an additional role, complicating strategy and adding variety. This is especially true of Neguri, perched on top of cliffs by the Bay of Biscay, with beautiful views of the ocean.

Indifferent driving is punished in Arana’s designs, encouraging ball movement from the tee to ensure the best line for the next shot, while his fondness for doglegs was coupled with wide corners that provide plenty of options for drivers of all abilities. He liked to challenge players mentally, and left trees in the middle of fairways, close to or in the middle of bunkers and at the entrance of green, forcing a certain aerial route. Unfortunately, most of these trees have been removed by greens committees, who never understood their real purpose.

Arana’s own game also had its influence on his designs. At the pinnacle of his amateur career, he was a very long driver and his courses played long, usually above 7,000 yards, with ample fairways and large bunkers. It is this amplitude, however, that has allowed most of his designs to endure, despite being over 40 years old, and still play long by today’s standards without need for lengthening (which is often very difficult, due to the lack of space). Arana also had a strong preference for matchplay, due to his predilection for taking risks. This is reflected in his most distinctive trait: the seventeenth hole was always a par three, to enhance the decisive role of the penultimate hole in matchplay.

Arana was an excellent putter in his younger years, according to golf journalists who wrote about his finesse on the greens and even dared to compare his stroke with Bobby Jones’. This had its reflection in the design of greens, where he moved away from the overall simplicity that governed his courses. His greens were huge, varied and full of movement and used many false fronts and plateaux. Longitudinal spines and mounds were not uncommon either; although his trademark must be that most greens were tilted to flow with the surrounding terrain, which resulted in an unusually high number of front-to-back sloping greens. His attention to detail in mounding and contours in and around greens extended to construction, which he personally supervised to obtain the most natural possible finish.

Thankfully, Arana’s courses have remained largely untouched and most of his designs can still be enjoyed according to his original ideas, save for some occasional tree removal. Despite the fact that he had only limited exposure to the traditional landmark holes of golf, he did develop similar version of most of them which we can experience today: the Alpslike seventh at Aloha, which after an uphill drive leaves a blind shot above a hill to a heavily contoured green that sits on a hollow, the magnificent uphill reverse redan at Neguri’s sixth or Club de Campo’s short par three seventeenth, where the ball must be played above a large tree, as at Morfontaine’s eighth.

His most extravagant creation we cannot play anymore. The water-bunker on the par three sixth at El Prat, which contained only an inch of water, allowing golfers to play the ball from within, disappeared long before the course was closed to make room for the Barcelona airport expansion.

We can dare to say that Arana set the foundations for the development of the game in Spain by building strategic, fun to play courses that have been the nurturing ground for Spain’s amateur and professional golfers in the last 40 years. Golf in Spain would not be what it is today had he not created such great courses as Neguri, El Prat, Club de Campo and El Saler. Let us hope his contribution to the game in Spain is regarded more highly in the future.

Alfonso Elhardt is a financier with an interest in classic golf course architecture.

This article first appeared in issue 15 of Golf Course Architecture, published in January 2009.