Correspondent James R. Hansen will weigh in with multiple posts from the road, detailing how he and 23 others fare while taking in courses by the likes of Arthur Hills, Robert Trent Jones Sr. and Jr., Cabell Robinson, Frank Pennink, Martin Hawtree, William Mitchell and Jack Nicklaus.
Real Club de Golf de Sotogrande was one of the late Robert Trent Jones most outstanding designs, not just in Europe but anywhere.
Opened in 1964, it stands as one of the most significant courses in the history of golf architecture. It was here in Cádiz, Spain, that American-style golf courses with American turf grasses were introduced to Europe.
Jones put in Bermudagrass fairways, smuggling in two suitcases and a couple sacks of sprigs from Coral Ridge Country Club, a course he owned in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to establish a nursery from which the fairways were sprigged. He originally tried Bermuda on the greens, but he found Penncross bentgrass worked better.
Jones couldn’t find good local sand for the bunkers, so he used crushed marble from nearby Andalusian quarries. It worked admirably, not only as a substance for play but also for the white, gleaming accent points to surrounding environs of verdant green.
With the hot, dry climate of southern Spain, it was mandatory to install a fully automatic irrigation system. Sotogrande’s was the first tee-to-green system in Europe.
It was not just the U.S. turf grasses that brought American golf to Europe. The architecture also was distinctively Jonesian: long runway tees, flanking fairway bunkers, water in play on seven holes, a stern 6,910 yards (par 72) from the back tees. The course embodied the American concept of aerial power design.
For the past two years Roger Rulewich, who worked for Jones for more than 30 years, has been restoring the course. The course our raters played still has new grasses growing in and its bunker sand settling.
So many American-style courses have been built in Europe over the past half-century that many who play Sotogrande fail to recognize what a landmark course it is. Even Sotogrande’s extraordinary beauty has been surpassed in comparison to some of its newer neighbors. That would have been impossible for Jones (or original owner and developer Joseph McMicking, a former U.S. Army officer) to imagine, given Sotogrande’s location. It sits on the exquisite natural terrain of the Sierra Blanca Mountains, with glimpses of Gibraltar and North Africa in the distance from the more elevated areas.
The course’s immediate surrounds are filled with old cork oak trees, olive trees and millions of wildflowers. But the beauty of other courses along the Costa del Sol (and in the Portuguese Algarve) has come to match it.
Some of our raters left Real Club de Golf de Sotogrande a little disappointed. They failed to see the course as McMicking, Jones and the golfers of half a century ago saw it. Jones remained immensely proud of everything about Sotogrande for the rest of his life – and equally proud he brought American golf to Europe.
– James R. Hansen, a longtime Golfweek’s Best course rater and occasional contributor, is professor of aerospace history at Auburn. He is the author of “A Difficult Par: Robert Trent Jones Sr. and the Making of Modern Golf,” winner of the U.S. Golf Association’s Herbert Warren Wind Book Award for 2014.