In Search of Perfection

Valderrama has consistently been rated the best course in Europe, so why has the club intiated a three-year review of its layout by Kyle Phillips?

The fairway of the 385-yard 2nd at Valderrama arcs left-to-right between 30ft high cork oaks – apart, that is, from the one in the middle of the fairway that invites a lay-up and gives the hole its name of El Arbol. The velvety sward is trimmed to lOmm, the same length as the tees, and at its widest point stretches to 30 yards across a subtle camber. It is so smooth that, with even a shortish stroke, you can quite easily putt the ball from one side to the other.

In many ways, the second sums up Valderrama. Wide-yet-narrow, short-yet-long, it is a hole you’ll do better to sweet talk than yell at; pull driver out on the tee and you can just about hear the tree limbs whisper “Go ahead, make my day”. As the course unfolds, more sweeping angled fairways and cork oaks – some 5,000 – reveal a layout that will not be overpowered. In a golf world where power has become the new superbug, this track, at a little under 7,000 yards, is the perfect antidote.

This combination of subtlety of challenge and continent-leading maintenance has seen Golf World rate Valderrama as its European number one continually since our rankings started in 1989. And yet last summer, the club embarked on its biggest course overhaul since 1984, when Robert Trent Jones Snr redesigned his original 1974 layout. The changes are expected to take three years to finish.

“The game has evolved,” explains the club president Felipe Ortiz-Patino, who took over from his father, club founder Jaime, late in 2007. “Ten years ago people would drive hundreds of miles to see John Daly hit a golf ball; today he is not the longest on Tour, and 300 yards is nothing special. Equipment is better, there is more physical training, and breakthroughs in technique and the way the game is taught means the players are much longer. At Valderrama we are in a better position than most to monitor this, because we’ve had an annual tournament at the same time of year, with a field which always features the top 60 in Europe. We can measure the changes in the game very easily. Based on what we have seen at the Volvo Masters, now is the time to make an adjustment to remain the test of golf we have been for the past 20 years.”

But if that sounds like Valderrama is simply going to be stretched to 7,600 yards
like everywhere else, think again. “We don’t have the space to add 500 yards even if we wanted to,” Felipe continues. ‘Justin Rose, who won here in 2007 with a score of just one under par, said Valderrama is proof that a course that is under 7,000 yards can be a real challenge to the best. Instead we will look at angles, width of fairway and positioning of obstacles.”

In order to execute the changes,Valderrama has drafted in American architect Kyle Phillips, creator of The Grove and Kingsbarns, and the task of refreshing a top course’s challenge without simply tacking on yardage is one he relishes. “Golf is of course so much more than power,” he affirms. “It’s angles, shotmaking, it’s whether’ you set the course up to be firm and fast or long and scruffy … all the things that make golf fun and entertaining. With its trees and doglegs, Valderrama has always been much more than just length anyway.”

A key aspect of the revised course, important to both Felipe and Kyle, is to inspire..the top players to hit driver more. Valderrama has always been a course that relentlessly asks golfers to play the percentages, with most players taking driver perhaps only three or four times a round. Padraig Harrington’s comments a couple of years back summed the situation up: “On 13 (405 yards) I hit 4-iron off the tee and
then hit a 5-iron second shot because it just gets so narrow further down. To guarantee hitting the fairway you’ve got to lay back, and there’s a number of holes on the golf course that are like that.”

One way to intensify a course’s challenge is to increase the attractiveness of taking
risks, and to that end Kyle will reshape several holes to tempt players into pulling out the I-wood – starting with 13.

“We have removed two trees, one either side of the fairway, to make taking the driver more of an option,” Kyle explains. “We have also moved the tee 15 metres back to make that iron lay-up less attractive -leave it short, and you’ll be way short. There is a tree that is now 279 metres from the elevated back tee, and the pros will need the driver to pass it. But if they do there is a reward – the fairway slopes downwards,
leaving just 90 metres to the green.”

“In 2007, only Sergio hit driver here,”adds Felipe. “Last year I believe 85 per cent
of the field did.”

Changes at the 1st (see right), 7th and 16th have also been made with a view to encouraging the driver. The last of these, a dogleg right, is not a long par 4 by modern standards at a little over 400 yards; but another adverse camber in the fairway, just where the driver would pitch, kicks even the perfect ball into the left rough. Players would simply lay up, hitting up the right and letting the slope bring the ball into the left half of the fairway.

But now Kyle has moved the tee several yards to the left to soften the dogleg. “The
hole is the same length but now it plays you up into the hill,” he says. “The effect of the fairway camber kicking the driver left is reduced from this angle; but also, it brings the right side of the hole more into play. The left rough wasn’t the end of the world, but the right rough is a different story; the tree canopies here give no option for forgiveness, and block you out.”

A secondary aspect of the new tee position on the 16th is that it is in fact an old tee position. “It’s actually back to where Robert Trent Jones Snr sited it originally,”
Kyle explains. “Most of the original angles that Trent Jones set up here were pretty
smart. But over the years there have been moments when back tees were added at
slightly different angles, perhaps as a reflection of the distance the players were hitting the ball or simply out of convenience for the staging of a tournament. BlIt now we can revisit not just length but angle, because angle here is key.”

A theme for the Valderrama changes is to bring the course closer to Trent Jones’ 1984 layout – partly out of respect for a course the “Old Man” referred to as his best, and partly through an unvoiced admission that not all the various tinkerings the course has gone through over the past 20 years have necessarily improved the RTJ design.

Perhaps the best example of this is Valderrama’s most infamous hole, the par~5
17th, 539 yards that saw Tiger putt into the water at the 1997 Ryder Cup and brought a 7-iron albatross for Graeme McDowell 10 years later at the Volvo Masters.

Robert Trent Jones’ original hole was quite different, with a green perched up on
the hill on the right. This was nor what Trent Jones had wanted, but land usage had
stopped him placing the green in more or less its present position. “He said it would
be fantastic if the hole could be a little bit like Augusta’s back-nine par 5s, reachable with events won or lost by being aggressive or defensive,” says Felipe, “He left us with a little sketch of how he wanted it to look,”

Seve Ballesteros’ controversial redesign in 1992 of the 17th was based on Trent Jones’ sketch, “It was a good hole, an interesting hole,” says Felipe dutifully, “But completely different to the rest of the course, All the lines and contours here are soft, but Seve’s fairway was full of mounds one metre high, more than on a links or a Pete Dye course, Michael Campbell called them elephant graves. There was a stretch of rough across the fairway, and the green was higher with a big collar of rough between green and lake,” The hole has been consistently toyed with
since Seve’s revamp.

Subsequent remodelling has seen the green slope softened by two per cent and the
lake reduced, Over time, fewer balls have toppled crazily into the water and player
complaints have subsided, The hole is now pretty much the original Trent Jones design, and Valderrama is, at last, happy with it.

“If work is done on 17 it’ll be on the
first part of the hole, the landing area backwards,” Kyle confirms, “We can lengthen a little behind, not to make it a three-shatter, but the wind varies here, too. If it plays downwind, we need to give the players a good, challenging second shot.”

In returning Valderrama’s features back to their original Trent Jones Snr form, Valderrama could not have picked a better man than Kyle Phillips, It’s not just that he
worked for 16 years in the RTJ offices in California; he is also a traditionalist at heart, with a passion for the old masters of course design and a great track record for restoring original, indigenous features to altered courses, He is also often said to be a pioneer of a new naturalist trend in golf course redesign, a welcome development after the bulldozer-crazed artificial layouts of the 1980s and 90s, And this complements Valderrama’s final revamp mission – to remove artifice and purify the terrain.

“We do, for example, have a wiggling cart path leading off from the 1st tee, and some
artifically severe mounding to the right;’ Felipe e”‘Plains, “There is more throughout
the course, especially at the back of the 7th, and much of it was done for Ryder Cup viewing. But we needed to get 40,000 people watching four matches then, and even the Volvo Masters did not see that sort of pressure, So cosmetically, the land will return to the smooth swales and gentle gradients that characterise the course.”

Most of the work to date has been centred around the tees, jobs that can be finished before green complexes and hole shaping will be done. But the question remains why a course that sets the standards for maintenance needs to be reviewed,

Perhaps a clue lies in the fact 2008’s Volvo Masters was the last, as Volvo’s 20-year sponsorship of the event ended. The club will miss out on hosting a European Tour tournament in 2009, but the current plan is to return with a new event – the Andalucia Valderrama Masters – in 2010.

“I believe we are considered by Tour players as the number one tournament site on the continent,” Felipe Ortiz-Patifio concludes, “and by most ohhe golf community as the best maintained course in Europe, Therefore we consider ourselves Europe’s benchmark and want it to continue. As such, we must evolve as the game evolves, If we don’t, we
could be left behind,”

Golf World Europe, July 2009
By Duncan Lennard


No comments yet.

Leave a Reply