With the highest concentration of fairways in Europe, Spain is the continent's leading golf getaway. Yet with so much green, especially around the bustling southern coastline known as the Costa del Sol, a.k.a. the Costa del Golf, it can take the will of Don Quixote to sort out world-class venues from impossible dreamers. Ever since the 1997 Ryder Cup at Valderrama, Spanish golf has been luring Americans, with splendid newer courses in the northern Costa Brava region competing with old favorites down south.
Apart from the courses, golfers come for the weather: You can tee off 365 days a year. Plus, there's Spain itself: flamenco, bullfighting, beaches, siestas and late, late nights. There's a culinary boom, too, with young chefs doing for Spanish cuisine what Dalí and Picasso did for Spanish painting.
Finally, there's the relaxed Spanish attitude toward golf: It's just a game, after all—mistakes happen. The trait is recognizable even in fierce competitors such as Sergio Garcia and Seve Ballesteros, who is famous for once explaining away a four-putt with a shrug and the comment, "I miss, I miss, I miss, I make."
Yes, the country is still reeling from the March terrorist attack in Madrid. But according to tour operators, as of press time no American golfers had canceled or postponed trips to either coast. We golfers are a hardy lot, it seems, and when we want to play Valderrama, we are going to play Valderrama.
The best way to play through Spain without missing must-see nongolf destinations (which are numerous) is to split at least two weeks between the north and south coasts. Begin in Barcelona with a few days of sightseeing before making the hour and a half drive north to the Costa Brava courses. Then fly to Sevilla for a taste of traditional Spain before driving south to the top layouts and ancient towns of Costa del Sol.
Once on the tee, don't be confused by the culture clashes. In Spain, as in most of Europe, white indicates the pro tees; gold or yellow, the men's tees; red, the forward tees. Distances are in meters, so add 10 percent to get approximate yardage. Last, most Spanish courses have handicap requirements (typically in the high twenties). You'll probably pass muster, but check before you go if a handicap card is required.
The so-called wild coast, the Costa Brava is one of the world's great emerging golf regions. It stretches the coast north of Barcelona through the storied town of Girona to the mountainous French border. Along with Spain's best young layouts, it's home to many of the nation's top restaurants and country hotels.
PGA GOLF DE CATALUNYA
Caldes de Malavella, Gerona; 011-34/972-472-577, pgacatalunya.com. Yardage: 6,809. Par: 72. Slope: 130. Architects: Angel Gallardo and Neil Coles, 1999. Greens Fees: $62-$85. T+L GOLF Rating: *****
The first and only ETC course (Europe's version of a TPC course) in Spain and a former European PGA Tour stop, Catalunya has views of the Pyrenees Mountains, world-class facilities and more than ten dramatic downhill drives through natural brushland. Simply put, it blows away all area competition. Its beauty and beastliness are exemplified by the third hole, a 504-yard par five that begins kindly enough from an elevated tee but turns wicked near a green that's flanked by two lakes. All this, and it's reasonably priced to boot.
EMPORDÀ GOLF CLUB
Gualta, Gerona; 011-34/972-760-450, empordagolf.com. Yardage: 3,211 (Blue); 3,124 (Gold); 3,192 (Green); 3,367 (Red). Par: 36 (Blue, Gold, Red); 35 (Green). Architect: Robert von Hagge, 1991/1993/ 2004. Greens Fees: $56-$80. T+L GOLF Rating: ****1/2
EmpordÀ offers four excellent nines, all by von Hagge, including one that opened in March. That nine, called the Red, joins the rollicking Green to constitute EmpordÀ's competition course. The woodsy, water-packed Blue is also a treat, highlighted by a windswept troublemaker of a closer. A 509-yard par five with tees set on isolated bluffs, it requires a heroic drive, a precise layup and an approach to a green bracketed by water. The smart play?Keep a few balls in reserve.
GOLF SERRES DE PALS
Pals, Gerona; 011-34/972-637-375, golfserresdepals.com. Yardage: 6,849. Par: 72. Slope: 123. Architect: Ramón Espinosa, 2000. Greens Fees: $54-$79. T+L GOLF Rating: ****
This young links-and-parkland hybrid course in a countrified setting is simply a great walk through Spain. Though it plays a bit short, the layout meanders from windswept hilltops through pine forests, finishing on open fairways between scenic marshland. There's plenty of water to be found on fourteen, a 557-yard par five with a marsh discreetly lining the right side; a mistake here and, like the course's abandoned stone farmhouse, your score may turn to ruins.
GOLF PLATJA DE PALS
Pals, Gerona; 011-34/972-667-739, golfplatjadepals.com. Yardage: 6,496. Par: 73. Slope: 122. Architect: F.W. Hawtree, 1966. Greens Fees: $61-$85. T+L GOLF Rating: ***
Located near Pals beach and carving through forests of mature pines, this course exudes a quaint retro feel. It's also a thinking golfer's day out that demands precision and shrewd club selection. One drawback: a series of massive radio-antenna towers serves as backdrop on several holes. Fortunately, they're scheduled for removal in two years.
COSTA DEL SOL
This dry mountainous region is a mixed bag of romantic towns, arid farmland and impossibly crowded beach resorts. Andalucía's top courses are scattered in the hills just northeast of Gibraltar and in green pockets along the overbuilt Costa del Sol. Dig a little deeper and Spain's soul emerges in the vibrant city of Sevilla, the mesmerizing old quarter of Cádiz and the whitewashed mountain town of Ronda.
VALDERRAMA GOLF CLUB
Sotogrande, Cádiz; 011-34/956-791-200, valderrama.com. Yardage: 6,556. Par: 72. Slope: 142. Architect: Robert Trent Jones Sr., 1975. Greens Fees: $304-$335. T+L GOLF Rating: *****
The immaculate tree-lined fairways, talcum-white bunkers and centuries-old cork trees here are reason enough to come to Spain. There is also the notorious seventeenth, unconquerable even for Tiger, who plunked into its fronting pond three times out of four at the 1999 WGC-American Express Championship. Bolivian tin billionaire Jamie Ortiz-Patiño, the course's demanding owner, spares no expense. Only thirty-six players are allowed on the fairways each day, and visitors may play just twice in any given month. On the standout fourth, a 514-yard par five, the green sits atop a stony buttress, reachable only through a ten-yard gap between an overhanging tree and water right. A too-short approach can roll back fifty or more yards; too long, and you'll take a bath. Hit it perfect and you'll never want to leave Spain.