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The Game in Spain

Like Eden, which it resembles in other ways, Valderrama is a bit underpopulated. The club has 432 members, and they live on several continents. On a clear, warm afternoon, I sit on the terrace looking out over the oak-studded eighteenth fairway, and during a long lunch and a chat with a member, I see exactly no one on the course.

My companion explains that his friends like things just as they are: "This club wasn't founded so that people could crowd one another." In the clubhouse, luxury awaits anyone who shows up, the tables aglitter with glassware, and in the lounge, a little cart, which once trucked grain around an Andalusian barn, now bears calvados and cognac and a humidor full of Montecristos, Davidoffs, Partagas.

Things won't be so quiet on November fourth, when some sixty-five of the best players in the world convene at Valderrama for the third and final leg of the 1999 World Golf Championship. They'll compete for five million dollars in prize money (with a million going to the winner) on a course generally considered the finest in Europe. With its meticulously maintained fairways and flawless greens, its rolling terrain and long Mediterranean views, it's a place of serene beauty. Very occasionally, serenity can turn into acute distress, as the 1997 Ryder Cup team discovered when winds picked up. But even without winds, some ingenious and controversial design decisions can complicate your game.

Valderrama is clearly the jewel of Spain's Costa del Sol, though it's scarcely alone. Thirty-nine courses dot the shoreline of this beautiful corner of the Mediterranean, which a local magazine calls the "Costa del Golf." You can put together a memorable campaign here: La Cala, San Roque, Sotogrande. The chances are that golf will exhaust you before you exhaust it. No matter, because then you will want to go in search of Andalusia.

Andalusia contains the Costa del Sol and much more as well--the inland cities of Seville, Córdoba, Granada and the little white-washed towns of the hills (the pueblos blancos), parched, rocky mountains and green river valleys and much of Spain's history. Andalusia is the place where thosepostcard images of Spain, bullfighting and flamenco, began and where they live on. It's the birthplace of much of Spain's genius as well, including, in this century, Lorca and Picasso.

You might as well begin where you are: on the luxurious coastline. The recent development of the Costa del Sol is ritualistically lamented. There is much to dismay but little to shock an American traveler, unless he is remembering the "undiscovered" (and impoverished) coastline that could be found here as recently as the sixties. It is mostly the sun-hungry Britis h who have effected the change, which happened quickly enough that the occasional peasant farm can be seen among the billboards. The place now evokes a nascent southern California, with its sere hills and slightly frantic traffic--monumental nature meeting monumental commerce.

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