Campo de Golf del Parador de El Saler

Javier Arana, one of golf’s gentlemen, was given his best property late in his career and knew just what to do. Golf course architecture was no longer only the preserve of English speaking men.

Golf evolved differently around the world and each nation featured its own set of protagonists as well as land and soil unique to that region. In Spain, the man who did the most to shape the game was Javier Arana. His early interactions with Harry Colt and later Tom Simpson (with whom he would partner after World War II) established a Golden Age design ethos that Arana brought into the modern era. Spain was fortunate to have a man of that substance and quality when it needed one.

Like most countries where the game has been played for over a century, rudimentary courses in Spain were the result of people laying out nine holes without prior experience in doing so. Green keeping practices were basic and sand greens were the norm. Chasing a little white ball in the great outdoors provided enough simple pleasure, at least in the early stages. Spain’s expansive coastline and rolling topography in population centers like Madrid created grand opportunities and not surprisingly, the game gained a foothold.

Soon, the founders of clubs pursued experienced golf architects. A group of influential businessmen in Madrid hired Harry Colt to build Puerta de Hierro in 1912. The quality of his holes was high, thanks to a routing that took advantage of the property’s valleys and ridges, even though the course initially measured well under 6,000 yards. Alfonso Erhardt, who penned the marvelous book entitled The Golf Courses of Javier Arana (published in 2013 and available in English here, nominates 1928 as a key moment in the game’s development in Spain. That’s when Colt returned to build Pedreña on the outskirts of Santander on Spain’s north coast. Nine holes opened in 1928 and the other nine the following year with the course being such a joy to play, far superior to anything else in Spain at the time that every club took notice.

Erhardt described the seminal event:

Colt’s design for Pedreña constituted an immense qualitative leap forward from his previous work in Spain: he took a sharply modern approach to the exposed cliffs of the Bay of Santander and extended his design over 5,400m – this was stunningly ambiguous for Spain at the time, given that Puerta de Hierro and Sant Cugat were both less than 5,000m. … It may seem a naive overstatement to claim that Pedreña reinvigorated the Spanish golf world of that time – but the opening of the new club ushered in an era of rapid development that was to last until the Civil War.

Where was Javier Arana? At the time he was a 24 year old accomplished golfer who had been elected as green chairman at Real Sociedad de Golf de Neguri, which at the time was an eleven hole course along a beach about an hour’s drive from Pedreña. Guess who called on Neguri? None other than Harry Colt, who was invited to make improvements to the course as well as to approve a potential new clifftop site (Arana ultimately built Neguri’s present day course in 1961 on the Colt approved site). As Erhardt notes, Arana’s ‘…meeting Colt, the new courses in Madrid and Santander, and the renovation work at Puerta de Hierro gave Arana a first glimpse of the subtleties of design theory. This learning process inspired him to oversee changes to Neguri so that it could keep abreast of the gradual rise in standards in Spanish golf and bring it into alignment with the new design currents.’ 

Pedreña elevated golf course architecture in Spain to unseen levels. In particular, the downhill 6th featured cross bunkers and a steeply pitched green. That hole left Colt in a tough situation at the bottom of the hill but …

…he expertly routed the one shot 7th along the side of the hill, perhaps, emulating the 8th hole at Sunningdale Old.

After the 7th seamlessly stair-steps the golfer up the hill, Colt draped the 8th over the far side and exposed the golfer to this wondrous view of the river estuary below.

Once on top, Colt laid out a series of fine holes. The Bay of Biscay acts as the backdrop to the short iron approach to the 14th, above. Colt’s four hole finish is stirring and remains the equal of any in Spain.

To be sure, the property at Pedreña was neither too large nor ideally suited for golf given a hill occupied much of the land. Nonetheless, in the hands of a supreme tactician, the routing turned into something that was exhilarating and the golf matched the glorious scenery. A novice could not have produced what Colt adroitly did at Pedreña.

Arana took notice and his architectural awareness deepened when he competed at some of Europe’s finest courses. One event occurred in 1932 at Chiberta in France. Erhardt writes, ‘Chiberta, a course designed by Tom Simpson, was always Javier’s favourite. Spread out across sand dunes and pine forest near Biarritz, Chiberta was distinctive for its variety and the creative use of the natural unevenness of the ground. … The rich variety of the hole styles, and the way in which each hole cleaved to the features of the terrain, so forcing the player to think before executing each shot, left a deep imprint on Arana’s vision: Chiberta was a radical break from most of the venues he had been acquainted with so far.’ 

Chiberta’s mix of coastal and inland holes made it a special course in Simpson’s day. Today, houses impose on the playing experience.

Arana’s playing career and participation in international matches was in full flight in the mid 1930s. He was a regular at the French Open and also played in the British Amateur and the Open. He and his brother were arguably the two best golfers on the continent in the 1930s. According to Erhardt, Javier Arana’s ability to drive the ball coupled with a deft putting stroke separated him from the rest but his skills meant nothing when the Spanish Civil War broke out in 1936. After three bloody years the country was in tatters and compounding the turmoil was the German invasion of Poland. Arana was 40 years old when World War II ended and his competitive golf career was effectively over. Nonetheless, his appreciation for architecture and keen interest in agronomy meant that he was the ideal person to help his country restore and reinvigorate its golf scene. His first commission was to rebuild Club de Campo in Madrid and he would go on to build nine more courses, partnering in 1945 for three years with Simpson himself.

As detailed in The Golf Courses of Javier Arana, Arana’s two primary influences were Colt and Simpson. That is a pretty spectacular one-two punch! From these two giants Arana acquired the ability to build great holes and just as importantly, the ability to avoid building weak ones. The end result is the kind of courses that golfers delight in playing where the balance between fun and difficulty is expertly achieved. All three men were from the ‘less is more’ school and worked hard to find the best green sites and then work backwards. None were prone to the heavy-handed use of artificial hazards (a.k.a. bunkers) and keeping the vast majority of greens open in front is their hallmark. Be it Colt’s Royal Portrush or Simpson’s Ballybunion or Arana’s El Saler, the wind comes from several directions. The architecture at all three locations needed flexibility to accommodate the shifting winds. Indeed, at El Saler there is often a calm morning but the wind strengthens, blowing off shore by late morning. In the afternoon, it can be two clubs in your face off the sea, having turned 180 degrees in a scant four hours!

On the rare occasion Arana placed a bunker squarely in front of a green, he pulled it well back so that the hole would function well in all winds. This bunker is 40 paces from the front of the 16th green at El Saler.

El Prat, built in 1952, was considered Arana’s masterpiece. Then, the Ministry of Tourism came knocking in 1967, and asked him to build a course in the El Saler natural park south of Valencia along the Mediterranean Sea. The general area is famed for its nearby marshlands where rice is harvested for paella.  The coastal pines and dunes combination surely reminded Arana of his beloved Chiberta though Chirberta’s terrain is lumpier. This proved to be his greatest canvas with half of the holes (e.g. 1-4, 10-13, 15) set in a pine forest and half being more open and coastal in flavor.

Shaped by his life experiences, Arana didn’t believe in senseless ‘window dressing’ features. The natural pine forest floor and the dunescape were preserved during construction. He moved dirt to create appealing tee and green pads and disturbed little in between. Erhardt notes that Arana dazzled people in the early days by his ability to shape the ball either way and many of his holes feature a slight bend as they flow across the property. Nothing feels manufactured or artificial and players of all abilities delight in playing. Indeed, the author witnessed an appealing large number of couples golfing during his visit; something that always portends a flexible design.

The view across the thirteenth fairway to the eleventh shows how the integrity of the property was maintained. Just as importantly, no work has been undertaken to undermine Arana’s work in the ensuing fifty years.

Ice plant, distinctively irregular trees, and the attractively colored sand take on a warm glow in the early morning light.

Arana could afford to be restrained in his architecture because he only accepted projects on land well-suited for the game. Be it Neguri high on the cliffs or El Prat along the Mediterranean or his nine holes at Algeciras which looked directly at the Rock of Gibraltar, Arana let the site’s natural beauty be the star. As Spain’s leading architect, he received the choice assignments until age slowed him down and Robert Trent Jones, Sr. came to work in southwestern Spain at Sotogrande and Valderrama. Nonetheless, Jones was never given a site as good as El Saler and not surprisingly, El Saler emerged – and remains – the country’s finest course.

What would Arana make of this gnarled tree beside the par 5 11th green? Given that it doesn’t hinder turf coverage, he probably would enjoy the extra bite it gives this three shotter. It certainly evokes a sense of being along the Mediterranean.

One myth that surrounds the resort is that as the regional government owns and runs course, the conditioning is somehow inferior. That was untrue in May, 2018. Yes, there are many challenges to maintain a course within a natural park. For instance, departmental approval is required to remove a tree. The golfer might suspect that the course would be grossly over-treed – and that would be incorrect. As with most courses, several dozen trees could be removed for the sake of improved air circulation and sunlight. Nonetheless, the course as it is features healthy turf and plays fine, though short of bouncy-bounce. Every tee area has a wood sign that pays tribute to one species of the scores of birds that call the area home. The course is NOT maintained to the point where its coastal roots are hidden. Look at the view from the fifteenth tee below. The native floor looks just that – native! The mix of exposed sand to vegetation is balanced. Too sandy and it blows away; too much vegetation and the beach flavor vanishes. El Saler is well presented.

A perfect presentation of the sandy floor greets the golfer off the 15th tee. The fact that everything is at grade helps the eye appreciate the setting.

Erhardt quotes Arana, ‘ I hope it turns out to be a great tournament course (6,450 metres) and if I succeed, I shall retire, for I am approaching that age and want to enjoy what I have done and not have the opportunity to criticise myself.’

He would complete two additional projects but El Saler remained his crowning accomplishment. Within the seaside park, no buildings encroach on play except the resort hotel and Arana was given 1,400 yards of coastal frontage with which to work. The course also enjoys a large buffer both north and south. Chiberta has not been as fortunate, as seen above. Many architects build their best courses from their mid-30s to their mid-50s, but Arana’s life was interrupted at that age by forces beyond his control. Arana was 62 years old when worked commenced at El Saler and the veteran extracted the best possible collection of holes from the opportunity. To be clear, El Saler doesn’t offer the heart pounding moments of a Portrush or Ballybunion but Arana’s effortless style reflects the low key grace unique to the Mediterranean, as we will see below.

Holes to Note

Second hole, 380/360 yards; The second serves as an introduction to a peculiarity of Arana’s at this point in his career, namely long, slender greens that were much deeper than wide. This is the first of several that measure over 50 yards (!) from front to back. Additionally, he frequently angled them to the fairway, thus dictating a preferred side from which to approach.

The golfer who places his tee ball on the left side of the second fairway enjoys a full range of options for his approach. Not true for approaches from the right as they will be at an oblique angle.

The playing experience is wildly different on days when the hole is set on the lower plateau.

Third hole, 535/515 yards; El Saler is a delight to walk. Why anyone would ride is a mystery, especially since the resort makes trolleys readily available, yet sometimes saying a course is easy to walk confers that the property might be flat-ish or uninteresting. Such is not the case here. In fact, of the fourteen non-one shot holes, the golfer standing on the tee only sees the flag five times. The land either has sufficient movement or the hole bends. This one is of the latter sort that bends left across land that slopes to the right. Reverse camber holes are often misunderstood, largely because they are so irritating as the land shunts the ball into disadvantageous positions.

The appeal of the third tee shot is that little is given away.

The fairway pushes the golfer right but alas, the course’s longest hazard at 55 yards tracks along the right of the green.

continued >>>