Feature Interview


Alfonso Erhardt

March 2014

Arana was born in 1905. What was the Spanish golf scene like in his early years?

There was barely any golf in Spain at the time. The oldest clubs had been founded by British mining workers (North Lode Golf Club, 1890 in the Rio Tinto mines in Huelva) and British port traders (Real Club de Golf de Las Palmas, 1891 in the Canary Islands). Spaniards had started playing golf in Madrid, in 1901 in the Madrid Polo Club (precursor to the Real Club de la Puerta de Hierro). The golf course had a primitive 9 hole layout set within the boundaries of a horse racetrack.

Golf became more popular after the first decade, with new clubs springing up in Lasarte (San Sebastián, 1910), Neguri (Bilbao, 1911) and Pedralbes (Barcelona, 1912) and H.S Colt’s first layout in Spain in Puerta de Hierro (Madrid, 1914). The number of golfers was very scarce (no more than 20-30 per club) and golf moved from Madrid in the winter to Bilbao and San Sebastián in the summer.

What impact did Colt’s Pedreña have on Spanish golf when it opened in 1929?

Pedreña was Spain’s first modern golf course and had a huge impact in the way golf was perceived. Until 1929, golf was still played on penal courses, which had become completely outdated. Although Colt was responsible for a few courses (Puerta de Hierro, Sevilla, New Barcelona), Spain was a long trip for Colt and regular visits to his courses for renovation did not take place. Elite golfers had occasionally travelled to southern France to play in some of their newer courses (Biarritz, Chiberta, Hossegor) but Pedreña was the first course of the strategic school in Spain. After Pedreña, there was a rush to upgrade the existing golf course infrastructure to the new standard and Colt was involved in remodeling Puerta de Hierro and Neguri, building a fantastic links course in Málaga and Simpson built Madrid’s second course, Club de Campo.


View of the clubhouse and the 18th at Pedreña in the 1930s

View of the clubhouse and the 18th at Pedreña in the 1930s

How did Arana come to meet Colt?

While working in nearby Pedreña, the Real Sociedad de Golf de Neguri asked Colt to assist the club in reviewing a couple of new properties. Neguri had an 11-hole layout on leased land and it wanted to expand to a full 18-hole golf course. At the time, Arana was “honorary greenkeeper” at Neguri and responsible for all things related to golf course upkeep. Arana and Colt toured nearby sites together and finally elected a piece of land with pine trees on a cliff overlooking the Bay of Biscay. Due to the stock market crash of 1929, the decision to buy the property was postponed and Arana was responsible for executing Colt’s suggestions to improve the old 11-hole layout. In 1961 Neguri opened its 18 hole Arana layout in the same plot that he had chosen with Colt in 1929.

Aerial view of Neguri, chosen ground by Colt and Arana for a course that was eventually built in 1960.

Aerial view of Neguri, chosen ground by Colt and Arana for a course that was eventually built in 1960.

 Arana was an ace payer both at home and internationally as well.  You write, ‘ By 1932, Javier Arana had established himself as the leading Spanish golfer.’ In what ways do his playing proficiency influence his course designs?

His courses were very demanding when they opened, especially in terms of length. His Club de Campo (1956) was 7.000 yards and so were Neguri, RACE and El Saler, all designed in the 1960s. This has allowed them to resist technological advance without any need for lengthening.

Despite the very sparse bunkering, his golf courses have shown a very good resistance to scoring due to intelligent use of certain features: recurrence of dog-legs, long par 3s, fallaway and/or tiered greens and as Tom Doak highlighted after visiting Neguri, lack of visual references to aid better players in getting around. Although many of these features are quite frustrating for the better players, higher handicappers have no trouble adjusting to such complications, as they don’t have such an influence in their score, thus making his courses very enjoyable for most players.

Tell us about Arana’s visit to Simpson’s Chiberta in France.

Arana and the other proficient Spanish golfers of his time were regular visitors to Biarritz. Every year they would play Interclub matches or an international match that faced Spain against France. Once they played Chiberta, Arana did not want to play anywhere else. For the rest of his career, he always remembered Chiberta as his favorite course, both in terms of scenery: dunes, pines and rolling ground as well as the golf features of the place: undulating fairways, deceiving and well placed bunkering and the constant influence of wind on the game.

Photo of the short 4th at Chiberta, Courtesy of Jean-Bernard Kazmierczak’s collection

Photo of the short 4th at Chiberta, Courtesy of Jean-Bernard Kazmierczak’s collection

What impact did the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) have on golf in Spain in general and on Arana in particular?

War had extremely tough consequences on Spanish golf (and on everything else). Courses were abandoned or part of the battlefront (Club de Campo and Puerta de Hierro were frontline to the siege of Madrid). When the war was over, lack of money meant tight maintenance budgets which resulted in a return to primitive golf: greens were mostly sand-based, bunkers were grassed over to save money and the most subtle features were lost. The golfing standards of the 1930s, which had allowed Spanish golf courses to catch-up with those of countries like France or Germany, were completely lost and would not be recovered until the 1960s.  Most Spanish golfers of the after-war period had never experienced proper golf until Arana opened El Prat or Club de Campo (mid 1950s)

As for Arana, his family  took sides with the rebels, as his family was wealthy, of conservative background and very close to the Royal family (which had been thrown out of Spain in 1931). He was lucky to work for the Chief of Staff of the Northern Army, Lt. Colonel González de Mendoza who was one of Spain’s foremost topography experts at the time. After three years working with González de Mendoza, Arana – who was formally trained as a lawyer – had gained an invaluable experience in map reading, which would prove extremely helpful throughout his architectural career.

Tell us about his first job which was to rebuild the Club de Campo in Madrid.

Club de Campo was a fantastic layout in the outskirts of Madrid which had originally been designed by Simpson and Mackenzie Ross in 1932. The course was laid in the same property as the current Club de Campo but was heavily damaged during the war with many kilometres of trenches being dug out through the golf course.

Arana was initially called in 1940 to help rebuild the course in his role of official for golf courses of the Spanish Golf Federation. Arana provided instructions to rebuild 9 holes but construction work was very slow due to lack of funds and the required extra work to fill-up trenches and clean up war debris. The golf course opened in 1952 and Arana was credited with the reconstruction work and congratulated by the – small – Spanish golfing world. The truth was that Arana had only been involved in drawing up the original plans in 1940 and never actually supervised any reconstruction work as the club never paid his fees. Once he saw the golf course, Arana asked the club to make clear that he had not been involved in such reconstruction, insisting he had never seen such a poor construction work and recommending they start the work over again.

At the time Arana was starting his architectural career (he had already opened his first golf course in Cerdaña) and he was worried that people who knew about golf would link the Club de Campo reconstruction to his body of work.

A few years later (1956), Arana managed to convince the club to scrap the 9 holes and build a completely new 18-hole layout.

Very few people realize that Simpson and Arana formed a design partnership that ran from the end of WWII through 1948. You say that Simpson virtually ‘tormented’ Arana with his elaborate design theories. What did Arana take away from their time together?

There is no information to know what were Arana’s ideas before meeting Simpson, but we know that both had great respect for each other. Arana always consulted with Simpson on his early design work and Simpson, upon arriving in Spain and walking Puerta de Hierro with his new apprentice, asked the club to record that he had never met an amateur with such an understanding of golf design. Most of Arana’s architectural career developed after Simpson left for England and his style evolved independently although certain Simpson trademarks would remain present across his body of work.

Throughout his career, Arana remained loyal to Simpson’s ideas regarding strategic play, which can mostly be appreciated in the routing element of his courses. Arana was very fond of dog-leg holes and as in Simpson’s courses, the pin can rarely be seen from the tee. All of his courses place a premium on driving as a result of doglegged fairways. A precise location on the fairway (usually close to a single fairway bunker) will provide the best entrance to a green which was usually angled from the fairway. Arana also followed Simpson’s basic ideas of routing triangles with constant changes in the direction of holes. In fact, Arana’s courses rarely have two consecutive holes playing in the same direction.

The departure of Simpson’s style is most obvious in the contouring of greens: Simpson’s elaborate style has never been a feature in Arana’s work as the Spaniard preferred sloping or tiered greens. Bunker styles are also different, with Arana preferring simpler forms against Simpson’s ragged edges and intricate shapes.

Angled greens with respect to the fairway are one of Arana’s trademarks, as in the 10th at Ulzama.

How did the hotter and drier climate of Spain impact Arana’s designs versus Simpson’s preaching’s which were largely formulated around soil and climate conditions in the UK?

There is no sign in the correspondence between Arana and Simpson that the climate had any impact in the design philosophy of either architect. The main reason for this might be that at the time (1940s-1950s) irrigation techniques were still very basic and courses would still be firm enough to allow for the ground game to dominate the strategy of play. In this sense, Arana’s philosophy was very much in line with Simpson’s and most of his designs take into account the ground features to make play more interesting. Like elsewhere, the advent of new irrigation systems coupled with overwatering to avoid brown-yellow tones on golf courses are mainly responsible for some loss of strategic value in Arana’s courses.

Arana was the Officer for Golf Courses at the Royal Spanish Golf Federation. Did that essentially help him to get the choice design assignments in Spain throughout the 1950s and 60s?

Not really. At the time Spain was still politically isolated from the rest of Europe and there was no money for new projects. Most assignments came from the established golf clubs which were building new facilities (Prat, Neguri, Club de Campo) and the obvious choice for these was to contact Arana, especially after the Simpson partnership. Golf was still a minority affair at the time in Spain and there was no other people whom to contact at the time. We can say that until the 1960s, when tourism started booming in Spain and Trent Jones Sr. designed Sotogrande in 1965, Arana had virtually no competition.

What are Arana’s three greatest designs? Are they your three favorites as well?

Rankings have usually recognized El Saler, Club de Campo and El Prat (which no longer exists due to the Barcelona airport expansion) as his best designs. I am not very original: my favorites are El Saler, Neguri and Club de Campo. I didn’t play El Prat enough to remember.

A drive placed on the wrong side of the fairway leaves this shot to the 6th at El Saler

A drive placed on the wrong side of the fairway leaves this shot to the 6th at El Saler.

What was his greatest single opportunity that he was ever given? Is it El Saler? You note that the raw site at El Saler was so good that Arana once remarked, ‘By comparison, Chiberta is wretched.’

Arana had the privilege to work on fantastic sites for most of his golf courses. Although El Prat and Neguri are two spectacular sites, they lack the subtle elevation changes that make El Saler a special place. I believe that when Arana used Chiberta as a reference because it was the only dunesland course that was available in the vicinity of Spain. It was the reference of his generation for outstanding design. I would say that both pieces of land are quite similar with a mix of open dunesland and pine trees. El Saler had the added benefit that Arana was working for a state owned hotel chain and he had absolutely no interference of any kind in relation to the architectural side of his work. It was “experts’ suggestions” (an ironical phrase he liked to repeat) which ultimately led to big arguments with clients in Neguri or RACE.

Please describe a particular favorite par three hole of his and what makes it special.

Neguri #6. The hole plays 194 meters uphill and the green is guarded by two very deep bunkers on the right side. The green surface sits atop a distant ridge and cannot be seen from the tee. The green slopes away from the direction of play and towards the bunkers. A bunker short of the green shows the proper line while preventing topped shots from reaching the putting surface. The green has minimal internal contour and its basic defence is tilt from front to back and left to right. If you are on the wrong side of the green (short or to the left) getting up and down is extremely difficult. On top of this, the green offers fantastic views to the Bay of Biscay.

Picture of the 6th at Neguri. The bushes behind the green are not original and should be removed to restore the visual depth of the hole.

Please describe a particular favorite par four hole of his and what makes it special.

I have a few favorites, such as #2, 6, 8 at El Saler, #7 at Aloha, #8 at Río Real, #15 at RACE, #7 at Neguri or #10 at Guadalmina. However I will stick with one of the long par 4s at Club de Campo.

Club de Campo #13. A long par 4 (427 meters) playing from an elevated tee to a fairway that is angled to the right. The hole is the typical Cape hole where the tee shot can be played conservatively, aiming for a bunker that flanks the left side of the fairway, ensuring a good angle to the green but sacrificing distance. The aggressive player must choose how much of the pine forest that borders the right side of the fairway he can fly with his drive in order to play a shorter second shot. The green is at an angle, favoring shots played from the left side of the fairway, and is protected by a large and deep bunker on the right side and a shallower one at the back left of the green. The green slopes front to back and is bisected by a longitudinal spine  in the first half.  A very demanding hole that requires careful play to score par.

At Club de Campo's 13th, the left side of the fairway offers a direct entrance to the front to back sloping green.

At Club de Campo’s 13th, the left side of the fairway offers a direct entrance to the front to back sloping green.

Please describe a particular favorite par five hole of his and what makes it special.

Again, difficult to say as I think Arana’s par 5 holes were a very strong feature of his designs. Some very good holes such as #10 or 13 at Neguri, #7 at Club de Campo, #10 at Aloha, #10 at Ulzama or #16 at Guadalmina. My favorite must be #5 at El Saler. A beautiful hole that transitions the player from the pine forest to the seaside over a big sand dune. The tee shot plays to a distant ridge and leaves an uphill blind shot to the fairway beyond the dune. Since the second shot is played from an elevated position, the dominant wind from the sea exerts an even greater effect on the shot. Crowning the hill offers an exhilarating view of the Mediterranean Sea and the lower side of the course. The green sits in a hollow and is protected by three bunkers, plus a fourth bunker 25m short of the green placed to create visual deception. The green is very large, with almost 40m in length and its surface is tilted front to back and divided into two longitudinal tiers which complicate approach shots and the short game.

View from top of ridge at the 5th, after executing second shot.

Tee shot at the 5th at El Saler

View from top of ridge at the 5th, after executing second shot.

View from top of ridge at the 5th, after executing second shot.

What distinguishes Arana’s work from all other architects in Spain?

Consistency. Arana’s work is all of a very high standard in terms of design, whereas other architects’ work is more irregular. His routings are excellent regardless of the terrain and his favorite design themes can be identified throughout his courses although he doesn’t have two holes that are alike. All of Arana’s courses are highly enjoyable by the average player, but through intelligent placement of design elements, they are challenging for better players without need for many of the more artificial hazards to add interest to his designs.

Which clubs have done the best of preserving his work?

Neguri (1961), El Saler (1968) and Aloha (1975) remain largely untouched and all of Arana’s original features are still there. Other courses such as Cerdaña (1948), Ulzama (1966) have had minor alterations but fundamentally still remain true to Arana’s design ideas. Club de Campo, Guadalmina and Río Real have experienced greater changes. I think the greatest challenge is not related to the architectural integrity of his legacy, but aiming to get the clubs to make his courses play as they were designed, with firmer fairways and the ensuing influence of the ground game. Most of Spain sill hasn’t heard about the  “firm & fast” trend.

Neguri has done a great job in preserving Arana’s work. Pictured, the par 4 7th with the 2nd in the background.

Neguri has done a great job in preserving Arana’s work. Pictured, the par 4 7th with the 2nd in the background.

Which of his works would benefit the most from a true restoration?

In my view it would be Río Real. It is a great routing in a very compact property but due to various changes in ownership the course has gradually lost the subtleties that made it so special. Greens have lost their original size and internal contours and bunkers have also lost their shapes and sand faces. The course would benefit from removing or pruning many of the trees that have cramped some of the fairways, reducing the effective width of the holes and removing the variety the course once had. A very simple restoration of Arana’s design principles would greatly recover the original playing values of the course.

Río Real should reclaim lost green surfaces to gain interest on its greens. Pictured, the fantastic 8th.

Río Real should reclaim lost green surfaces to gain interest on its greens. Pictured, the fantastic 8th.

What can be made of the fact that Arana built just ten courses?

I think it’s a pity he did not have the chance to do more courses, as the average quality of his designs is very high. During his career, Arana not only worked at the 10 courses he eventually built. He was an active designer since 1945 (when he was 40) until 1970. During that timeframe, 20 courses were built in Spain, of which Arana was responsible for 10. With the exception of Sotogrande and Las Brisas (both by Robert Trent Jones Sr.), no other architectural work of significance exists in Spain from that era. Arana visited most of the sites which today host golf courses in Spain, only to discover that the water infrastructure was inadequate and that funds were unavailable. His prime happened at a time when Spain was still not ready for the golfing boom that would ensue in the 1970s and 1980s.

What is his lasting legacy?

Javier Arana is a key person to understand the development of golf in Spain since the beginning of the sport until the modern era, with the advent of Severiano Ballesteros. His personal trajectory runs in parallel to the popularity of golf and through his courses he was responsible for elevating the standard of design, play and maintenance. Various generations of golfers have learned to play the game in his courses and for many years, all relevant competitions at played in Spain were held in one or another of his layouts. As a reference, since 1956, his courses have held 44 European Tour events and 85 national and international amateur championships and only in 1988 and 2009 none of these events was held on one of his courses.

Of course, all of this is intangible and it is his work which remains as a testimony of what he understood were the key principles of the game: courses that should be accessible to all types of players, challenging golfers physically and mentally; an obsession with proper maintenance as a key element of enjoyment of the game and a focus on simple courses which are not a burden to maintain.

The End