Nick Bayly takes his clubs to the Costa Brava, one of Spain’s most beautiful and unspoilt coastal regions, which boasts a small, but memorable selection of golf courses that will test all parts of your game
Anyone with a passing interest in current affairs can’t fail to have noticed that Catalonia has been grabbing the news headlines of late. This north-east region of Spain has been a hotbed of political unrest for many decades, but things came to a head in October last year, when Catalonia’s leaders held a referendum on whether the region should remain part of Spain or become a fully independent state.
My trip to the region coincided with the vote, and while there were plenty of Catalan flags hanging from the balconies of city apartments in Barcelona and Girona – Catalonia’s two biggest cities – there was no evidence to suggest that tourists, and in this case, golfing tourists, should be put off from travelling to this beautiful part of the Iberian Peninsula while the various factions sort out a workable way forward.
All the political machinations certainly provided a suitable backdrop to our own trip, which matched 21 representatives from the UK, German and Scandanavian golf press in a seven-a-side stroke play event that was grandly titled ‘The European Media Cup’. With three competition rounds, and the best five scores from each team counting towards the total, this was Eurovision revisited, only with golf clubs and dodgy handicaps, rather than glittery jumpsuits and even dodgier voting systems. With Brexit jokes ringing in our ears, Team GB climbed aboard the battle bus at Barcelona airport determined to bring the trophy back to Blighty.
Barcelona clearly hogs the limelight as far as visitors to Catalonia are concerned, with the city made famous by the artistic endeavours of Gaudi; while the exploits of an artist of a different kind, Lionel Messi, ensure huge numbers of visitors flock to this bustling metropolis by the sea. Few weekend trippers manage to find time to escape the city limits, which is a great pity given the delights on offer for the more adventurous explorer. Thankfully, we did, as with no golf courses of merit to speak of within the confines of the Catalonian capital, we soon found ourselves speeding north up the coastal motorway, and heading towards the region’s second city, Girona, which is an hour’s drive away, and the ideal base for a golfing itinerary to the area.
Fresh off the 7am EasyJet flight from Gatwick, and still finding our land legs, our first golfing port of call was Pals, the oldest of the eight courses located on the Costa Brava. Opened in 1966 – an auspicious year, our team thought – Pals was designed by Fred Hawtree, and occupies a flat stretch of pine forest close to the Mediterranean – although not close or elevated enough to actually see it – and is best described as a woodland/links hybrid. The woodland holes have been carved out of dense forest, with slivers of fairway winding their way through the thick canopy of umbrella pines to greens that are heavily protected by yet more pines and deep bunkers. The more linksy holes have a more open feel to them, with undulating fairways, although St Andrews it ain’t.
Water, too, plays a part in the design, with two irrigation lakes to negotiate, most notably at the eighth, an unfeasibly tight 530-yard par five with a 200-yard stretch of water guarding the left side of the fairway right up to the edge of the green; while the very next hole, the par-3 ninth, requires a lengthy iron over water to reach a narrow green protected by deep bunkers on either side.
After the round, we returned to the charming clubhouse to tot up the scores, while supping a well-earned beer on the spacious terrace that overlooks the first tee. Deaf to calls from our Euro rivals for the slope system to be taken into calculations, my 33 points helped Team GB take a narrow lead, although with 36 holes still to play, bragging rights were far from secure.
Our first overnight stop was in Girona, at the Hotel Carlemany, a pleasant city centre venue within walking distance of the old town. Meeting for drinks downstairs, we found ourselves jostling for space at the bar with 40 golfers from the UK who were taking part in the grand finals of the European Amateur Golf Tour, which was being held at nearby PGA Cataluyna – venue for our final competition round.
Girona itself is a beautiful walled city built on a small scale, with a majestic hill-top Gothic cathedral, and a fascinating old quarter – which is navigated through a myriad of narrow cobbled streets. With rows of colourful terraced houses packed up against the edge of the river that divides it in two, Girona is packed with photo opportunities, as well as cafés and restaurants to simply sit and watch the world go by.
After not much in the way of sleep, day two started earl as we headed to Emporda, a resort venue 40km east of Girona, which boasts two courses designed by Robert von Haage – the Links and the Forest. Our round was over the Links, which is stretching the definition of the term somewhat, but no less enjoyable for it. Having been split into three-balls with our cup rivals – to avoid collusion I imagine – my German 4-handicapper seemed out of sorts from the off, and started muttering untranslatable swear words in his mother tongue as early as the second hole, while I started par, birdie, par to get the GB points train rolling out of the station.
The course features vast waste bunkers and small, but heavily undulating greens. However, unlike most links, there is water to contend with on several holes, and the turf lacks the springiness that you’d associate with a links. All told, it’s well maintained, and there is an interesting mix of short par fours and lengthy fives, and with the stunning backdrop of the Pyrenees, it adds up to a great holiday round. The resort also boasts a Double Tree Hilton Hotel on site, while there is an excellent restaurant and bar in the adjoining clubhouse.
After totting up the scores, Team GB moved into a narrow nine-point lead over Germany, with the Scandis losing touch in third. A steady 31 points got me on the score sheet again, but five blobs cost me dearly, and I vowed to knuckle down for the final round at PGA Catalunya, the launch pad – and burial ground – for many a tour pro’s career.
After golf, we drove 30km south to the Silken Park San Jorge, a four-star hotel that occupies a stunning cliff-top location overlooking the Mediterranean in the village of Calonge. Boasting dazzling white interiors, and spacious rooms with private terraces, it’s an idyllic spot, with easy access to the beach below. After an enjoyable dinner in the hotel’s restaurant, where we tucked into the Catalan staples of ham croquettes, salt cod fritters and seafood paella, washed down with local wines from Emporda, we retired to our quarters to mentally prepare for the final push to victory.
Day three found us heading to the jewel in Costa Brava’s golfing crown – PGA Catalyuna – whose Stadium and Tour courses have been tormenting Europe’s best golfers ever since they came into being 18 years ago. With fast-running greens, pristine fairways, and a marvellous mix of natural and man-made hazards, the two courses are both entertaining and challenging.
Sadly, it proved a test too far for this weary hack, with the combination of long carries, magnetic water hazards, tree-lined fairways and punishing rough, ripping my scorecard to shreds on the front nine, before leaving it in complete tatters on the back nine. Fifteen points says all you need to know about my performance, although that’s not to say it was without joyous highlights. The conditioning is on another level, while the holes are strategically interesting and endlessly challenging.
Each GB player was greeted in the clubhouse like a World War Two fighter pilot coming back from a particularly daring raid over Berlin, grateful just to be alive, but knowing that many good men – or, in this case, new golf balls – had been lost. Still, my teammates had thankfully fared a good deal better than I had, and hopes of maintaining our lead, and returning home as conquering heroes, still hung in the balance as we headed to our farewell dinner and prize giving ceremony later that evening.
It was held at Espai del Peix – translated as ‘the space of the fish’ – a contemporary cookery school located on a pier in the fishing town of Palamos, where traditional Catalan culinary skills and techniques are passed on through masterclasses that showcase the role that seafood plays in the local society and economy. After tasting an incredible variety of fresh and tasty fish dishes, cooked in front of us in an open kitchen – all matched with local wines – the moment we’d all been waiting for arrived. The trophy presentation. Announcing the scores in reverse order, our host ramped up the tension to X Factor levels, with interminable pauses and unnecessary deviations. “In third, with 120 points………, and very well played, Team Scandi.” Cue commiseratory clapping and a few ironic cheers. Team GB, still agonising over all those missed putts and late-night beers, still believed. The Germans looked unfazed, and frankly disinterested, but deep down we knew they wanted it. “And, in second place……with a score of 131 points……, it is Team… G……..B!” Oh no. It had all gone wrong. This wasn’t the script. Shurely shum mishtake ref?
Sadly not. Our German counterparts had done what they always do when it comes to matters sporting. They had beaten us through sheer willpower and grindingly consistent play. And it didn’t even go down to penalties.
Being a vaguely sporting lot, we applauded their seven-point victory, while muttering ‘Brexit means Brexit’ under our breaths, and talking of a return match in 2019, once all the trade treaties had been annulled. Bitter losers? Maybe.
The following day, our final round, although not part of the competition, was arguably the most eagerly anticipated of the four, as the views from the hilltop course at Golf D’Aro are legendary. Designed by Ramon Espinosa and opened in 1992, the course sits in the Gavarres Mountains, 300 metres above the tourist resort of Platja d’Aro, overlooking the Costa Brava coastline. Encircled by a mix of pine, cork oak and olive trees, the course is routed along ridges and deep ravines in a clockwise circle around the hilltop, resulting in anything straying left being lost forever. Fortunately, a local rule allows such hazards to be considered as lateral water, improving the playability of the course for those who find hitting the short stuff a challenge.
The layout can be stretched out to 6,800 yards off the back tees, but we were grateful to be off the yellows at a slightly more friendly 6,500. Distance, however, is not the main obstacle to scoring well on this spectacular layout, which requires you to plot your way round to have any hope of losing just the one sleeve of balls. Amazingly, I managed to lose just one, and between blobs played some of my best golf of the week. Back playing amongst my fellow UK hacks, myself and my 20-handicapper partner managed to take our foursomes match down to the 18th hole, before losing 2&1 to our slightly better, if significantly more hungover, rivals.
Back in the charmingly rustic clubhouse, we downed more Estrellas – the locally-brewed lager – while tucking into home-cooked jamon and patatas bravas, while pondering where it all went wrong 24 hours earlier. And with that, our whistlestop tour of the Costa Brava was over. OK, so I lost 12 balls and a pair of sunglasses, but I gained some new friends, rediscovered my love for crème catalan, and have vowed to return to wreak my revenge on the Stadium Course – and the Germans – in this life or the next.
BOOK YOUR COSTA BRAVA Golf PASS
The Costa Brava Golf Pass costs €210 for three rounds from the choice of nine courses, and €355 for five rounds. For more information, visit golf.costabrava.org and golfincostabrava.org.
For details on the Silken Park Hotel, visit parkhotelsanjorge.com, and for the Hotel Carlemany in Girona, visit hotelcarlemanygirona.com.