Saturday 24 February 2018

Catalonia: My driving ambition


Staring down the fairway of the the Stadium Course at the PGA Catalunya Resort - a place golfers dream about
Staring down the fairway of the the Stadium Course at the PGA Catalunya Resort - a place golfers dream about
Getting a reservation for El Celler de Can Roca is the cullinary equivalent of a hole in one

Adhamhnan O Suilleabhain

Afternoon sunshine bathed the Pyrenees, their snow-capped peaks a reminder of the rapidly disappearing winter season, as a small group of cyclists wheeled out of the Hotel Camiral, heartbeat of the PGA Catalunya Resort and home to the Stadium Course which is ranked No 1 in Spain.

Unlike the nearby city of Girona which is now home to more than 1,000 of the world's leading and aspiring professional cyclists (Lance was a one-time resident), and who daily frequent the daunting climbs in the mountains that separate Spain from France, our peloton was more subdued in dress and certainly more unfashionable on mountain bikes.

Our ambition was about survival rather than achievement as we followed an extremely fit young lady along country roads, across an occasional field, under culverts and over narrow bridges. We occasionally dismounted to view ancient ruins as well as a nature reserve, or simply to recover from what was, for us, a breathtaking climb.

As our route brought the hotel into sight again, a few from the group sensibly sought the sanctuary of the bar, but the more intrepid journeyed on through rustic, unsophisticated farming land dotted with fields of brilliant rapeseed and houses that had witnessed well over a century of Catalonian history. Two and a half hours had passed before we rejoined the domestiques for sustenance.

Although the purpose of the visit to Spain was golf-oriented, there are many other attractions relatively close to the PGA Catalunya Resort, not least the city of our arrival, Barcelona, right up through Girona to the Spanish-French border, and stretching east to the Costa Brava and the Mediterranean; also the town of Figueres, birthplace of Salvador Dali.

Unlike some other holiday destinations in Spain, Catalonia is famous for its cuisine, and within the province of Girona, the wealthiest in the country, there are close to 20 Michelin-starred restaurants. The most notable is El Celler de Can Roca, which is a 25 minute drive from the golf complex, a three-star establishment chosen as the best restaurant in the world for 2013 and 2015 by the San Pellegrino listing. Getting a booking, therefore, could be more difficult than paying the bill.

What is now the Catalunya Golf Resort was originally considered as a site for Formula One motor racing by the Royal Automobile Club of Catalunya (RACC) in the early Nineties. At the same time, PGA European Tour board member and former professional golfer Angel Gallardo was asked to look at the possibility of developing a purpose-built golf course to host the Ryder Cup in Spain in 1997. When the RACC abandoned its plans for the then 239-hectare site, Gallardo saw the potential for a world-class course. "With wonderful elevation and mature forest, I knew we would be able to create not one great course, but two," he said.

With the help of former Ryder Cup stalwart Neil Coles, Gallardo drew up plans for what was originally the Green Course, its fairway banking providing perfect viewing for 30,000 spectators. Unfortunately for Gallardo, local politics intervened and planning decisions were delayed to the extent that it was Valderrama that witnessed Seve Ballesteros leading Europe to glory in 1997. PGA Catalunya opened its doors in 1999 and hosted two European Tour events within 10 months. It was an instant success, and within seven years the Tour Course was added, again created by the Coles/Gallardo partnership, but more forgiving for high handicap golfers.

In 2008, entrepreneur Denis O'Brien, proprietor of the Quinta do Lago golf complex in Portugal, bought the PGA Catalunya Resort, immediately implementing change through sizeable investment and ambitious plans for more development.

Gallardo has spoken of the resort as "one of the finest golf venues in the world... and when I die I would like to think I will be remembered for the role I played in creating it... it is in my blood and legacy".

What he really means is that it's a challenging course. After playing the Tour Course on the first day of a visit in the company of a 2 and 13 handicapper, we were broadly unanimous in the view that the pace of the greens, abetted by some of the undulations, presented challenges that matched those of Augusta during Masters week.

But high quality dining in the totally revamped five-star hotel and a good night's sleep revived us - and although the Stadium Course presented a spectacular challenge the following morning, far more demanding in shot-making and golfing strategy, we slowly began to make peace with the greens. All we needed was time and familiarisation to turn four putts into three!

An elevated first tee provides a view with minimal room for error on either side of the fairway. This leads you to a dog-leg which requires a lengthy second shot, and the disquieting threat of water to the left of the green. From that point on, the golfer will be increasingly delighted by the quality of the design, the variety of challenges presented, particularly on the back nine, and if his or her game cannot respond fully to the demands, the beauty that abounds will go some way to easing any pain that lingers.

PGA Catalunya also has outstanding practice facilities, including a 2,000 sq m putting green and bunkers with five different types of sand, a driving range with room for 130 players, David Pelz's Spanish Golf School and the Sergio Garcia Junior Academy.

The resort, now enlarged to 300 hectares, has an abundance of stunning real estate, from contemporary design villas to luxury apartments and townhouses overlooking the fairways. A visit to a four-bedroom villa - built with the architect's vision of natural light and large windows bringing the outdoors inside - revealed the ultimate in luxurious living, but at a serious cost: €3m. Smaller villas can be snapped up at €1.4m.

For the visiting golfer, though, costs are not excessive. Early Bird and Twilight rounds are available from €72; an overnight stay and golf begins at €178 and seven-day packages start at €750. And if you are partial to an energising gin and tonic after a day on the fairways, ask for Federico in the hotel bar. He will provide you with a wide choice of refreshing and well garnished fusions, guaranteed to match the highlight(s) of your golfing endeavours.

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