In Sybil, a novel penned by Benjamin Disraeli 25 years before he became Britain’s prime minister, the fancifully named Mr Mountchesney says: “I rather like bad wine. One gets so bored with good wine.” As a young man, Disraeli cultivated a conversational style later developed into an art form by Oscar Wilde, and this is the sort of provocative remark he enjoyed making. But his fictional character may also have been making the best of things because mid-19th-century winemaking techniques were less advanced than today.
Personally, I don’t like bad wine any more than I like bad golf, though as a struggling mid-handicapper I often have to tolerate the latter in myself. I certainly cannot imagine ever getting bored with good golf. But what about bad golf courses? Is it possible to like them? My fellow columnist Jancis Robinson admits that when invited out, her hosts invariably produce the best their cellar has to offer. In turn I must confess that nearly all my golf is played on top-class courses in beautiful and historic settings.
To remedy the gap in my experience, I slipped away to Spain for three days to experience the bad and the ugly as well as the good. I was aided in this project by William fforde, editor of The Pocket Guide to Golf Courses: Spain & Portugal. The weather helped too because when I woke up on the first morning at his home on a hillside next to Marbella Golf, a Robert Trent Jones course, the rain was bucketing down and blotted out the spectacular view of Gibraltar and Morocco.
These were ideal conditions for inspecting two of the worst courses in the area. Their shortcomings started with the terrain. You can’t build a proper course in valleys that nature designed for ski slopes. It gets worse when, around every hole, the developer shoehorns flats and houses that force players to hit tee shots over gardens. The result is a catastrophe to which even the most hopeless high handicapper should not be exposed.
Other horrors were soon spotted – such as the blind water hazard crossing the fairway on an uphill par five. Why does a designer punish a good shot by placing a hazard where it cannot be seen by the player striking the shot? Isn’t half the point of water hazards the fear factor that the sight of them induces? And how can anyone, however inept or constrained by circumstances, site a tee so that a drive to the best position on the fairway hits an electricity pylon en route?
All these ghastly features really do exist, though in fairness to the Costa del Sol I must stress that they are not universal or even the norm. There are plenty of good courses apart from the famous gems such as Valderrama, Sotogrande and Las Brisas. The real question is why bad golf courses ever get built at all. One answer is that there may be no land left in this area that is suitable for a good course on which permission will be granted to build one. Another possibility is that unfortunate or undiscriminating visitors will turn up and play, however bad the course.
In either case, golf lovers should be concerned because newcomers are exposed to a travesty of what the game should be. Nor does this misery come cheap. One course with a few decent holes was so full of steep hills and enormous distances from green to tee that, even in a buggy, it felt exhausting and perilous. It was further scarred by high-density development intruding on several fairways. I was amazed the course director could keep a straight face when he told me he hoped to sign up 1,000 members at €20,000 a time.
In a break from these labours and in search of better weather, we headed north to Arcos Gardens near Jerez. Here an open fire in the bar of a pleasant little hotel welcomed us to a course in rolling countryside with pleasant views. A rather bland start gave way to more interesting holes and the sun came out. Before dinner I took part in a lively debate about how it should be rated. Next morning the rain resumed and we drowned our sorrows in 20-year-old oloroso at a nearby winery.
I came away wondering what can be done to raise the standard of new course development. As Tom Doak wrote 15 years ago in The Anatomy of a Golf Course: “Nothing is more needed in golf today than affordable courses on which new players might learn the game but the assumption that such courses must be devoid of design interest is wrong. The difference between a good course and a mediocre one can’t be blamed on the construction budget but rather the lack of attention to detail on the part of the architect.”
That lesson hasn’t yet been fully learnt. Eventually the worst courses may go bust. But, in the meantime, some prospective golfers may have been put off by playing with views of buildings and pylons rather than nature, hearing cars not larks and smelling diesel not flowers. They may have been deterred by courses whose layout is monotonous, whose hazards are unfair and whose challenges are merely physical rather than mental. I came home all the more appreciative of what I have. Take nothing for granted.
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