Monday, 7 December 2009

Palma Golf Escape

Easy Jet may have a bit of a reputation for landing in obscure airports a day’s forced march from the host city, but thankfully this is anything but the case when it comes to Palma, the capital city of Mallorca. Within half an hour of landing we are clean through customs and deep in the heart of Palma Old Town, supping an icy cold beer at the friendly Hotel Saratoga. So far, so very good.

We’re here to check out Palma’s latest offering – Urban Golf. No, we aren't going to be knocking it about in the town centre ‘Clerkenwell Open stylie’. Rather, we’ll be staying in the heart of the Old Town, and then travelling out to sample two of the 20 golf courses that are within an hour’s drive of the centre which make Palma an ideal base for a quick golf-escape from the UK.

Over 22,000, 000 people flew into Palma Airport last year, so there can be no doubting the enduring popularity of the island. I arrive with some pretty heavy and contradictory baggage about Mallorca, and zero knowledge and expectation about Palma. How can one Balearic island be famed for the beautiful people – the Beckers, Nadals, Schumachers, Schiffers and Zeta Jones of this world – and in the same breath the Brits on the piss in Magalluf, a.k.a Shagalluf? And will Palma be a built up 70’s concrete jungle, complete with straw donkeys, HP Sauce and pints of John Smiths? This baggage also includes my golf clubs, which cost me £18.50 pre-paid each way. If you are playing more than a single round, it’s definitely worth bringing your own sticks as rentals are E30 a go.

Palma Old Town catches me by surprise. The view of the Old Town is dominated by La Seo – Palma’s magnificent 16th century Gothic cathedral. Started in 1230 by Jaime 1, it then took some four hundred years to be completed. But they did a great job in the end, and it really sets the tone of the place.

The Cathedral is flanked by a Moorish castle – the Almudaina Palace - whose battlements now protect the Old Town from the hordes of yachties who park their floating gin palaces in the busy port. From there you can dip down and wander through the maze of backstreets that make up the heart of the Old Town. There are hundreds of little independent shops and boutiques, which remind you of how dismal our British High Streets are. The sweet shops alone are worth a visit in themselves – proper confectionary that isn’t just a collection of ‘e’ numbers.

The first course we are to play is San Gual, a 20 minute drive from the centre, and on the other side of the airport. Despite only being open for eighteen months, it hosted the Mallorca Senior Open this year (won by Mark James since you ask), and you’d be very hard pushed to realise that it isn’t a much more mature course.

The thousand or so Olive trees that they’ve planted look like they’ve been in place for centuries; they’ve obviously settled in so well to their new home that they’re already producing wonderful black olives. When the vines that they’ve also planted start to produce, there’ll be wine to go with them.

San Gual has already made it into the Golf World’s Top 100 European Golf courses, and the club’s ambitions don’t end there as they are looking for a Top 10 finish in the next few years. I’ll be surprised if they don’t get there, as they are taking their golf course very seriously indeed. When we were playing, a small army of green keeping staff were on the march looking for the odd un-manicured blade of grass, and making sure that the greens were as firm and fast as anything I’ve ever played on. Woosie has compared the greens favourably to Augusta’s, which should tell you the kind of territory we are in. It’s definitely worth getting here early for some practice on the putting green to get a feel for the pace and the types of breaks and borrows you’ll be faced with. There are plenty of three putts out there.

The course is 5983 metres off the yellows, so adding ten percent for yards it comes in at a fraction under 7,000 yards. The greens are uniformly generous, and some are approached by vast green-like aprons which you can chip off, but feel you shouldn’t, such is their perfect condition.

The outward nine takes you on a tour of the extremities of the estate, whilst the inward nine takes you on a journey into the heart of the course. There’s plenty of the wet stuff as well, with water coming into play on twelve of the holes, including the card-wrecking par 5 sixth where you’ll have to carry at least 140 metres to make it onto dry land.

On the subject of the wet stuff, all the water they use is recycled using state of the art equipment, so there are none of the environmental problems associated with many Spanish courses, which suck the life out of the surrounding land, and piss off all the locals.

San Gual is going to be a course to watch over the coming years. At E150 a round this is a golf-treat, but as you can get on as a non-member make sure it’s on your ‘Courses to play before I peg it’ list. For your E150 you get a bottle of water, a ‘3D’ course guide, access to the practice facilities and use of the sauna in the locker room, so make a proper day of it.

Back to Palma for a quick spruce up and then it’s time to see what goes on when the lights go down. Dinner is at Es Baluardo which serves very upscale modern tapas. We’re just finishing our starters when we get the news that Tiger has been injured in a car crash, and everybody starts putting two and two together and generally making eight or nine. I think we might even have had an eleven in the group. Then it’s off for some Latino style Jazz and drinking back on the top floor of our hotel, The Saratoga – going easy of course to keep the brain intact for day two on the golf course.

Our second course is Son Muntaner, part of the Arabella Golf & Spa Resort, and a twenty minute drive due north of Palma. There are three courses to play at the resort – Son Vida, Son Quint and Son Muntaner.

Yes, we’d been spoiled rotten at Son Gual, and in many ways we don’t expect Son Muntaner to compete with it. But we are to discover that it’s far from being just a relaxing-holiday-golf kind of course. The Mallorca Golf Island Skins Game was played here recently with Justin Rose, Martin Kaymer, Jose Olazabal and Robert Karlsson competing for a purse of E204, 000 which works out to about E35 a yard.

Opened in 2000, and designed by Kurt Rossknecht who has worked with Bernard Langer, the course plays 5968 metres off the yellows (again just short of 7,000 yards) and starts with a serious dog leg right around the practice area, which can be a bit disconcerting when you see the odd range ball flying your way. Before Son Gual came along this was considered the best kept course in Mallorca, and whilst the greens have been given a good weekend beating by the time we play, they’re pretty good for all that and slippery as eels.

The course settles itself into the valley floor before taking to the hills; an important part of the course’s attraction is the variety of elevations which it offers, as well as the beautiful pine forest clad hills that it takes you into on the back nine.

We play for a bit less than E35 a yard, and we all really enjoy the course and its setting before we head back into town for a final night of carousing. This kicks off with dinner at the excellent Caballito de Mar, which serves the local delicacy Pescado a la sal (fish cooked in rock salt). Other stuff then happens, but it’s all a bit of a blur now.

I flew with Easyjet, and stayed at the Hotel Saratoga, and the Hotel Tryp Bosque.

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