On Sunday afternoon at Valderrama Golf Club in Sotogrande, Spain, Mark McNulty won the Volvo Masters by seven shots, thus closing the books on the 1996 European tour and the golf season on both sides of the Atlantic. Finally.
With that tedium behind us, we can begin concentrating on the only thing that matters, the Ryder Cup. It's a mere 326 days until the biennial battle for the trophy donated by British seed merchant Samuel Ryder, and the Volvo Masters provided a welcome sneak preview. It will be a momentous occasion when the match begins at Valderrama next Sept. 26, marking the golden anniversary of the Ryder Cup as well as the first time the Europeans have hosted the event outside the British Isles. There is also the possibility of major changes on both teams, with the familiar stars who have dominated the 1980s and most of the '90s being swept aside at last by the next generation.
The love-in at Valderrama last week left little doubt that the course will be a worthy site. U.S. captain Tom Kite found that out a month ago when, after winning the OKI Pro-Am in Madrid, he sneaked down to Sotogrande to tee it up and tour the facilities. "Valderrama is a spectacular, demanding course, and it's going to put a lot of players to the test," Kite told local journalists.
Informed of this rave at the Volvo Masters, European captain Seve Ballesteros formally kicked off the Ryder Cup festivities with the first instance of back talk. "I'm glad he likes the course," Ballesteros said with typical swagger. "As I recall, at Oak Hill [in Rochester, N.Y., where the U.S. lost in '95] the Americans really liked the course, too."
Ballesteros notwithstanding, visitors to Valderrama next September can expect a warm welcome. The course is perched on Spain's Costa del Sol, the sunny southern coast, 15 miles northeast of Gibraltar. The area is so tourist-friendly (and home to so many British expatriates) that the menus are bilingual, as are most of the shopkeepers. And if you're wondering how-endemic Ryder Cup fever has become among the normally golf-apathetic Spaniards, consider that in the tiny harbor village of Puerto de la Duquesa, 10 miles from Valderrama, is a bar named Ryder's, in honor of the big event.
Ryder's turned out to be a popular spot with the players and the caddies during the Volvo Masters, but it was not the hangovers from San Miguel beer that accounted for the high scores. McNulty's modest winning score of eight under par, and the fact that only five of the 66 competitors finished in the red, are a testament to Valderrama. Although the course plays to just 6,819 yards, its twisty, undulating fairways cut a swath through nearly 100 bunkers, six lakes, two streams, 3,000 pine trees, 500 olive trees and a forest of cork oaks. "Believe it or not," Kite said, referring to the oaks, "this reminds me of Austin, Texas." Valderrama's greens are multitiered and roll like marble floors. Players must contend with two prevailing winds, the warm, dry poniente from the west and the humid, more temperate levante, which blows easterly. And did we mention the greedy rough? "Valderrama requires strategy and precision, and that is why it's going to be a great Ryder Cup venue," says Scottish stalwart Sam Torrance, who has played on eight Ryder Cup teams.
Las Aves—as it was known until 10 years ago—was built in the early 1970s by Robert Trent Jones, with the backing of American real estate mogul Col. Joe McMicking. The course was renamed, and redesigned by Jones, in 1986, after being purchased by Bolivian mining billionaire Jaime Ortiz-Patiñio. Jones's makeover was enhanced by the acquisition of a considerable amount of surrounding property, including an estate named Valderrama. Jones has called the layout one of his five best.
Valderrama places a premium on risk-reward shots, the kind that made the '91 Ryder Cup, played at Pete Dye's Ocean Course on Kiawah Island, S.C., so thrilling. The many shortish, dogleg par-4s force a player to decide whether to lay up or go for broke off the tee. The three par-5s on the par-71 course are reachable in two, depending on the wind. The 4th, a par-5 with a split fairway and cascading water guarding the green, is Valderrama's signature hole. "It's probably the best of my par-5s in the world," says Jones. Adds Miguel Angel Jimenez, a veteran pro from Spain, "What I like about number 4, and this course, is that you must have brains to play it, but you also must have huevos."
Valderrama's beauty matches its shot values. From the 11th green—the prime lookout—the vistas extend from the Serrania de Ronda mountains on the north to the Mediterranean Sea and all the way to the coast of north Africa.
Valderrama, however, is not perfect. There is limited room for galleries, particularly around many greens. That was O.K. during the Volvo Masters, which drew light crowds, but, says seven-time Ryder Cupper Ian Woosnam, "with 30,000 people following only four matches, it's going to be a bit cozy."