Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Campo de Golf El Saler

My expectations prior to playing El Saler (ranked #93 in the world) were not high. I have talked to several golfers who have completed or are playing the top 100 and they universally said El Saler was over-rated. Golf Magazine re-ranks courses every two years and El Saler was a one-shot wonder. Its only appearance on the list was in 2003, which happens to be the list I am playing. I none-the-less went there with an open mind.

El Saler is located just south of Valencia, Spain along the Iberian Peninsula on the Mediterranian coast. Valencia is a city with great modern architecture. One of the premier architects of our generation, Santiago Calatrava was born here and went to architecture school here. He designed a bridge over the Turia river, the opera house and a science museum. For the architecture fan, Valencia is a must visit city.

Calatrava's Valencia Arts and Science Center

The golf course at El Saler was built in 1968 by Spanish architect Javier Arana. The course is located in the El Saler nature reserve, between a protected wooded area and sea-side sand dunes. It is one of the few courses in the world outside the British Isles that is truly a links course by the strict definition.

The course's design took into account its integration in the protected landscape with native plants such as the famous pale stonecrop plant, locally called "cat's claw". The course layout is varied, ranging from a links layout reminiscent of the famous British and Irish golf courses, to areas of typical Mediterranean forest. The par 72 course measures 6,468 meters (7,110 yards). Bernard Langer won the Spanish Open twice at El Saler, in 1984 and 1989.

I have also heard that the course was difficult to appreciate because its conditioning was not very good. I found the course to be in excellent shape when I played it this fall on my way back from France. I played the course with two locals who spoke as much English as I speak Spanish. I gathered that it was a father-daughter team since at the end of every sentence she called him "papa". It was a nice round, and he tried to help point out to me which way the holes went. Everyone showed good etiquette, and it is one of the great things about golf that you are able to play anywhere, with all level of golfers and have a pleasant time of it, even if you don't speak the language.

The course has an interesting routing that starts out in a pine forest with unique Arregle Piques trees. The first four holes play in the trees: then, beginning at the fifth hole you start to approach the Mediterranean and get the links feel of the course. Arana designed some interesting and challenging greens with many contours, like the second, seen below.

El Saler 2nd green

The third is a world-class par five with a blind tee shot and a double dog-leg left that plays to a narrow green. The green has deep bunkers on both sides and two trees protecting the front of the green. The fairway slopes left to right. This hole is ranked as one of the 500 best in the world according to George Peper's book of the same title. The difficult green is oblong and protected by deep bunkers on both the left and right. It is a very good strategic hole with a narrow fairway from tee to green that requires precision the entire way.

El Saler 3rd green

Bunkering on the third green
El Saler 3rd approach to green

3rd approach to green with trees on both sides

After playing the fourth hole, you walk through a clearing in the trees up a rise in the hill and hit a blind tee shot on the fifth. As you walk up the fifth fairway and over the crest of the hill, the feel of El Saler changes as the water and mountains now become visible. The next four holes play along the water. Both the fifth and seventh greens are set in dunes near the water.

The eighth is a very good short par four that plays along the Mediterranean. There is a sand dune about twenty feet high to the right of the green. The fairway snakes along to the right and then to the left prior to getting to the multi-tiered green that is sighted between the big sand dune on the right and the sand dunes protecting the ocean on the left.

ES 8th

8th green

It is a very nice hole that plays directly along the water while the sound of the waves crashing is audible from tee to green. The other benefit of this hole, that I probably should have mentioned first, is that you can see the beach from the tee box. It is the only hole in the world´s top 100 where you can see topless sun bathers from a tee box.

El Saler 8 green

Uphill fairway to 8th green with sand dune on the right

Holes nine through sixteen are average, but seventeen is an outstanding par three that is set within the sand dunes and reminded me of playing at Maidstone in the US and Sandwich in the UK. In a stroke of luck, I was just able to finish playing El Saler before a major thunderstorm hit. As a result, the picture below is a bit darker than I would have liked, however, you can still see the large natural sand dunes surrounding the green that is elevated and very well bunkered.

El Saler 17th

Par three 17th hole

As you can see below from a close-up of the green, once you hit it, the challenge continues with the big contours.

El Saler 17 green

17th green

So, how would I rank El Saler? It's probably not a course worthy of being ranked in the top one hundred, especially since some fabulous courses have been built in the last ten years, although I liked it and it's a very nice golf course. According to Tom Doak, El Saler's high point was when a Spanish Open was played there and the course was in great condition and was still fresh on the minds of panelists that rank courses.

As a public course that costs 100 Euros, El Saler is a good value. If you are in Spain, I recommend playing El Saler as it has three world-class holes: #3, #8 and #17. I would most certainly rather play El Saler than either Medinah or the TPC at Sawgrass, particularly in high season when the sun bathers are out on the beach.


This was my first visit to Spain and I found the Spanish people to be very gentle, pleasant and likable. I flew out of Valencia after playing El Saler and stayed in Madrid before flying home the following morning. I was exhausted after playing and traveling, so I went for a walk to get something to eat. It took me all of about five minutes to get into the Spanish way of eating. I went into several tapas bars and enjoyed the atmosphere, food and drink immensely and since I was alone on this part of the trip, I wrote this while enjoying the evening.



One of my favorite things to do is to explore cities early in the morning. I went for a pre-dawn walk in the old quarter near the Prado. I wandered into a smoky little cafe before seven AM while the locals were enjoying their morning coffee, cigarettes and pastry. The Spanish lifestyle seems very nice. There is such a difference in the way they lead their lives here. It is a more civilised and less hurried way to live. There were hundreds of little unique shops spread throughout the quarter that were the antithesis of most American cities that are becoming an alarming amalgamation of chain stores without character. As I do in almost every European capital I visit (except Brussels), I can envision myself living here quite easily.




Anonymous said...

El Saler had made every world ranking from the 1983 inception, until falling out after the 2003 list, so it was hardly a one-hit wonder.

Anonymous said...

El Saler is an excellent recommendation. Two of us from the Golf Video Tips office were lucky enough to play it last October. The greens weren't in top condition but as an overall golf experience we had a really enjoyable round.

Playing golf in this part of Spain is in my opinion as good as anywhere in the world.