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EATGolf! - MAY/JUNE 2006

To be selected to design a golf course in such a exclusive situation as La Zagaleta is possibly the appointment of a lifetime - but not without it's difficulties. The severe and demanding terrain requires great imagination and technical expertise to handle, a task begun by G&M Ltd, with all the detailing and site supervision during construction being carried out by Steve Marnoch.

Now Steve has a new company, golfmarnoch Limited and is completing the works under that name. EATGOLF! was invited to meet with Steve at the new 'Los Barrancos' course for a tour behind the scenes of one of Spain's most elite developments.

On our arrival Steve Marnoch is delighted to be able to illustrate the bold earth restructuring that has taken place amongst these normally quiet and serene valleys. Standing at the new clubhouse overlooking the 18th Green and lake it is easy to appreciate the volume of soil and rock that must have been moved to build a course in such a dramatic location.

The back nine winds its way around the hillside and is a delight to the eye, with greens and fairways carved out of the rock facia. Granted, in time this will weather away to form a more natural look, but at such an early stage of completion it is still possible to see the skeleton underneath.

This is no bad thing however, as it is a reminder of the lengths we will go to in order to create a filed on which we can play golf. Steve's handy work is evident amongst the freshly carved rock, and we ask him what are the difficulties in designing a course in this type of terrain, and where do you begin?

"On this type of course it is essential to take a buggy. In that sense we had to make sure that each green and tee location was accessible with a buggy given the safety considerations. So you actually had to consider the design for the buggy tracks at the same time as the greens, tees and other features."

"For example, originally hole number 12 was sited at the top of the site with the best views over the entire course and landscape beyond. Unfortunately the ground was so unstable that we just couldn't get there due to limitations on the steepness of the buggy tracks."

"The observation of the existing course was that if you missed the fairways you were in big trouble. What I tried to do here was widen the fairways, within reason because it comes with a large cost. I then tried to have a transition between the fairway and the cliffs. Although you might be in deep rough, at least you haven't lost your ball. In terms of seeding and how the course has been configured, that is what I have tried to achieve by introducing a fringe of native Tall fescue grass as the deep rough." "I have tried to keep a relationship between the various greens and the lake which the clubhouse overlooks. This has a great effect on the slopes of the fairways and what we are able to achieve. It is tricky because there is such a large scale of earth movement involved, and balancing of the materials we have to move."

"I didn't want this course to be 'dropped in' to the landscape. It had to look natural rather than like a typical resort course, and bear a strong relationship to its rugged surroundings. I have tried to shape the course to echo the surroundings, and I had to work hard with the constructors to get the course to fit in. With some of the things I was asking them to do they probably thought I was drunk! I would say that my work does illustrate a links styling particularly in my greens so this site has posed a significant challenge, and although you can see elements of that styling in the putting surfaces this project proves that I can be flexible in any situation, even one as extreme as this."

"In construction some areas of the land were extremely unstable, making them impossible to work on. In some cases the rock was extremely hard, and others it was soft clay. This placed many restrictions on the original design. However in some respects the flatter sites can be more difficult to design because there are no limitations and very few features to work with."

"This is meant to be a fun course yet still full of challenge for players of all abilities, it was never intended to be a Championship Course although I would of course be delighted if it was considered in the long term to be a venue for such an event. This course is another great opportunity for the members to play enjoyable golf as well as fulfilling the desire of La Zagaleta SL to provide an additional attraction for purchasing a villa within the secure grounds."

Heading off towards the par 5, first hole we pass the driving range, a feature which was overlooked on the first course, as Steve points out. "The driving range was a very important requirement to the members, as on their existing range you can knock a 5 iron over the back. The range I have designed is 260 metres carry to the back, and contains two golf holes within it - including bunkers. From the tee players are able to practice driving onto a fairway, with two greens which recreate a par 4 and a par 3 hole."

The back of the driving range falls away like an infinity pool leaving mountain vistas in the distance, and Steve has carefully placed rocks to link the relationship between the near and distant views. Every part of the design has obviously been intricately thought through, and whilst it may not be the normal brief that Steve would ideally work on, he has clearly become passionate about it.

The second hole is a beautiful par 3. Almost hidden from view by the close and imposing valley walls and cork oaks at the rear, it is a gem that one would least expect to find here. This is probably the most natural yet most hidden hole on the course. A mid iron tee shot across water leads to a bunker-less green that could host numerous pin positions, and there is a curved wall dividing the water and green, which produced its own problems: "It is a nightmare trying to get engineers to build with sexy shapes. They don't like curves, they want to build everything with straight lines. So it was a battle with them to get this serpentine shaped wall that mimics the facia of the rock behind and the shapes in the green."

The contouring of the green is mesmerising in its detail and planning, and sets the tone for almost every hole that is to follow. On a links course these greens might look less significant, but seeing them in such different surroundings seems to accentuate the subtle beauty that their shapes create. Steve is most proud of his greens, and the detailing in various areas of the fairways which reflect the surrounding scenery. "If you asked me about what I consider to be a strength in my design work, I'd say the attention to getting the shaping right throughout but in particular the greens." "I kept saying to the green shapers that if it's not sexy, if it's not like a woman, then it's not right! Also if the shapes are angular the course cannot be maintained properly, as the blades on the mowers can't cut smoothly. You have to have a softness and blending."

So where does his inspiration come from when designing a green? "For me it's the location and the individual character of that hole - and each one is designed individually. I don't have a 'library' of greens that I refer to and think 'that will do' and drop it in. Every one is unique to its own setting, and is designed to work with that particular hole and will never be seen again or replicated."

We ask Steve if it is a contradiction to create a mountain course in a links style? "It is not a contradiction to create a mountain course in a links style. I do not believe that golf course design should have such boundaries and in this instance the styling on the greens and bunkers is, I feel, particularly well suited to Los Barrancas. I am also designing 9 holes in the foothills of the Dolomites in Sud Tyrol Italy and the Scottish styling is particularly well suited there - but more of a Gleneagles than a St. Andrews!"

"I would say there is a links character in the design of the greens. The bunkers that I have worked on are more pot bunkers than anything else. This is because I wanted them to act as 'saving' bunkers, and up here there simply isn't the room to put large expanses of sand. Because we do not have the luxury of space due to the technical constraints of carving fairways out of the hillside, should the bunkers be bigger they would interfere with the playability of the course."

"For example the 18th, where there is water to the right has a very long, receptive green with saving bunkers. Due to the size of and relative difficulty in the hole, the green is fairly flat and straight forward. By contrast at the par 3, twelfth I have tried to create a hole with similarities to that of the great 'postage stamp'. After losing the opportunity of building a stunning hole number 12 in its original position I had to come up with something pretty special in its place, and the space that I was left with was limited. At only about 110 to 115 yards in length, this is a heavily contoured green which reflects the shortness of the hole."

And the mounds that are shaped into the fairways, are they there purely for aesthetic purposes? "The mounding formed in the fairways fulfils many functions; aesthetics yes, but also emulating the mountainous backdrop, creating interest and playability and controlling the flow of surface water towards the drains. They will also help to bounce the balls back into the fairways and in some instances, if your drive is long enough and bold enough, they will give that extra kick to enable the player to gain a few extra yards so that perhaps approaching a par five in two is possible as in the instance of hole number 5."

"Rather than working and trying to shape the soil into a natural formation, in some instances I find that better results are achieved if the soil is roughly placed and allowing to fall and settle naturally without working it. I did this at the rear of the practice range and the 18th hole, and I am delighted with the natural peaked features which blend beautifully with the surroundings."

We move on through the excellent variations of holes whilst Steve explains what needs to be taken into account when designing in such a rugged mountain landscape. "It is not acceptable to have blind holes and I tried extremely hard to make sure that visibility from tee to landing area or to green is good. In the instance where visibility is not completely open I have had to use features like mounds and bunkers to create visual guides for the players". "I have tried to make it as playable as possible for the many different standards of player at La Zagaleta. It is very difficult without filling the valley to avoid holes that require a long carry, but I have tried to accommodate all levels of golfer, and especially ladies. I think it will be challenging for the better players who will on occasion be enticed into 'going for it'. There are definite elements of 'risk and reward' on many of the holes. You can drive the green on hole number 3 (carry from tee to green) but be very, very careful, OR you can play down fairway for a par, the choice is yours."

At first glance the course looks daunting to play, however after driving around the course with Steve, and his explanation of how it was designed to be played, it is a pity that more people will not get to experience what is an undeniable masterpiece of creative and engineering skill. So how would Steve Marnoch sum up the experience of a round on the second course at La Zagaleta? "I have tried to build a lot of fun and drama into the holes, and make them playable for the majority. I think there is plenty of variety, and I hope it will be a highly enjoyable experience."

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