Destination Feature: Murcia
Destination feature from Nick Bonfield who recently took a golf trip to Murcia playing the La Manga South, El Valle and Condado de Alhama in the region, read Nick's blog online via The Golf Debate and follow Nick on Twitter via @thegolfdebate
Almost 90 years ago, The Masters Tournament was contested for the first time. When Horton Smith won the inaugural championship in 1936 and pocketed $1,000 dollars for his troubles, professional golf was in its nascent stages.
The tournament, and indeed the sport as a whole, grew and grew, and when Bubba Watson donned the green jacket earlier this month, over 10million viewers were glued to their television screens.
Whilst the vast majority of us can only dream of the golfing aptitude that saw Watson pull off one of the most remarkable shots in major championship history, we can aspire. And whilst we will never be able to play Augusta National, we can seek alternatives.
Golf in Murcia
To that end, I visited an area full of viable alternatives in southern Spain, but not, perhaps, the one that might spring most prominently to mind.
The Costa Del Sol has traditionally been the most popular golf destination in Spain, with areas such as the Algarve in Portugal competing for the lion share of British golfing tourists.
But over the last ten years, Murcia has come to the fore as a rival, and looking back on my trip, it is easy to see why.
The region of Murcia possesses one of the most pleasant climates in the world, and is home to a wide diversity of golf courses, both new and old, that are a real joy to play.
La Manga Club, opened in 1972, is one of the most iconic resorts in mainland Europe, winning the title of Europe’s leading golf resort three times in its illustrious past. The South, North and West – the former hosting The European Tour’s Spanish Open in the early 70s – are exceptional courses, and fantastic tests of golfing prowess.
They have been joined in recent times by a number of new, quality developments, all within touching distance of an airport, and all characterised by perfect greens, beautifully manicured golf holes and relatively cheap green fees.
The ‘Nicklaus Golf Trail’ – a collection of six Jack Nicklaus Design Courses – came into operation five years ago, and each course can stake a legitimate claim to being labelled the best in Murcia.
“There are very good golf courses within Murcia - without a shadow of doubt some of the best in Spain,” said Luke Murphy, Commercial Director of Global Golf, who operate the six Nicklaus design courses.
“The region in general is serious value for money. If we continue to reinvest as we have been doing, people will come back. We have seen evidence of that.”
Indeed, the number of visitors to Murcia’s golf resorts has increased significantly over the past ten years.
“The quality of the golf and resorts is outstanding. Murcia is the best value for money in Spain,” said Edouard Des Fontaines, Head of Product, Europe and Worldwide, at www.golfbreaks.com.
“Five or six years ago the region took a massive boom and we’ve done a lot of business since then.”
Hardly surprising. The Nicklaus Golf Trail – comprised of El Valle, Condado de Alhama, Hacienda Riquelme, El Torre, Mar Menor and Las Terrazas de la Torre – has been attracting additional tourists since 2007.
The golf courses are superb, and I walked off the 18th green at Condado wondering if I’d ever played a more enjoyable yet challenging golf course.
Aside from the glorious sunshine – Murcia has over 300 days of sunshine a year at an average temperature of 22 Degrees Celsius – the course was beautifully designed.
Condado de Alhama is carved out of the desert, with a variety of testing long par threes, treacherous par fives and par fours that demand strong course management.
Strategically placed fairway bunkers make club selection vital, and water comes into the equation on many holes, demanding accuracy from the tee and precision with numerous approach shots hit over water. When you reach the putting surface, you will find some of the best greens you have ever had the pleasure of putting on.
El Valle – which hosted a European Senior’s Tour event last year - shares many positive features with Condado, and has a selection of some of the most brilliant and varied par fours you will find on any golf course.
The setting, in amongst the arid Murcian hills, provides a picturesque backdrop to many of the holes, and the flawless greens are perhaps more akin to Augusta National than a pay-and-play course in the south of Spain.
The other courses that comprise the Nicklaus Golf Trail are of equal prestige, with many people I spoke to labelling Hacienda Riquelme as the best in Murcia.
“The whole game feels different out here,” said James Bryan, Associate Sales Director, La Manga Club.
“You can play on Christmas Day in 22 degrees – it’s the way golf should be.”
The courses at La Manga are quite spectacular, none more so that the pictorial West Course, which winds through the tranquil hillside and woody pine forests. Some of the holes are as narrow as you will find, and some of the doglegs as severe as anywhere in the world.
“If your dog had a leg like that you’d have it put down,” said Mr Bryan.
The North course is slightly more open, but barrancas and other water hazards will punish any shot hit off line, and the South is a brilliant golf course demanding accuracy from the tee and a very strong long game. The variation of holes on the south is second to none, with short par fours consumed by waste bunkers, 90 degree doglegs and greens protected on all sides by water. The South Course hosted a European Tour event in the early 70s and, in truth, it is easily good enough to host one tomorrow.
Aside from Murcia building more new courses over the past few years than any other region in Europe, it offers much more than just golf.
There are world class diving facilities on offer, with multiple water parks, windsurfing and river rafting opportunities. You can stroll in the hills of the pine scented Sierra Espuna national park, visit stunning, secluded beaches such as Calblanque, or visit Murcia and Cartagena for a dose of Roman, Phonecian and Moorish History.
Fine restaurants and vibrant nightlife hotspots litter the region, and with numerous five star golf and spa resorts, there is something for everyone in Murcia.
Mr Murphy is predicting a future full of growth for Murcia.
“Going forward, we have to raise the bar in comparison with other local courses and maintain our service level.
“If we do that, there will be a steady increase of between five and 15 percent of people visiting the area.”
It is hard to argue with such a statement. Golf sales are up 32% on April 2011, and the region itself possesses everything it needs to continue its impressive rise up the Spanish tourism ladder.