Travel review: Spain’s number one golf course

HOLE 1: Catalunya Stadium golf course.

HOLE 1: Catalunya Stadium golf course.

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It’s Spain’s number one golf course, but could enthusiastic amateur Chris Stratford hold par?

An invitation came to play the PGA Catalunya Resort Stadium course – annual stage for the European Tour’s Qualifying School – as part of a trip to explore the golf and gastronomy of Girona.

For a mid-handicapper golfer such as myself, to be asked to sit the exam faced annually by players hoping to win a card to compete at European tournament golf’s elite level seems a bit like asking a primary school pupil to tackle a Pure Maths A level exam paper.

But standing on the tee at the opening hole of a course acclaimed as Spain’s No 1 (pgacatalunya.com), it was clear this was going to be an awesome treat rather than absolute torture. Particularly with the ‘cheat sheet’ that is playing off the forward tees.

Its high elevation gave a wonderful view across a course of dipping and twisting fairways flanked by trees and water: visually stunning and endlessly challenging.

It was the first of many tees to afford the player a view of both a hole’s aesthetic appeal and its abundant dangers, golfing femme fatales yielding up either great pleasure of a par or the pain of several dropped shots.

The Costa Brava boasts nine golfing destinations in all, including Emporda Golf Resort (empordagolf.com) and Golf de Pals (golfplatjadepals.com), the other sporting tests on a trip that would offer a rigorous test of my alleged determination to combat a thickening waist as I march towards old age.

PGA Catalunya Resort has a second course, the Tour, and similarly Emporda offers its visitors 36 holes in two separate layouts: the Links and Forest, their one-word appellations providing a succinct pointer as to what to expect.

The former’s path wends its way through a tract of dunes and huge, rolling bunkers, its barren, treeless landscape made all the more stark by playing it on a rare occasion when the rain chose to fall on this area just north of Barcelona, which sees more than 300 days of sunshine per year.

As if apologetic for its absence in the morning, the sun emerged as we tackled the Forest course, hewn through a dense Mediterranean pine forest. This is more pleasing on the eye to this golfer, but challenges still abound.

For those with limited time, such as ourselves – constricted even further by the need to escape the ravages of the rain for a few hours while indulging in the excellent fare on offer in Emporda’s clubhouse – a round can be played by mixing nine from each course.

And so on to Golf de Pals, Costa Brava’s oldest course and one that holds a place in the history of Yorkshire golf as it was here that Rotherham’s Danny Willett won his final major event as an amateur.

Willett lifted the Spanish Amateur Championship, the Copa SM El Rey, in March 2008 just two months before turning professional. The club’s affinity with the Ryder Cup player was enhanced when he won the Masters just as Golf de Pals was celebrating its 50th anniversary.

It is a British-style parkland course with largely flat fairways, where par is protected by strategic use of bunkers both on the way to greens and at their sides.

Water is also a peril to be faced on a few holes, particularly at the beautiful par-3 ninth, where a tee shot that will test the nerve is played to a small green enclosed within a horseshoe of umbrella pines.

In the same way Spain hails its golfing kings such as the late and great Seve Ballesteros and current Ryder Cup player Sergio Garcia, so within the sphere of Girona gastronomy are lauded the likes of Ferran Adrià and the Roca brothers, Joan, Josep and Jordi.

All have helped bring Michelin stars to the region, where a gourmand can indulge in an intoxicating fusion of traditional and innovative cuisine that uses the area’s bounteous harvest from its fields and coastal waters.

From a show cooking demonstration at Bulthaup (lb.bulthaup.com) through fine dining at the Hotel Aiguablava, at Aiguablava Bay, in Begur, a curtain was drawn back to offer a glimpse – and several tastings – of a region that was at once both heavenly and satanic.

Heavenly in that it was sumptuous, satanic in that it will be the devil’s own job trying to work off its damage to my aforementioned expanding waistline.

It is a price worth paying for Girona deserves its growing reputation as a destination for holidaymakers with a discerning palette.

Girona, golfing and gastronomy: a pleasing alliteration and a pleasure to have savoured.

GETTING THERE

Chris Stratford is a member of the International Golf Travel Writers’ Association.

His parking and overnight airport accommodation were organised by Airport Parking and Hotels (APH), winners of the Best Airport Parking Company for a sixth year running at British Travel Awards 2015. For more information, visit www.aph.com

He stayed at AC Palau Bellavista and Hotel Aiguablava (hotelaiguablava.com)

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