Feelings not par for course 'Augusta' of Europe, Valderrama's layout irks some players


SOTOGRANDE, Spain -- Anthony Hamilton was standing inside the clubhouse at Valderrama Golf Club yesterday, a wire from a walkie-talkie connected to his right ear and a look of worry attached to his face. Hamilton, an investment banker from London and a founding member of the club, knew that the world will be watching when the 32nd Ryder Cup starts tomorrow.

"The crowds have been quite light, surprisingly light during the practice rounds compared to Oak Hill in 1995," Hamilton, who is serving as chief of the 700 marshals, said as he watched the club's founder, Jaime Ortiz-Patino, work the room that had been set up for a golf art exhibition sponsored by Sothey's. "But when the matches begin, I think it will explode."

Sort of like Valderrama itself. Back in 1985, two different golf clubs had failed on this gorgeous piece of Andalusian property that borders the Mediterranean Sea. Ortiz-Patino, a Paris-born industrialist who once played tennis in the French Open, bought it for $6 million with seven partners and, after buying them out, invested $30 million into the place. He then brought in legendary American designer Robert Trent Jones to turn a new club named for the farmer who first worked this land into a site for golf's biggest team event.

Ever since it received the bid three years ago to be Ryder Cup host, thus becoming the first course outside the United States and United Kingdom to hold the biennial event, Valderrama has been looking to live up to its reputation as the Augusta National of Europe. It has the same pristine feel, with centuries-old cork trees instead of dogwoods. It is as quirky as corky, with a tree smack in the middle of one fairway and a 15-yard swatch of rough stretched out across another.

"The course gives us the advantage because we've played it enough to dislike it," said Ortiz-Patino, 67, alluding to the criticism it received while the Volvo Masters played here. "[The Americans] have played it enough to hate it."

The European team is hoping that the U.S. team gets frustrated enough with the course, in particular the 17th hole, to lose patience and ultimately lose the trophy, as it did two years ago at Oak Hill. American captain Tom Kite and his players have tried to downplay their dislike for certain holes, or certain shots, that they usually don't have to try on the PGA Tour.

"It's not really up to me to approve or disapprove of the way the golf course is set up," said Kite, who has made four trips here since last summer to familiarize himself with the course. "The determination of those in control has already been made. The golf course has been designed this particular way and we have to accept it and play with it. I think it's a wonderful golf course. I like it very much, but it is certainly a unique course."

There might not be a hole in the world more unique -- or downright bizarre -- as the par-5 17th. After the course was redesigned by Trent Jones, Seve Ballesteros completely redid the hole. It now appears to be a composite of the 13th and 15th holes at Augusta, though the patch of rough about 300 yards down the middle of the narrow fairway is strictly the stuff of most golfers' nightmares.

Those nightmares are not merely reserved for Americans.

"It's the worst hole we play all year [on the European tour]," Scotland's Colin Montgomerie said recently.

The U.S. players quietly concur but like Kite are not ready to trash it right before the competition. They'll take their shots in a read-between-the-lines sort of way, as Phil Mickelson did here yesterday.

"I think it's a great par-4," said Mickelson, who eagled it yesterday by holing out from the fairway with a sand wedge. "It's not designed to be a par-5. I'm not a fan of rough in the middle of the fairway -- that doesn't make sense to me."

Ballesteros has grown weary of the criticism and is nearly as sarcastic in talking about the players' response to the 511-yard hole.

"The players who don't like the 17th don't know how to manage their games," Ballesteros said yesterday. "It's too bad. I'm very proud of the work we did. I think it's a great golf hole. The players who don't like it, all they have to do is win 3-and-2 [or before they reach it during a match]."

There are some spectacular vistas overlooking the craggy hills of this Andalusian area, as well as a view of the Rock of Gibraltar from the 11th tee. The well-manicured course itself seems almost too inviting, and the Bermuda grass rough is a lot more treacherous than it looks. As a whole, Valderrama has a hybrid look, more American-style than a traditional European course, a seaside course that is more lunacy than links.

But there are still a lot of people crossing their fingers that the folks running the Ryder Cup didn't make a mistake coming here. The 30,000 fans might have more of an adventure coming to the course than the players will have negotiating it because a superhighway was not completed in time, leaving a two-lane road (and a highway) as the only way in and out.

Even Ortiz-Patino seems more than a trifle concerned.

"The whole manana mentality in Spain upsets me terribly," Ortiz-Patino said recently.

Three years of planning will come to a head manana, when Valderrama takes its place on golf's world stage.

Ryder Cup

When: Tomorrow through Sunday.

Where: 6,819-yard, par-71, Valderrama Golf Club in Sotogrande, Spain.

What: Biennial competition between 12-man teams from the United States and Europe.

Format: Eight alternate-shot matches, eight better-ball matches and 12 singles matches, each worth one point for a total of 28 points.

TV: Tomorrow -- 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., USA; Saturday -- noon to 6 p.m, NBC (chs. 11, 4); Sunday -- 8: 30 a.m. to 12: 30 p.m., NBC.

Pub Date: 9/25/97

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