An Unforgettable Trip

This week, on the European Tour, they will contest the last regular season event, which is hosted by one of Spain’s favorite sons, Sergio Garcia.

Personally, even though Sergio is a friend of mine, his name doesn’t have as much impact with me as does the host course, Valderrama Golf Club, which is just a few short miles from the Mediterranean.

I have two very distinct “one-of-a-kind” memories of my trip to Valderrama. One is of a true gentleman and a true lover of golf and people and the other involves a golf course like no other. Both recollections summon fond memories so I decided to use the time-tested method of flipping a coin to see which goes first in Chip Shots. The golf course story won the flip, which is quite funny because just to get to the course had me flipping with fear.

The year was 1997. The reason for being in the Andulacia area of Spain was the Ryder Cup. It was early in the Ryder Cup week, which gave us a little free time. We wanted to play golf and it was suggested that we play this new course, not far away, but it was up in the hills overlooking the Mediterranean Sea and it would be unlike any golf course we had ever seen. Well, that description was all the motivation I needed and with my partner, Janis, as the pilot, and myself as the navigator, we set out to discover Monte Mayor.

Everything was smooth until we reached the turn-off indicating Monte Mayor was a mere five kilometers away. What we didn’t know was that it was five kilometers on a very narrow, winding, severe uphill gravel road with no side barriers. Every so often, there were signs that said: “Don’t be afraid, you’re almost there.” Trust me, the signs were not as comforting as they were meant to be and I was very nervous.

We finally reached the summit to see a beautiful valley complete with a golf course and an old farmhouse that was serving as both a clubhouse and a maintenance shed. Francois, the owner, was expecting us and spent some time telling us how Monte Mayor came to be.

Evidently, he met with 20 architects who all told him he was crazy if he thought he could build a course on the side of his mountain. Finally, one agreed to do the job and what a spectacular job he did. A lot of golf shots had to be hit from one mountainside to another and looking for a golf ball that missed the narrow strip of a fairway was a loss cause because, more often than not, the ball would end up in a deep canyon. Treacherous but stunning to be sure. No words can ever convey how different playing golf on the side of a mountain really is. I have been very lucky to have played golf all over the world and nothing comes close to playing this “one-of-a-kind” course, Monte Mayor.

Now on to the second “one-of-a-kind” memory, that of the true definition of a gentleman, Jaime Ortiz-Patiño, who owned Valderrama Golf Club, a beautiful course lined with cork trees in southern Spain, just a few miles from the Rock of Gibraltar.

I was lucky enough to have become friends with Patiño a few years before the Ryder Cup. Jimmy, the name he insisted I call him, had purchased Valderrama in 1984 — probably with the money he had in his pocket, as in the early 1940s, his grandfather was listed as being one of the five wealthiest men in the world. While I was at Valderrama riding around the course in a golf cart driven by Jimmy, he asked me if I had time for lunch. I thought the people I was traveling with wouldn’t mind me taking time for a quick lunch so I asked Jimmy where he had in mind and he said he was going to take me to one of his favorite lunch places. Then I asked if it was nearby and he just smiled and said “sort of.” I wasn’t too sure what he meant but just then, a big helicopter came swooping in and landed nearby. Jimmy was on his way to lunch in Paris. To this day, I regret not taking him up on his offer.

Shortly after the purchase of Valderrama, Jimmy asked Robert Trent Jones, who was the original architect, to convert Valderrama into one of the finest courses in all of Europe. Robert’s son, Rees, who owns a home in East Hampton and is also a renowned golf course architect, told me that Jimmy was extremely happy with the renovation and treated his father exceptionally well.

Patiño was also a generous man. Over the years, he donated millions to hospitals in the Boston area and for the 1995 U.S. Open at Shinnecock, he rented a home near the course for a mere $15,000 for the week. Of course, that house wasn’t for Jimmy but it was for his chauffeur. Of course, Jimmy was staying at an exclusive oceanfront villa.

How about this for being “one-of-a-kind”? One of Jimmy’s passions was working as a greenskeeper — certainly the only billionaire greenskeeper I had met in my lifetime. During that Ryder Cup week, he got up every day at 3 AM as he was part of the crew mowing the greens. When I asked him why he got up so early to do that he replied, “If you want something done right, you have to do it yourself.” Then he added that he had to be really quiet leaving in the morning so as not wake HRH Prince Andrew, President and Mrs. G.W. Bush, and HRH Prince Bernard of the Netherlands, who were all his personal houseguests for the Ryder Cup.

What a trip that was . . . playing golf on the side of a mountain plus spending time with a mountain
of a man.

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