The Ryder Cup: Jimmy's jewel: Polished perfection with a cutting edge

Paul Trow finds that Valderrama has been designed with only the best in mind
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The Independent Online
When Nick Faldo says, as he did in 1992, that "you have to play like God out there to shoot par", we can be sure that the course in question was no accident of nature.

Over the past 12 years it has taken the divining intervention of a Bolivian tin billionaire to turn the dross that was Sotogrande New into Valderrama, the current gold standard of European golfing venues. And this week, after an estimated outlay of nearly pounds 20m, Valderrama's deus ex machina, the 67-year-old Jaime Ortiz Patino, will fulfil his most cherished ambition and host the first Ryder Cup to be staged in Spain.

When Patino, known throughout the sport as Jimmy, first chanced upon this modest Andalucian layout just off the main road from Gibraltar to Malaga, it was an unremarkable pay-and-play complex. Opened in 1975, it bore little resemblance to the original Sotogrande, which had been designed across the way by the celebrated American golf-course architect Robert Trent Jones.

But Patino, who has been domiciled in southern Spain for the last 30 years, had grown weary of Sotogrande's crowded fairways and early-morning tee-off times. So in 1985 he teamed up with seven other partners, whom he has since bought out, to acquire the neighbour which doglegged its way quaintly but anonymously through groves of cork and olive trees.

The course was renamed Valderrama and Trent Jones was brought in to provide a facelift. Despite his claim that he was only "polishing the diamond to improve the shot values in some areas", Trent Jones made nips and tucks so effective that the remodelled version was entrusted with Europe's season- ending Volvo Masters tournament from 1988 until last October. Despite the stature this run conferred, and the fact that Europe's leading players now know it well, Valderrama had to fight off stiff competition before being awarded the Ryder Cup.

However, when spectators and TV viewers catch sight this week of its manicured fairways, lightning-fast greens and gorgeous Mediterranean views it will be obvious that the right choice was made, not least because of Patino's almost obsessive attention to detail and determination to be the best.

"I like perfection and I certainly didn't want a third-rate course. If I couldn't buy a good one then I wanted one I could make good," he said. "I wanted it to look beautiful too. I love Augusta National and, although Valderrama is very different, it is very attractive."

Patino the perfectionist's reinvention of Valderrama has undoubtedly been influenced by his feelings for the home of the Masters. Like Augusta, Jimmy's jewel is subject to continual polishing while the club he has created at Valderrama is defiantly exclusive in a region devoted to tourism. Even though Patino expects 30,000 guests this week, green fees are limited to 6,000 a year and visitors can only tee off between 12.30 and 2.30pm.

The parallels with Augusta do not end there. Valderrama's putting surfaces are treacherously slick and undulating, its terrain is steeply sloped and mounded, its breezes are capricious, and its gleaming white bunkers deep and intimidating.

And yet, apart from Seve Ballesteros's recent controversial revamp of the 17th hole, which has met with almost universal disapproval, there are few dissenting voices about Valderrama's evolution. The consensus is that it is difficult but fair. The Zimbabwean Tony Johnstone summed up the feelings of many of those who make their living from playing the game when he said: "If we faced this type of course all the time we would have to retire by 26 because our nerves just couldn't take it."

The name of the game this week is, of course, matchplay, but Faldo's stricture about aiming for par still applies. And to beat it will be the very devil.