Finca Cortesin, venue for this week’s 18th Solheim Cup, is new to the biennial contest between the best female golfers from Europe and the United States. But match-play golf is far from an unfamiliar sight on the Cabell B. Robinson (a Robert Trent Jones protégé) designed course that opened in 2006. Three times, in 2009, 2011 and 2012, the now-defunct Volvo World Match Play Championship was held at the Costa Del Sol resort.
On each of those occasions a different winner emerged. England’s Ross Fisher and Ian Poulter claimed the first two, before Nicolas Colsaerts from Belgium beat former U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell in the 2012 final.
Nicolas Colsaerts stands outside the Finca Cortesin clubhouse after winning the Volvo Match Play Championship on the Spanish course in 2012.
Colsaerts played 11 matches in two appearances in the event, his record an impressive 8-2-1. Among his victims were a clutch of major champions: Rory McIlroy, Retief Goosen, McDowell and Justin Rose. Only once, in a re-match with Goosen, did he lose over 18 holes (1 down). His other defeat came at the 19th hole to Poulter in the 2011 semifinal. So the man who almost single-handedly beat Tiger Woods and Steve Stricker in a four-ball match in the 2012 Ryder Cup at Medinah (partner Lee Westwood helped out at one hole) knows a thing or two about both match-play golf and the intricacies of the undulating Finca Cortesin layout.
“It’s a tough course to play, pretty hilly,” says the 40-year-old, who next week will serve as one of European captain Luke Donald’s assistants at the Ryder Cup in Italy. “I imagine the women are going to be given a few buggy rides between holes; walking all 18 holes is almost out of the question. It really suited me at the time I won there though. There were a few holes where I could really take advantage of my length off the tee. It’s a course where hitting the greens is super important. But not as important as finding the right sections of the putting surfaces. So you can make a bunch of birdies if your approach play is accurate. But you have to play really well to do that.
Colsaerts contends the course is appealing in the sense that the shots are immediately clear in your mind. “You can see what the designer wants you to do,” he says. “That’s especially true with the approach shots. There is a lot of undulation to deal with and more than a few false fronts. But again, the questions asked vary depending on the pin positions.”
As ever, weather is more than likely to play a role in the type of golf asked for this week. In particular, the wind can gust erratically due to course’s proximity of the Mediterranean and the nearby Gibraltar Strait.
“The breeze will almost certainly be a big factor,” Colsaerts says. “But it’s a course where, if you are in control of your ball and play well from tee-to-green, you are going to be hard to beat. If you miss greens, you will have a hard time winning holes.”
To that end, the first Belgian to play in a Ryder Cup has some advice for both the Americans and Europeans.
“My game in 2012 especially was built around one guiding principle: I kept hitting inside my opponents,” Colsaerts says. “I was nearly always last to play and always had the cards dealt in front of me when it was my turn to hit. And yes, I was hitting the ball particularly well at the time. So I nearly always knew what I had to do. I managed my game pretty well in the 11 games I played there. So I was hitting shots inside my opponents. I wasn’t making silly mistakes. My tee-to-green skills were really sharp, which is what those who win most points this week will have to reproduce.”
OK, let’s say tee-to-green is a bit of a struggle. Are the players going to be able to salvage halves on a regular basis with their short-game skills? The answer is “probably not.” While the Finca Cortisan putting surfaces are large and the fairway are generally wide, missing the putting surfaces is, more often than not, going to lead to problems.
“The greens generally have only a little bit of undulation. But there are a few that are treacherous, again depending on the pin positions. If you miss on the wrong side though, you are in trouble. The course is built on the side of a valley, so there is always one side that is particularly tricky. So you have to miss in the right places. But it’s not that hard to figure out where you don’t want to be. The players will figure that out pretty quickly. It’s all there in front of them. Having said that, it is clear that the superior ball-strikers are going to do well in their matches.”
Behind the green looking back down the fairway on the par-5 18th hole at Finca Cortesin.
Steve Carr Golf
The 15th hole show Finca Cortesin's hilly terrain.
The tee shot on the the 14th hole at Finca Cortesin.
Like most courses well-suited to head-to-head play, the closing stretch at Finca Cortesin is filled with exciting potential. The old Scottish saying that “2 up with five to play never wins” can be confirmed as a (near) golfing truism.
“The finishing holes are great for match play,” Colsaerts says. “From 14 onwards, close matches are going to be hard to predict. Sixteen is tough. Seventeen is a generous green size-wise, but getting close is tough, especially when the pin is on the left. And there is a par 5 to finish. All in all, this is a much better match play course than it is stroke play. Wild driving is disastrous. We’ll see a few ‘3 off the tee’ scenarios and a few early concessions too, especially in foursomes. I won’t be surprised to see balls getting picked up before the players reach the greens.”
Overall, Colsaerts sees this as a Solheim Cup that will be won by the team with the superior long games. But that is a not a blanket statement with no need for caveats.
“If this Solheim Cup is like every other team match, we’ll see two types of DNA in the players,” Colsaerts says. “There will be a few ‘steady eddies.’ And there will be some longer hitters. As always, it’s a big advantage to be ahead off the tee, as long as you are in play. Hitting short irons into some of those greens is going to give a big edge to a player. I see good ball-strikers having a significant advantage.”