Getting the swing in at El Prat with a sunny stay in Barceona is hard to beat

The chance to play golf at the renowned El Prat while staying at the spectacular La Florida hotel in Barcelona is hard to beat, writes Ronan Bagnall.

Irish golfers are a rare breed. We play in all conditions, what choice do we have? We’ll trudge through the winter months, protected by our woolly hats, hand warmers, thick socks, water-proof trousers and jackets.

It’s a badge of honour to shoot a great score in gusting, freezing winds, rain coming in sidewards as umbrellas buckle under the strain.

“Good shootin’ in that crap,” fellow golfers will say when a respectable score is recorded on days when you can barely feel your toes. However, on these days, more often than not, I arrive into the clubhouse, drenched from head to toe, hands blue from the cold, wondering why I didn’t stay in bed. Hardy winter players will scoff at sunshine golfers who hibernate for almost six months and appear again when temperatures hit the high teens.

Secretly though, we all yearn for T-shirt golf. Thousand of Irish golfers head to Spain and Portugal every year in search of warmth at a time when the weather takes a turn for the worse at home. September and October are the popular months for golf holidays abroad when the mercury tends to settle in the mid-20s on the Iberian Peninsula.

Last September, when the chance came for two days of golf at one of Europe’s most respected courses, glorious sunshine guaranteed, I went digging around the back of my wardrobe to find my shorts.

My destination was the Real Club de Golf in El Prat, just outside Barcelona.

It’s a rare chance to play one of Europe’s top courses and combine it with a break in one of the world’s most interesting cities.

I met up with my fellow golfers at Dublin Airport and we took the 6.15am flight to Barcelona.

We were chipping and putting on the beautifully manicured practice areas, sunshine on our backs, four hours later.

It was a one-night, two-day getaway, with two rounds of golf and a stay at one of the most spectacular hotels in Europe, the five-star Gran Hotel La Florida, overlooking the city of Barcelona.

Even the keenest golfers may not have heard of the El Prat golf club. Think of Spanish golf courses and Valderamma, host of the 1997 Ryder Cup, immediately springs to mind.

El Prat, which dates back to 1912, is certainly lesser known but it is consistently one of Spain’s most highly-rated courses, having staged the Spanish Open on 10 occasions, as well as playing host to some of the biggest names in golf, including home legends Severiano Ballesteros and José Maria Olazábal, eight-time Major winner Tom Watson and European Ryder Cup captain Thomas Bjørn.

It is one of the oldest courses in Spain and remains one of only a small number of clubs to have been granted royal status by King Alfonso XIII, hosting major Spanish and international amateur tournaments, such as the 2013 European Amateur Championships, and more than 250 national and international championships.

It was recently named one of the 125 Platinum Clubs of the World in recognition of attaining a standard of excellence by an international panel of experts, historians and connoisseurs in a confidential

ballot, as well as being granted the Golden Plaque of the Royal Order of Sporting Merit.

Set across the 518-acre estate of BonVilar, El Prat, which is 35 minutes from the centre of Barcelona, cleverly makes use of its 45 Greg Norman-designed holes over an exciting and varied mix of five highly acclaimed courses — the Open, Blue, Yellow, Pink and Green. It also offers a modern and lively clubhouse and top-quality practice facilities, including a 300m driving range and a host of specialist short-game areas.

A few months ago, the club further enhanced the golfing experience it offers to visitors by reorganising its array of courses.

It is now offering guests the opportunity to play the highly- acclaimed Pink “Open” Course that was originally designed by Greg Norman, as well as its popular Yellow Course.

The iconic Pink “Open” Course is widely recognised as the best layout at El Prat and was ranked fourth in US magazine Golf Digest’s latest list of the best courses in Spain.

Marcello Della Vecchia, director of sales and marketing at Real Club de Golf El Prat, said: “With so many different courses, Real Club de Golf El Prat has always delivered incredible choice for its visitors.

“We feel we can enhance and make the experience even better for golfers by focusing on two courses — the Pink “Open” Course and the Yellow. These iconic layouts are the most popular among both members and non-members.

“The current changes are how Greg Norman designed the two courses and how they were played until 2011 when the European Tour asked to use a different combination for the Spanish Open.”

We arrived at El Prat shortly after 11am local time, temperatures in the high-20s, had light lunch in the modern clubhouse and set off towards the first tee on our buggies.

The golf course has an immediate wow factor. Its manicured fairways are dotted with hundreds of sand traps, curling around beautiful lakes, and framed by tall, aged oaks and narrow corridors of pines. It offers a tough test of ball-striking, with long-hitting rewarded, and a steady touch required on fast, sloping greens.

It has some highly technical holes through forest alleyways. They’re not overly long but require a lot of precision. Other holes are more open but far longer, making it an overall test of strategy, power, and touch.

Former US Masters champion Sergio Garcia summed up why the course is among the best, saying: “Real Club de Golf El Prat is, without a doubt, one of my favourite golf courses, not only in Spain but anywhere in the world.

Whenever I can I take a three to four-day break from competition, I visit this fabulous course and practice a little. One of the things I like the most is that it offers a wide range of shots, not only from the tees but also around the greens, options that are rare to find at many courses in our country.

“Another of the features I like a lot is that, with 45 holes, you can play nine different courses without leaving the club.”

After a mixed first day of action on the course, a birdie on the last being the highlight, we were whisked off to our hotel. El Prat is offering discounted packages at some of the finest hotels in and around Barcelona: The Majestic, The Serras and Hotel Sant Cugat. We were staying at the Gran Hotel La Florida, regarded as one of the most celebrated boutique hotels in Barcelona, boasting incredible panoramic views of the city and the Mediterranean, 500 metres above sea level from the iconic Tibidabo hill.

The five-star elegant building, dating back to 1924, is home to a spa, first-class restaurant, infinity pool, steam baths and fitness centre. On the steep drive up to the hotel, you want to stop every few hundred metres to take photographs of the city below. It’s a truly remarkable view from the hotel balconies, the city calling you to come and enjoy all it has to offer.

Having a hotel like La Florida is the perfect partnership for Real Club de Golf El Prat and offers visitors a chance to enjoy world-class golf, staying in a first-class hotel, and all in a city which comes alive every night.

On day two, we headed back to El Prat for a second attempt to master a golf course that has humbled many of the world’s greatest. Errant shots were soon gobbled up by lakes and bunkers, and I gave up any mad notion of conquering the famed Open Course. But bad golf is always easier to endure when you’re surrounded by stunning scenery, with the sun warming your soul.

The package on a bed and breakfast basis per person sharing a double room from September 1 to October 31 for the Gran Hotel La Florida was €358 per person for two nights with two green fees, €519 for three nights and three green fees and €692 for a four-night stay with four green fees. A complimentary shuttle to the city centre is available.

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