Golf’s prestigious European Tour returned to the Canary Islands this April, for the first time in nearly 20 years with The Gran Canaria Lopesan Open, staged on the south coast, at the visually outstanding Meloneras Golf. The European Tour has form in the Archipelago, having visited Campo de Golf de Maspalomas in both 1995 and 1997, as well as El Cortijo Club de Campo in 2002, but this was the first time the international event has been held at Lopesan’s flagship course, on an island that is the undisputed and authentic home of Spanish golf.
Gran Canaria’s rich golfing history started with the founding of Spain’s very first Real Club de Golf, by British merchants who brought the sport, and the cucumber sandwiches, to Gran Canaria in 1891, on a dusty hillside known as the ‘Lomo del Polvo’ overlooking the, then newly built, Puerto de La Luz de Las Palmas de Gran Canaria. It would be 14 years, in 1904, before Spain’s second-ever club for golfers was founded, at the Madrid Polo. Gran Canaria’s burgeoning British Colony club originated with several members, who had a tiny block-built club house constructed, with a rough corrugated iron roof, held down against the wind with rocks. The site, with commanding views over the Ciudad Jardin, is now occupied by the architecturally remarkable Altavista building, owned by the Korean church. The Real Club de Golf relocated to Bandama, in the mid 50s, where it remains, overlooking the famous volcanic crater, from the heights of Llanos de la Atalaya, near the up market bodega wineries of the historic municipality of Santa Brígida.
The Bandama course was designed by none other than legendary Scottish golfing architect Philip Mackenzie Ross, and officially opened in 1957 where it has stayed, inspiring 9 other courses to emerge on just this one little island. Those who have played Bandama with frequency and regularity, represent a literal who’s who of 20th century royalty, prime ministers, diplomats and dignitaries as well as some of the highest level, elite sportsmen of their day, including a long roster of Grand Slam and Ryder Cup winners, though for this tournament all local eyes were on native islander Rafa Cabrera Bello, who returned as an honorary host to the European Tour 2021.
Meloneras Golf, in Maspalomas, opened in 2006, and was designed by Rob Kirby. With a picturesque, yet wild, coastal layout, the course is lined by palm trees and offers unparalleled horizons, out to sea, and a stunning backdrop of mountain views. Quite short, it plays to just 5,946 metres and at par-70, so scoring was expected to be relatively low.
The Canary Islands President Angel Victor Torres came to visit the course to inaugurate the Gran Canaria Lopesan Open event, joined by several local VIPs including Bello, and Francisco López Sánchez, Lopesan Hotel Group’s CEO, who pledged further support for these events, alongside Manuel López Santana, General Director of Sports and Teresa Berástegui, Deputy Minister for Tourism of the Government of the Canary Islands and Florencio de la Rosa Camejo, director of Corporate Strategy and Diversification for DISA, the provider of energy services that supported the events across The Canary Islands.
Ángel Víctor Torres said how pleased we was with the various sponsors and that “we have first-rate tourist and sports infrastructures [able] to host competitions such as the European Golf Tour. Having 150 of the best golfers in the world on Gran Canaria and Tenerife is great luck.”
Francisco López, Managing Director of Lopesan Hotel Group, echoed these sentiments saying “The golf industry is one of the fundamental pillars on which the tourist recovery of Gran Canaria, as a global destination, must be based.”
With major sponsorship at stake, from the likes of Rolex, BMW and the airline Emirates, these major internationals are always tightly controlled, but perhaps never more so than in the time of Covid, with super-strict rules in place, for weeks ahead of time, to help ensure that this top level event went off without a hitch. All Gran Canaria Lopesan Open players, caddies and course staff were required to maintain a sports “bubble” as were visiting journalists, staying at the luxurious Villa Del Conde, in the otherwise empty Meloneras area of Maspalomas, not 5 minutes from the course.
Head of Press for the hosts, Lopesan’s Rodrigo Perez Cano, confided that this had meant many local press outlets had been disappointed at not being able to directly share in such an historic moment for the island’s golfing classes, nevertheless the European Tour team were well prepared, with trademark efficiency and a most studious care to detail, so as to ensure that all those who wished to gain access could do so, through Vanessa O’Brien’s elite comms team, making everyone feel welcome, as well as offering a specially set up virtual media hub, allowing journalists from across the world direct access via video press conferences and onsite reportage. It’s great to see such a professional circus come to town.
Few editors, of course, except perhaps but from the most well-to-do and specialised of media and publishing partners, are willing to stump up the exorbitant expenses necessary to cover journalists and photographers on such a tour, especially having to leave them isolated for 5 whole days at a time, with a free bar at one of the islands top hotels; no matter how alluring that might have sounded to the golf reporting men and women of the press themselves. Consequently the European Tour’s Media Hub were left to step-up to the tee, which they did with great panache, to provide comprehensive daily coverage, images, video and direct quotes for a wide array of dry-throated golf scribes across the world, as well us we local hacks here on the islands, who were left perhaps a touch disappointed at not being able to witness this international, local event first hand.
Even the many local residents, who proudly feel most intimate with this course, arguably the very best on the island, were all relegated to watching the Gran Canaria Lopesan Open on Sky Sports, as per. Nevertheless; never one to let us down, our man, Paul Gilliam, reporting exclusively for The Canary News was of course, at course side, throughout, and able to catch more than just a glimpse of the proceedings, the golfing elites playing his home course and perhaps a touch more of the action than he had anticipated.
Hosting the tournament was home favourite, and three-time European Tour winner, Rafa Cabrera Bello. Rafa grew up next to the Maspalomas Golf course, and so when he turned professional, you would always see him practising at the Meloneras course. Local Hotel Group, Lopesan, were his first major sponsors.
Cabrera Bello, even established the Youth Circuit, that takes his name, in 2019, for young golfers from around the archipelago, and at the inauguration of this event said: “I am passionate about developing golf in the Canary Islands, and it is a great honour for me to return home, to play and host the Gran Canaria Lopesan Open. I would like to thank the Government of the Canary Islands and the Cabildo de Gran Canaria for their support, as well as the private sponsors who have helped make these events a reality”.
The course played fairly easy for the participants as during the first two days, of the four day competition, there was hardly any wind above the cliffs of Maspalomas, on this sunny south facing course looking out to sea. Some great scores were being produced and on day three, China’s Ashun Wu claimed a course record of 61. The wind did pick up on the fourth day, but nothing could stop the young South African, Garrick Higgo, conjuring an excellent final round of 63 to win the tournament at 25 below par, and with a 3 shot lead, to claim his second European Tour win. Rafa finished a rather disappointing joint 56th carding -9 for his 4 rounds.
Due to Covid restrictions, unfortunately, no spectator’s were allowed to attend. But those of us who were very lucky, had managed to get picked for some of the highly prized volunteer spots, to help out with the European Tour TV productions team. I had one job. My role was simply to report back to the producer on the progress of each shot, from each player, in the group I was following. This should have been an easy task, not to mention an amazing experience, getting to be really up close to the players, with full access to go where ever I wanted, and report back. But then, somehow, I managed to get unexpectedly involved in the action, just a touch more than I would have liked.
On the first hole, there was I, ready to spot, about 300 yards down the fairway, among the palm trees, watching my group tee off. The first 2 players both found the centre of the fairway, then trouble loomed from out of a clear blue sky. I didn’t spot it until it was too late, after Italian golfer, Guido Migliozzi hit a powerful tee shot, with a lot of right draw on the ball, next thing I knew the ball had found me, knocking me right on the head! I hit the deck, suffering a big gash to my skull, claret all over my sheet full of notes, suddenly, all attention was on me, with a swift acting medical team causing a stir, before whisking me off to an ambulance, literally having to be carried off the field, and on my way all the way up to the capital, Las Palmas, to get my flesh wound, and cracked nut, stapled back together along with a precautionary head scan. 5 hours later I was discharged and luckily all was ok. Funny thing was, I actually did the young Italian a favour, as his ball bounced back onto the fairway, rather than getting stuck among the trees, but the price was having to get my head examined, and ending up looking like Mister Bump.
Nevertheless, I managed to make it back to the course for day two, with producers and crew all being really kind and making a fuss of me, and to see the rest of the tournament, incident free. Though it certainly hurt, I thoroughly enjoyed the amazing experience of getting up close and personal in one of the worlds great golfing tournaments, right here on the island I love most.
On the final day, Migliozzi actually took the time to come and find me, to apologise for trying to kill me with his rogue ball. He even gave me a few little gifts, and a personnel hand written letter, which really meant a lot to me.
There is talk of the European Tour returning again next year. The coverage the TV gave was of course excellent promotion for the golf course, and the local area as well as our beautiful Island, with a steady stream of complimentary commentaries from the TV presenters, being broadcast across the world to an audience in its millions. Lets hope they ask me again to volunteer next year, but this time I might just wear a tin helmet.
Following the great success on Gran Canaria’s most famous sunny southern coast, the European Tours production headed off to a markedly cloudier week on the Costa Adeje to take on the next two events back-to-back: the Tenerife Open and the Tenerife Championship, added to the calendar at the last minute following the postponement of the Open de France.