I first travelled to the south coast of Spain just over 30 years ago, to Guadalmina, where my uncle and aunt, Dick and Doto, lived. They had retired there from the north of Ireland a few years earlier but knew the area well, having holidayed in the region for more than 20 years when the glitzy, blingy Marbella we know now was little more than a fishing village. The world-famous Puerto Banus was barely a gleam in a developer’s eye but the tiered wedding-cake appartment blocks, with their balconies overflowing with colourful bougainvillea, were already in situ lining the fairways of the south course of the Real Club de Golf Guadalmina. It became their home club and they made many friends there. I can only guess at the pride and interest they, and their pals, would have had last week when the Ladies’ European Tour came to visit.
Almost 30 years ago a young Spanish golfing-star-in-the-making was born and her home club all her life has been Guadalmina. From the age of 8 or 9 her early successes were documented in pictures on the clubhouse walls and I like to think that maybe, just maybe, Dick and Doto crossed paths with a very young Azahara Munoz.
One of the bonuses of writing this blog is the opportunity to indulge ourselves with tales of our favourite people and places, so I make no apology for writing about one of my favourite Spanish players. Aza, as she is known, turned professional in 2009 and received an invitation to play in her first-ever professional event, the Madrid Ladies’ Masters. What a lovely way to dip your toe in the shark-infested waters of professional sport – in an event in your own country. But Aza had no plans to fly under the radar and sensationally recorded an amazing victory, seeing off none other than Anna Nordqvist, already a major winner, in a play-off, with an eagle 3.It was a portent of things to come. Victories on either side of the Atlantic and three Solheim Cup appearances followed, including the incredibly difficult, pressurised, task of notching another win in her home country last year. As 2017 dawned Aza struggled in the early part of the season, at odds with her game, and unable to make her fourth consecutive Solheim Cup team. Slowly, slowly she worked her way back, desperately seeking a strong finish to a disappointing season, but surely it couldn’t happen in her home country – again? Too much pressure, surely? And not just her home country, but her home club! Come on, that’s ridiculous, way too much pressure.
A second round 64 put her in the driving seat and an intriguing final round began to unfold last Sunday with Aza holding a three or four shot lead for most of the day. The big question asked of this player, who tends to be overly technical in her thinking, was could she keep the over-thinking at bay and remain loose enough to access the freedom required to perform at her best? The answer was yes. Five single putts on the back 9 saw her safely home, able to withstand the late flurry of eagles on the home hole by both Lee Anne Pace of South Africa and fellow Spaniard Carlota Ciganda.
Who doesn’t love a fairytale ending? The pressure of playing at your home club cannot be underestimated but victory is all the sweeter. Aza delivered on her promise to jump into the club swimming pool – just as she used to as a junior after a win. Spain has rejoiced in her victory, Guadalmina has celebrated and feted her and I’d like to bet there are also the ghosts of a few past ex-pats stalking the fairways and tipping their caps to her.