By Giorgos Tsiros
Born in Spain’s Basque Country, José María Olazábal picked up his first golf club at the age of five, won his first tournament at 18, and went on to a brilliant 30-year career; One of Europe’s most famous pro golf players, he’s been Masters champion twice, honored in 2013 with Spain’s foremost athletic distinction, the Prince of Asturias Award for Sports, and inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame as well.
For the past 20 years, Olazábal has been designing golf courses across the world, from locations that include his native Spain to Qatar, China and the Maldives. We meet with him at Navarino Hills, on a site covering an expanse of 150 hectares where two 18-hole golf courses, which he has designed for Costa Navarino, are currently under construction; the courses are expected to open in 2022.
So how does Messinia measure up as a destination for golf vacations?
The first time I was here, I was truly amazed by the beauty of the place. The vegetation is very rich and the weather, obviously, could not be any better. To be in Europe and be able to play in short sleeves in November or February is a huge advantage. Add to that the hospitable character of the local people and the fact that the food is also excellent, and I think we have all the elements to achieve something really special.
The other advantages, of course, are the other existing courses – The Dunes Course by the sea, and The Bay Course with its new clubhouse befitting a luxury golf club, and the resorts; the addition of Navarino Hills, The Hills Course and the International Olypmic Academy Golf Course will make Messinia one of a handful of golf destinations in the world to boast four signature courses.
Yes, you can go from one course to the other within just 15 to 20 minutes by car. The facilities are great and the hotels are world class. What TEMES has created in Costa Navarino is extraordinary, and for us to have a chance to play our part in the destination’s legacy fills us with immense pride. If you’re a player in northern or central Europe, you can have a home here. The quality of the courses is very high and any golfer, or even a non-golfer, I think, is going to have a ball around here.
In your opinion, what are this sport’s most appealing attributes?
You’re in contact with nature as you’re always outdoors. Also, it’s a sport you can play at all ages and at all levels. It doesn’t matter if you’re a professional and your friend is a high handicapper; you can still play together and have a good match. You can play with your family as well!
Tell us about these 18-hole par-72 courses at Navarino Hills.
They’ll be located on a site with elevations of up to 300 meters. The property is spectacular and the views are simply breathtaking, particularly on the northern edge where you’ll find it almost impossible to take your eyes off beautiful Navarino Bay. The rest of the site, with extended views over rolling hills, will also quickly win the hearts of golfers. It’s a privilege to have the chance to design both courses, and we’ll do everything to do justice to this incredible land.
And what about the differences between them? I understand that the International Olympic Academy Golf Course, with a length of 6,466 meters, will be more challenging, and ideal for international tournaments, but is there anything else you’d like prospective players to know about that course?
The holes most likely to wow professional golfers will be 10, 12, 15, 16 and 17. I think these holes will be really special!
The 6,280-meter Hills Course, a little shorter at 6,280 meters, will be somewhat easier, but will it be different in other ways as well?
The holes are more isolated so that, if you’re playing a particular hole, that’s pretty much all you’re going to see.
One of the dreams of Costa Navarino’s founder, Captain Vassilis Constantakopoulos, was to introduce golf to Greek children through the Costa Navarino Golf Academy. You began playing at the age of five. What advice would you give to kids who are just learning the game?
Well, I’d tell them that there are a lot of sacrifices to be made – most of these, however, will be worth it. Golf is a wonderful game that you can play your whole life. You can learn a lot, and it helps you to mature. Of course, you need to keep practicing, because there are no shortcuts, but the hours you put in will also allow you to meet a lot of people, to create and build relationships. And to travel the world, if you’re actually good enough.