Most visitors to the Costa del Sol bring little more than a bathing suit. But consider carting your clubs along as well. Spain's Golden Triangle of exclusive golf courses now welcomes visitors.
Tiger Woods is the best golfer in the world. Yet, in four out of five rounds during last November's World Golf Championship at Valderrama in Spain, he put his ball in the pond fronting the 17th green. He wasn't alone. Most of the players on the leader board that Sunday likewise challenged the pond and lost. Valderrama inspires such drama: It's the type of course the pros hate and the fans love.

Until recently, it was also very private, as were most of the best links in Spain's Costa del Sol. Today, however, travelers can pack their 6-iron as well as their swim trunks, as Valderrama and other fine courses nearby have started rolling out their green carpets for visitors.

The Costa del Sol, or Coast of the Sun, is aptly named. The region receives approximately 320 days of sunshine each year, and is famed for its sandy beaches and touristy nightclubs. While much of the 50-mile strip along Spain's southern coast, stretching west from Malaga, is overbuilt, the far western end, where the top golf courses are located, has remained tasteful and exclusive.

Valderrama, the self-proclaimed "Augusta of Europe," consistently ranks highest among the courses in continental Europe in most major golf magazines. It is considered one of the preeminent designs by one of the world's preeminent designers, Robert Trent Jones Sr., who has completed close to 500 courses worldwide. Valderrama burst onto the world scene after television coverage of the 1997 Ryder Cup, the first time the tournament was held outside the British Isles or the U.S. The club has few members and is only open to outside play two hours a day, so the course is kept in exquisite shape (to the point of closing down for maintenance during the month of June). With its signature stands of twisted cork trees, huge bunkers, carefully tended flowerbeds, and assorted lakes, ponds, and waterfalls, Valderrama is truly one of the most beautiful courses in the world.