Towards the end of last year, Golf Monthly was lucky enough to be invited to the Olazábal & Friends Charity Pro-Am at Costa Navarino in the Messinia region of Greece.
It was great to not only chat to two-time Masters-winning Spaniard, Jose Maria Olazabal, about his career, but also, more frequently, to ask him about the two fantastic new golf courses he has designed at the Greek destination to help elevate its status and reputation yet further.
Golfers really are now spoilt for choice at Costa Navarino following the opening of those two new layouts last February – the Hills Course and the International Olympic Academy Course. Their arrival no doubt contributed to Costa Navarino being named as the ‘World’s Best Emerging Golf Destination’ at the 2022 World Golf Awards.
Situated on Greece’s southern Peloponnese coastline not far from Kalamata International airport, Costa Navarino has come a long way since opening in 2010, when ship owner and keen environmentalist, Captain Vassilis Constantakopoulos, fulfilled a lifelong dream to create a sustainable tourism destination and introduce his homeland Messinia to the world.
It was Bernhard Langer’s Dunes Course that set the Costa Navarino ball rolling in this fledgling golf nation that year, with Robert Trent Jones Jnr’s Bay Course arriving a year later. Three luxury hotels complement the four courses – the Westin, Romanos and W Costa Navarino – with a fourth, the Mandarin Oriental, set to open in summer 2023.
Olazabal’s two layouts contrast beautifully with each other, with the International Olympic Academy Course enjoying a particularly stirring back-nine run along an inland cliff edge with mesmerising ocean views. More than half the course’s holes play close to this ridge overlooking the Bay of Navarino and the Ionian Sea, providing spectacular sea views even though a little way inland.
The par 3s at 12 and 16 excel, the former in particular demanding nerves of steel if the wind is up (and the flag is on the left of the green!), as it plays across a cliff-edge gully, a bit like certain holes at Old Head in County Cork. The 10th and 11th also served up cracking views of either sea, mountain or both.
On the Hills Course, the 5th is a pretty little hole played over drystone walls while the daunting, longer par-3 15th traverses a wide gully to a big two-tier green and again asks questions of your nerves. The par-5 11th ranks among the standout holes visually, playing gently uphill past a distinctive, solitary tree towards the distant mountains, while there’s a sea of sand protecting the approach on the short par-4 17th. The Hills Course plays past old olive trees, ancient rock walls and stunning ravines in the Kinigou Hills and provides a good test of both imagination and course management.
Of the original two courses, Langer’s Dunes layout offers spectacular sea and river views, with a link flavor to it in the holes closest to the ocean, while also occasionally venturing into olive and citrus groves. The 2nd is a beautiful par 4 playing straight down towards the sea, while the 6th is a classic risk-reward short par 4, again playing downhill to a well-bunkered, rollercoaster green. Surrounded by olive groves and overlooking the Bay of Navarino, Trent Jones Jr’s Bay course meanders through contrasting landscapes of ocean, canyon and greenery.
Costa Navarino’s superb golf offering is matched by an affordable choice of five-star hotel and accommodation options – The Romanos, The Westin Resort Costa Navarino and W Costa Navarino. There are 27 fine-dining venues to choose from, plus excellent sports facilities and a spa. And from summer 2023, Mandarin Oriental, Costa Navarino will offer an ultra-high-end experience with ‘earth-sheltered villas’ (see photo below) and guesthouses.
The two-time Masters champion’s stirring course design work has doubled the number of reasons for golfers to consider this a fine Greek destination for an overseas adventure. Here, we get a little insight from Jose Maria Olazabal into his two new courses…
José Maria Olazabal
How did your involvement with Costa Navarino come about?
They wanted to build a golf destination. They had two courses – the Dunes and the Bay – and they were looking to increase the number of courses and also the number of hotels. I paid my first visit a couple of years before Covid to see the land. They took us all the way to the top of the hill and it was a dirt track. We left the car and went through the bushes and I didn’t know where I was going.
All of a sudden the guide said to me, “You see these two stones up here – jump on them and see if you like the view.” As I say, it was bushes all around, and I stood on top of those stones and got the view you can see today from the 12th and 16th holes on the International Olympic Academy Course. And that was it.
Which are your favorite holes on that course?
There’s a bunch of holes I really love – obviously 12 and 16, those two are the signature holes. But I like holes like number 8, the short par 3. It’s only 125 yards, 135 at most, and you think it’s there for the taking.
And a lot of players who’ve played it are surprised because it’s not all that easy! That has a lot to do with the green design, but I like those kinds of holes – you don’t need to have par 3s at 250 yards and they can still be a test.
Are there any Augusta influences out there?
Not that I know of. I always try to adapt to what we have – to the land, to the terrain and that’s what we did here. Actually, the two golf courses from my point of view are very different. View-wise, when you make the turn on the International Olympic Academy Course and play from the 10th onwards, most of the time you see the view of the bay.
The Hills Course is completely different. It’s more open and you have more changes in elevation. There are fewer bunkers, too. On top of that, on the Hills Course, you are always looking at the mountains and the greenery and I think it’s – how can I say it – a very personal walk. You’re pretty much on your own, far away from everybody. I think the two courses complement each other pretty well.