The Costa del Sol has long been known as a golfer’s paradise. The coast is home to some of Europe’s most luxurious golf clubs and has more than
70 of Spain’s 400+ golf courses, with several more under construction. The major attraction is the Mediterranean climate. With an annual average of 320 sunny days, balmy winters and almost unlimited choice of courses with both sea and mountain views, no wonder some of Europe’s premiere players have chosen to spend the pandemic here.
I spoke to four young Scandinavian golfers who have taken what they call a gap-year from their professional golf activities during the Corona pandemic. We met at Los Naranjos Golf Club near San Pedro, where they talked about their chosen sport and the possibilities and challenges for young Nordic golf players.
Torbjørn Johansen (29)
Handicap +4,8 – Nordic Golf League
Torbjørn is a professional Norwegian golf player. Under normal circumstances, he would have been in the States for winter training and tournaments at this time of year, but now he finds himself in Spain.
When did you start to play golf and how did you become a pro?
“I have played golf since I was 8, though in the beginning it was mostly fun and games at the driving range or in our garden. I took the ‘green card’ when I was 12 and started dedicating myself seriously to the sport from about 14 years of age. As a teenager, I was ranked amongst the Top 10 juniors and amateurs in Norway. Later I began to play as an amateur in the Nordic Golf League. This way I got enough WAGR (The World Amateur Golf Ranking) points to get into a university in the USA. The unique thing with the American educational system is that one can maintain both high level sporting and educational activities. I took a Bachelor of Communication Studies and Business Administration degree, while playing on NCAA Division 1, which is the highest level of college golf in the USA. I was competing against some of the highest ranged amateurs internationally, many of whom now play as professionals on the best Golf Tours in the world. I have been a pro since 2015 and play primarily in the Nordic Golf League, ranked at level 3 in Europe. This Tour gives one the possibility to qualify towards other European tours”.
Why golf? Is it fun, and what attracts people to this sport?
“Golf is definitively fun. Simply said, the goal in golf it to hit a small, white ball from point A to point B in the fewest possible strokes. If you combine all the components, it is a game that gives the player a fantastic sense of accomplishment. Since golf is played at a moderate pace, it might not appear as a real sport to outsiders, but it demands incredible strategy and technique. Golf is a complex and composed game, and often is considered one of the world’s most difficult sports. But being difficult doesn’t mean that it isn’t fun. Everybody can learn and enjoy it, but there is always potential for improvement. You can spend a lifetime mastering all the playing facets, from putting to driving. There are so many nuances and different ways of tackling a shot, that’s the exciting part!”.
Where do you prefer to play and what are you doing here on the Costa del Sol?
“Normally in winter I would be in Florida or Texas right now. I really like the USA. I have lived there for almost 6 years combined, and many of my closest friends live there. If you go to an American university as a golf player, you also get access to their clubs and facilities as an Alumni. This winter I have not had the opportunity to go to the States due to the pandemic, so I came here instead. The Costa del Sol has been accessible during most of the pandemic. There is great interest in golf here and the quality of the facilities is generally high. This way, one can get a decent return for one’s investment. Besides, the climatic conditions are good – this coast has sun and grass, which is essential for golf. If you are a skier, you need snow and if you are a golfer you need grass, it is as simple as that”.
Philip Widmark (30)
Handicap +1,2 – Amateur with PGA-coach education
Philip is from Sweden but had a quite unique upbringing that enabled him to play golf all over the world. He is also the only one of the gang who has played golf with Tiger Woods!
“I have played golf as long as I can remember. My dad is a panellist for Golf Magazine and ranks international golf courses. In fact, he was the first non-American (# 17 in the world) to have played on the world’s 100 top golf courses. I travelled around with him in my youth and have therefore played golf practically everywhere”.
With such a background, becoming a professional golf player was the natural choice, but when he broke his foot 11 years ago, the accident shattered his dream.
How did you return to golf and why are you here on the Costa del Sol now?
“It took 9 years before I picked up my clubs again, so it has been a long journey back to this life. I still wish to be a golf pro, but at the moment I primarily train to keep stable and push myself a bit more each day. I have begun to play more seriously and participated as an amateur in a Nordic Golf League competition last fall and hope to do more this year. Even if I manage to get a sponsor however, it is costly to compete unless one ranks among the very best. In the fall I began advanced golf coach training, so that I can teach other players. This way I can continue to play but can always fall back on coaching. Why I am here is because of the temperature – I cannot be in Scandinavia in the winter due to the cold. I have no feeling below my ankle, and the cold only makes it worse, so I spend the winter months here instead”.
What qualities are needed to become a good golf player?
“To me the most important thing is discipline. Nothing in golf comes easy. You have to practice, practice and practice. Everybody has weaknesses, so you have to work on them. It is a tactical sport, so for pros it’s different. For them it is a question of what gives the most return. Let’s say that one is a good putter, but can only earn two shots there, it might be better to work on ones drive, and maybe earn 4 instead. Most serious players spend so much time on the course that it becomes their second home. Golf is also an extreme concentration sport. With a sport like tennis, you get the ball back immediately and have to react to what comes your way. Golf is different. You make your shot and then you have time to reflect on how you are going to play your next shot on your way to the ball. Do you have to adjust slightly to the right or the left, or a bit up or down? It’s all very cerebral. Every night I lay and think about how I could have done a shot differently”.
Do you have any golf role models?
“Certainly! It has to be Tiger Woods. I met him when he was in his prime. We played three holes at Isleworth GC, which is his home club. We played two holes and then we did wedge shots on the third hole. I believe I still live on the ‘high’, even if I was only 13 years old at the time!”.
Alexander Wennstam (29)
Handicap +4,6 – Nordic Golf League
Swedish Alexander has been a professional golf player since 2015 and has played both in Nordic Golf League and three tournaments in the European Challenge Tour, Europe’s highest level of golfing. For the past 2 years, Alexander has lived in Estepona. Usually, he spends 6 months in Spain and the rest of the year between Sweden and tournaments around Europe. Because of Covid-19, this winter has been different. “There aren’t sufficient competitions to earn enough by solely competing now, so I have to teach a bit on the side. At the moment I give a few private classes and assist the PG Golf & Sports Academy at the Atalaya Golf & Country Club”.
Why did you choose golf? You could have become a Swedish Ronaldo…
“All sports came easy to me when I was young, and all one is good at is fun. When I was starting senior high school, the choice was between golf or football. I liked both, but with football it is completely impossible to know exactly where you stand in relation to other players. Even if you perform your utmost, you might still lose the game if your team isn’t good enough. As a golf player you generally play for yourself and know where you stand it the official ranking. At my age at the time, I was number 3 or 4 in Sweden. I knew that I would have a better opportunity to get a golf scholarship than a football one at a college in the USA, so I decided to pursue golf even though I knew it would take more time and effort. I took a Bachelor of Finance degree, thinking that it could be practical to know how to count money – when I win some…!”.
How does handicap work in golf and what is your handicap?
“Handicap allows you to play against others, even if you are at different levels. In a handicap-adjusted round of golf, players with different handicaps can compete against each other and have the same opportunity to win. At least in principle. When you are a golf pro, you play without handicap. That is called stroke play. The highest handicap for complete beginners is 54. One can also have a lower handicap than 0, which is defined by adding a + sign in front of the number. In reality, this means that you get subtracted shots, instead of being given them. I have +5 in handicap”.
Which are your favourite golf courses on the Costa del Sol that you would recommend, and how much does it cost to play here?
“There are many excellent courses around here. Some of my favourites are Valderrama GC, Sotogrande GC, and Las Brisas GC in Marbella. There is also one that has been recently renovated called San Roque, which probably will be a top course. The best courses might cost up to 450 € in green fees, but one can play on OK golf courses for as little as 25€ with a bit of prior planning. Here on the Costa del Sol most courses offer green fee play, so one does not have to be a member. There are also clubs with reasonable membership costs, or where one can take out a temporary membership, anything from weekly to yearly. If you are a pro with PGA-status, there are good solutions where one either can play free as a guest once a month or pay a reduced green fee”.
Felix Møller Warmedal (25)
Handicap 0,4 – Product specialist for Titleist
Norwegian Felix is the youngest of the gang and also the most novel player. Though he was active in other sports, he has only golfed for 3 years. He is trying to catch up now by spending all his time on the golf course – and it is starting to show results.
His hope is to become a solid golf player at national level. Together with the others, he will play the Toro Tour along the Costa del Sol in January to March of 2021. Usually, Felix works as a product specialist for Titleist in Norway, but he is spending the winter on the Costa focusing entirely on golf.
Isn’t it too late to begin playing now you are over 20, if you want to become a golf pro?
“As with any sport, it is beneficial to begin early. There are exceptions of course, but most elite players have been at it since they were kids. The advantage of golf is that it isn’t a sport that demands enormous physical strain, compared to for example, cross country skiing. You do not see many world class skiers who are over 50, while you do in golf. There are many players who continue to compete at an international level into their 50s and 60’s. Phil Mickelson, Steve Stricker, Bernhard Langer, Jim Furyk, Miguel Ángel Jiménez (who is a Spanish legend), just to mention a few”.
And how did you start?
“My grandma’s brothers are keen golfers. In 2017 they arranged the annual family golf tournament on the 7th of August, which is my great grandmother’s birthday. I had never played before, so they gave me 54 in handicap. They got a bit sour when I ended up with over 50 points, and made fun of me when I said I would come back the following year with a lower handicap than them. The following season I became a member of Haga GC near Oslo and took a night shift to be able to play. I was hooked! In the very first season I was down to 8.8 in handicap and I have not looked back since”.
Is golf a sport for snobs or can anyone play?
“Golf used to be labelled as a snobbish sport, but in the last few years it has become a sport for everyone. In the summer of 2020, Norwegian golf clubs got over 25 000 new members. So many rounds of golf have never been played in our country before. Memberships have become more affordable, especially for younger players. Our golf club took in several hundred new players last year, as the annual junior membership was less than 100 € for free play. Many other clubs offer reasonable memberships, so you can become a member of a Norwegian or Swedish club for as little as 40€ per year”.
How important is the equipment? Can you buy used balls and rent gear and still have fun?
“Absolutely. Equipment is important, but far from vital. You can have fun on the course with rented clubs and cheap golf balls. If you do have specially adjusted clubs, the game will come easier and you will have less misses. Many players also get more motivated to practice. Any golfer knows that the sport is difficult enough in itself, so if you can get a few extra points by having correct clubs, you will do so, at least over time. For professional players it is essential to have the right equipment. To use a sports metaphor – if you have poor skies, no glide or grab, you will have a miserable day on the trail”.
Can our small Nordic countries really compete with the world’s golfing elite?
“Of course! Just look at Viktor Hovland, Suzann Pettersen, Kristoffer Ventura, Kristoffer Reitan and a bunch of Swedes and Danes who have established themselves in the world elite. I can mention stars like Annika Sõrenstam, Henrik Stenson, Alexander Norén and Thomas Bjørn. Viktor Hovland is ranked as # 14 in the world. He has won a PGA-Tour twice and earned millions during his first season as a pro. So, keep it up and give everything and you’ll eventually get PGA status”.
This article was originally published in Norwegian in Det Norske Magasinet.