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WHEN the news broke that the luxurious La Manga Club resort had been sold, it heightened my sense of anticipation as my 50th birthday approached. Having recently returned from a trip to this Spanish mecca of golf south of Alicante, I wondered if my partner Shirley had acquired for me a very special present indeed.

Sadly, the £102m required for such a gesture seems to have deterred her, although I did receive a golf ball retriever with which I may return one day to the Costa Calida - the Warm Coast - to recover the odd ball or two which were errantly submerged during my four circuits of the newly-designed South Course. The fact that its erstwhile owners P&O saw fit to refurbish this famous course - the stage of five Spanish Opens, several PGA Spanish championships, the European Tour Qualifying School and many other top events - underlines La Manga's commitment to ensuring all its sporting facilities meet championship standards. Those facilities include three courses, South, North and West, a golfing academy, a tennis centre which has played host to Davis Cup and Fed Cup matches, squash and lawn bowls, an impressive gymnasium, and even a cricket pitch.

La Manga also boasts a footballing centre which was the venue for England's 1998 World Cup finals preparations when Paul Gascoigne infamously re-arranged his room's furniture in a fit of pique after being told by coach Glenn Hoddle that he  was not in his 23-man squad heading on to France.

As a newcomer to La Manga, I cannot testify to the differences the refurbishments have made to the South Course, originally designed in 1971 by Robert Putman and modified in 1992 by Arnold Palmer.

What I can say is that this track, set in a beautifully serene valley in Atamaria, has much to offer. However, if you enjoy playing where you can flail away off the tee - either the tigers' or rabbits' - secure in the knowledge that you'll generally be left with a short shot to the green, it is not for you.

Campo Sur, to give it its Spanish name, is not unduly long (around 6,700 yards off the yellows), but it is essential you turn your focus away from the seductive palm-fringed scenery to concentrate on placement on every drive, particularly with water playing a part on 15 of the 18 holes. This should not induce an anxiety attack in the hydrophobic among you, for on only four occasions is a carry across the dreaded water required, with the course's water features, in the main, posing a threat down the fairways' flanks.

Play the course more than once and you will quickly learn that to avoid the danger of three-putting there are areas on many greens where you should avoid leaving your approach shot, with extra movement being part of the re-design's implementations.

This calls for a heightened sense of touch with the putter and results in a proportionally intense sense of achievement when getting down in two, or even holing out, from a position involving a high degree of borrow. The 13th green is a good example as it appears as if an elephant has been buried beneath its surface.

Campo Sur has no par 4s within driving range of the average golfer, with the 16th, at 343 yards, its shortest, but here a stream feeding a newly built lake protects the putting surface and - into a breeze - makes for a challenging second shot.

Two of its par 3s involve a carry over water – the short (137-yard) 12th and the longer (190-yard) 17th – and here a sign of a truly great course emerges. For it is the 12th which is possibly the tougher, with few areas available for ‘bailing out' off the tee while the 17th, to anyone unwilling to take on the full extent of the carry over water, can aim to land short of the green and leave themselves a comparatively simple pitch.

Golf should, of course, be fun but anyone who has played it for any length of time will tell you that is not always the case. Depending on whether you have scored well or poorly, you could indulge yourself with a massage at the resort's newly-opened Spa to either reward yourself or help ease tense muscles.

To say the 60-minute mud-wrap I enjoyed, an all-over body massage involving the application of warm mud and oils plus a facial, was a relaxing experience is like saying Chelsea football club are enjoying a good season.

A courtesy minibus service is available to ferry visitors around the 1,400-acre resort, but with around 20,000 residents during the height of summer a hire car is probably a sensible option.

This will enable you to visit such nearby attractions as the historic port of Cartagena, Cabo de Palos, a seaside fishing village and market, or the region's capital, Murcia.

Also within a short car journey are the warm waters of the Mar Menor and Mediterranean.

Me? The only water I'll be heading back towards will be on the Camp Sur, armed, of course, with my golf ball retriever.

La Manga,

Published: April 30, 2005

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