|home | subscribe | contact us | advertise with us | feature editorial guidelines | research editorial guidelines | gcsaa.org|
Rubèn Palacios and Golf La Roqueta
The History of La Roqueta
Not many nine-hole golf courses, let alone modest courses at that, can boast as spectacular a natural setting as Golf La Roqueta. The course sits nestled between the base of Montserrat (literally translated as “the serrated mountain”) and the adjacent Rio Cardener. It was the Rio Cardener that rose up only one year after La Roqueta was built in 1999, and threatened to wash nearly the entire course away in a dramatic and devastating flood. Most of the time though, the river provides a sublime backdrop for holes No. 4, No. 6, and No. 7, which parallel its subtle meander. A small canyon pours down off the mountain and into the river, framing the final hole No. 9.
For all its scenic beauty, La Roqueta also boasts an impressive history. While the course has yet to celebrate its fifth birthday, the land tells a story many hundreds of years old. Formerly, the site on which La Roqueta sits was home to an ancient grape vineyard. Then, nearly a century ago, phylloxera -- an aphid-like insect that feeds on grape roots -- destroyed two-thirds of the vineyards on the European continent, including all the cultivated grapes in the region surrounding La Roqueta. The land was abandoned for one hundred years, during which time it sat idle. Soon though, Rubèn’s father, Enrique Palacios, came to own a small part of that land neighboring his home.
The original idea for La Roqueta belonged to Enrique, who made a proposal to Rubèn. “I was very fond of golf. I loved to play,” explains Rubèn. “My father proposed it to me, and at that time, I was ready for a change in my life.” The father handed off the land to the son, and it was there, on that small plot of land, that the first two holes of Golf La Roqueta were born.
An Unlikely Man with a Singular Vision
At a time when new golf courses are, more often than not, a collaborative effort between developers, owners, course architects and designers, golf management companies, and a host of other interested parties, Palacios is a throwback to an earlier era of golf course superintendent – when a man wore many hats on his golf course, with many responsibilities. Palacios is La Roqueta’s owner, designer/architect, builder and head greenkeeper (in Spain, superintendents are still called greenkeepers). “From beginning to end, I have built it myself,” explains Palacios, “With my own hands and with what knowledge I have.”
And also in a time when superintendents increasingly graduate from colleges and universities with four-year degrees in Agronomy or Turfgrass Science, Palacios has learned the trade through dedication, apprenticeship, and experience. “My golf education consists of day by day apprenticeship,” says Palacios, who especially credits his close friend Darek Gazdzinski, greenkeeper for the nearby Golf Sant Joan, Spain’s only true public course. “With patience, he has instructed me and shared his knowledge.” Palacios first met Gazdzinski eight years ago, when Gazdzinski did consulting work for the planning of Golf La Roqueta. From the outset, their professional relationship grew into a strong friendship.
Perhaps most unique of all about Palacios’ relationship with Golf La Roqueta is that, together with his wife, Monica, and their dog, Socket, Palacios calls La Roqueta home, living on the second floor of the clubhouse. “Golf La Roqueta is very important to me,” explains Palacios, “Because it is part of my life. I live here and make my living by it. It is my home. It is a part of me. In the course I intend to reflect my personality – I feel very united with it.”
Surprisingly, despite his passion for La Roqueta and savvy as a greenkeeper, Palacios is an incredibly unlikely candidate for the role of superintendent. He studied Aerospace Engineering at the University in Madrid, where he also excelled as a player for the men’s rugby team. Later, he worked as the owner of various pharmacies where he developed an ethical sensitivity and “opposition to the use of pesticides.” And arguably the most exciting and interesting of all, Palacios is a former race car driver who competed in on-road and off-road rallies, as well as long-distance races in Africa known as “raids.”
He followed in the footsteps of his father, who is a former Spanish rally champion. Palacios is more than happy to regale attentive listeners with nail-biting stories of racing cars (whether in a race or not) alongside his father in the European countryside – like the time they were speeding through Eastern Europe, behind the then-Iron Curtain. Road block after road block failed to stop them, because the authorities in Eastern European countries didn’t have a car fast enough to catch their roadster…until a hulking pair of Soviet tanks blocked the roadway.
Today, Palacios has traded in his adrenaline-inducing racing for the more modest drive of a golf ball or mower down the fairways of his course. Still, a peek inside the first-floor garage of the clubhouse where maintenance equipment is stored reveals one of Palacios’ prized material possessions – a factory-modified two-door BMW Z3 Roadster. Late one evening after a post-conference dinner with members of the Spanish Association of Greenkeepers and the Royal Spanish Golf Federation, I sat in the passenger seat of the Z3 as Palacios confidently and precisely cornered the roadster through the turns of a highway outside of Barcelona – at 220 kilometers per hour (138 MPH) – and I knew then that Palacios must have been a formidable opponent in his days as a professional racer. Old habits die hard, and in fact, Palacios has recently started racing again, this time as an amateur in his spare time from his responsibilities as a superintendent.
The Golf Course That Almost Wasn’t
On June 10, 2000 a torrential rain fell in the Manresa region of Spain, which includes Golf La Roqueta, Montserrat and the Rio Cardener. High atop Montserrat, catastrophic mudslides damaged the mountain’s world-famous monastery to such an extent that repairs continued more than three years later. Down below at Golf La Roqueta, the Rio Cardener had swollen from a normally placid river ten meters wide to a turbulent and destructive sea more than three hundred meters across. Standing atop a gentle rise behind the clubhouse above the seventh fairway, Palacios’ wife Monica recalled waking up early that morning: “This was all under water,” she says, surveying the golf course.
The timing couldn’t have been worse. La Roqueta was staged to host an upcoming Volvo Tournament, and the course was already groomed for the competition. Gazdzinski was scheduled to visit La Roqueta for a consultation visit. “Rubèn called me early that morning,” recalls Gazdzinski, “to say that it wasn’t necessary for me to come to the course since it no longer existed.” But Gazdzinski, as not only Palacios’ colleague but also a close personal friend, decided to make the visit that day anyway. It proved a challenging journey, with many highways cut off and impassable due to the extreme flooding. “What I saw when I finally reached the course was beyond my imagination,” says Gazdzinski.
Only three of the nine holes were even identifiable as belonging to a golf course. The remaining six holes lay somewhere beneath more than thirty feet of water, only the uppermost branches of the course’s tall poplar trees visible. Just one year after it had opened, it appeared that the golf course would be no more – La Roqueta would become another short chapter in the centuries-old tale of the land, and just one more story of tried and failed human endeavor along the banks of the Cardener.
Palacios was understandably distraught, fearing that his livelihood would perish with the golf course. “I asked Rubèn to calm down,” recalls Gazdzinski, “and wait until the water went down to evaluate the damage.” Two days later, when the water finally receded, the course looked as though it had just been through a “great battle.” Some greens were completely washed out (including their drainage pipes), trees were broken, toppled, or completely missing, and parts of the course were buried under feet of sediment. La Roqueta lay suffocating and suffering under tons of silt and debris. “It was the end to the existence of Golf La Roqueta,” says Gazdzinski, “or at least it seemed like that.”
Time was of the essence and fast action was needed to save the remains of Golf La Roqueta. In a moving display of brotherhood and camaraderie, Gazdzinski put operations at Golf Sant Joan on hold to help his friend in need. “I decided to help Rubèn by all possible means to save his course,” says Gazdzinski. “I asked my Golf Sant Joan crew to work as volunteers in their free time to rescue La Roqueta. The response was one hundred percent.”
They rushed to Golf La Roqueta with shovels in hand -- along with whatever machinery they could transport, including tractors, loaders, and sand trap rakes. Palacios, Gazdzinski, and their respective maintenance crews toiled and persevered side-by-side, desperately working to dig out the greens. Ultimately, five of La Roqueta’s nine greens were saved. Fifteen days after the flood the practice area was open to the public. Little by little Palacios opened holes for play – three months later the five holes where Palacios and Gazdzinki’s crews had saved the greens were open for play.
During this difficult time of rebuilding, local commercial golf distributors and sellers postponed payments on equipment for Palacios, and many club members continued to pay their dues although they knew they’d be unable to play golf at La Roqueta for many months. “Thanks to the kindness and support of people in all parts of the golf community, Rubèn could finally a see a light at the end of the tunnel for Golf La Roqueta,” says Gazdzinski. “The end of the story you can judge for yourself.”
A year and a half later La Roqueta returned to normal operations with its full nine holes, and today, La Roqueta is alive and prospering. “Without the help of Darek (Gazdzinski and his crew), I don’t know what we would have been left with,” says Palacios. “To see the countryside desolated, with everything destroyed, and hundreds of trees and dirt thrown on top of what used to be a precious golf course, makes you feel powerless and weak. Yet starting from this we drew strength and decided to rebuild the golf course, making it better than it was before, and that makes me proud and happy.”
Any story about Golf La Roqueta would be incomplete without the mention of family. Whether the father-son relationship that gave birth to La Roqueta, or the friendship between Palacios and Gazdzinski that saved it, the magic of Golf La Roqueta lies within the relationships and bonds – the family – that define the club. “Throughout everything, we (Monica and I) intend for the club to be like a well-received family, and a good place to work,” says Palacios. “This is very important to us, because Monica, my dog, Socket, and I live here as well, and we work many hours here.”
To see the smiles of the staff, and of the children in the junior golf school, is to see that La Roqueta is a family. When Palacios says, “We are like a family,” one knows that he is succeeding in achieving his goal.
It might be Palacios’ hospitality and the friendly allure of the La Roqueta family, or perhaps it’s the challenge of the course and its beautiful natural setting, but one thing is certain – Golf La Roqueta is drawing an ever-increasing base of devotees, new members to the family. Activity at the course has jumped to 20,000 rounds played per year, and the number continues to grow with each season.
Palacios and Golf La Roqueta seem intent on breaking down social barriers, and on dispelling myths about what a golf course is and who can play golf. La Roqueta continues to attract an increasingly diverse cadre of golfers, from nationally famous professional football (soccer) players from the Futbol Club de Barcelona, and the high society of Catalunya’s financial world, to the fifty children in the juniors program and the amateur adults who take aim at La Roqueta’s greens, Palacios welcomes everyone to the game of golf. “My hope is that the golf school, together with my staff of professionals, will help to bring golf to as many people as possible, children and adults alike,” says Palacios. “At Golf La Roqueta, all the world is welcome.”
Well, almost all the world. Spanish legislation mandates that golfers purchase an annual golf license, which insures the golfer and the club against injuries incurred in the course of play. Armed with a license and a passion for the game, anyone who pays the requisite green fee is welcome at La Roqueta (which, with no members, is known in Spain as a pay-and-play course). “Everyone that wants to play golf at La Roqueta will be well-received,” explains Palacios.
Looking Towards the Future
In 2002 Palacios was named by his peers to the Spanish delegation for FEGGA (the Federation of European Golf Greenkeeper Associations). It was an honor which he neither applied for nor expected, a sign that what started as a recreational interest in golf has grown into a passion, a livelihood, and perhaps best and most encouraging of all, professional success and respect for Palacios.
Never content to rest on past accomplishments, Palacios now looks to his future as a superintendent with very specific goals. He wants to obtain approval from the government to utilize recycled water for irrigation. As a registered member of Audubon International’s Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Program for Golf Courses (with certification in Environmental Planning), Palacios is looking to follow the recommendations and guidelines of Audubon to achieve designation as a Certified Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary for Golf La Roqueta. And lastly, Palacios has applied to Scotland’s Edinburgh School of Art to complete a degree program in Golf Course Architecture so that he can better design his own nine additional holes for La Roqueta and make the course a complete eighteen.
For a man who never set out to live a life of golf, Palacios has shown countless others, superintendents included, what it means to live a life passionately devoted to a game, a livelihood, and a profession so many of us know and love. “Rubèn puts a lot of himself into his golf course,” says Gazdzinski. “He is an owner who works his course arm in arm with his groundsmen. At the same time, he loves to play, and is an excellent player. He is very proud of what his golf course represents for the local environment, and for the community. And he is a true friend of friends. I think it is all because he loves what he is doing.”
Palacios sums it best when he reiterates, simply, “I love my country course.” Anyone who knows him, and any superintendent with his heart in the game and the profession, knows exactly how Palacios feels.