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Golf in Portugal

Let's face it, Portugal has always been the jayvee Spain. It has all the same attractions; the sun, beaches, and bullfights, the smooth wines and mellow guitars, but you hardly ever hear about them. Apparently, Iberian neighbor Spain monopolized the press agents. Especially in golf. Think about it. On the global roster of great courses, Spain weighs in with Valderrama, El Saler, Las Brisas, and Sotogrande -- four courses known to many discerning golfers. Meanwhile, Portugal has...hmm. Spain spawned Ballesteros, Olazabal, and Garcia. Portugal gave us...let's see...Can it be true? Are there really no world-class golfers or top-ranked places to play in Portugal?

Yes and no. The sad fact is, among the top 500 players on the current world rankings, not one carries a Portuguese passaporto. But that absence is not for lack of great training grounds. Recently, when the British magazine Golf World named the top 100 courses in continental Europe, 11 of them were in Portugal; that's 23 percent of the nation's 49 courses. Granted, Spain had 17 courses on the list, but from a supply of nearly 200. So arguably, there's a higher concentration of good golf in Portugal than in Spain. Not to mention the fact that it's cheaper, less crowded, and almost an hour closer to North America by plane.

Yet Portugal remains one of golf traveldom's best-kept secrets. Indeed, when the opportunity arose for a passage to Portugal, I had to ransack my trivia-cluttered brain for a golf-relevant nugget or two. The only neurons on duty fired off vague notions of "Henry Cotton" and "The Algarve." Cotton, the feisty, foppish three-time British Open champ, had -- at some point and for some reason I couldn't quite recall -- embraced Portugal. As for "The Algarve," I knew it was a geographic locale, but the "The" lent it an air of uncertainty. Was it a street like The Ginza? A resort like The Broadmoor? A city like The Hague?

None of the above. Viewed on a map, The Algarve is the first floor of the ten-story building that is Portugal. A 50 x 150-mile area bordered on the south and west by the Atlantic Ocean, it's essentially an extension of Spain's Costa del Sol, the region that boasts Valderrama, Las Brisas, and Sotogrande. Although less boastful, The Algarve has two dozen courses and counting, with at least five or six of them worthy of attention. Our first round, at Ria Formosa, was the perfect opener, pleasantly challenging without being too taxing. Despite -- or perhaps because of -- jet lag, my first swing found the fairway, my first approach found the green, and my first putt found the hole. Enormously pleased with myself, I announced to my companions, "I'm one under for Portugal!"

Such swagger is rarely a good idea. My very next tee shot snipe-hooked into a patch of aromatic but inescapable flora, and 10 minutes later I was two over for Portugal. Still, I managed to break 80 -- the only time on the trip. Rio Formosa is one of four courses that emanate from Quinto do Lago, a Hilton Head-type compound marked by gated communities and palm-lined streets. It's also home to Portugal's best course, San Lorenzo, which ranks fifth on the Golf World list (and 64th on GOLF Magazine's "Top 100 Courses in the World"). American architect Joe Lee routed this beauty through stands of pine and around two lakes, while also affording wonderful views of the Atlantic. Speaking of lists, hole number six, a 424-yard par four set along the river for which the course is named, appears on our Par 2000 list of the Top 500 Holes in the World (see page 99, January 2000 issue).

Quick Facts

RIA FORMOSA GC
Almansil, The Algarve

SAN LORENZO GC
Almansil, The Algarve

PENINA GC
Portim -- o, The Algarve

VALE DE LOBO GC
Almansil, The Algarve

BELAS CLUBE DE CAMPO
Belas, Lisboa

PENHA LONGA GC
Sintra, Lisboa

QUINTA DA MARINHA GC
Cascais, Lisboa

ESTORIL GC
Estoril, Lisboa

History buffs will appreciate the Henry Cotton connection at nearby Penina. In 1966, Cotton pioneered Algarve golf when he built this course on an old rice farm, using drainage ditches as unforgiving hazards. He also supervised the planting of nearly 400,000 trees. The par of Penina is 73 (35-38), with the back nine both beginning and ending with two consecutive par fives. The 13th, a 229-yard par three, is another of our Top 500 Holes in the World.

But surely the most famed, feared, and photographed hole in The Algarve, and for that matter Portugal and Spain, is the seventh at Vale de Lobo. The hole demands a heart-stopping shot across serrating ocean cliffs, to a false-front green that rejects all but the brave and true. Despite several sets of tees, my delusional foursome insisted on trooping back to the hero blocks. No one found the green, no one found short grass, and no one made bogey, let alone par. Our cumulative score was 21.

After such humiliation, the Quinto do Lago hotel was kind comfort. On the terrace of our room, my wife and I enjoyed the sunset while sipping one of Portugal's tawny ports. Later, we convened for dinner at the hotel's Italian restaurant, where our gourmet five-course meal laid rest to the adage "never eat where you sleep."

Portugal's other golf hub is the city of Estoril, an hour's flight up the west coast. Latitudinally, it's pin-high to Manhattan (but offers much more in the way of golf). Though the capital city of Lisbon is only a short train ride away, our group was more captivated by the village of Sintra, with its narrow cobblestone streets lined with shops and restaurants, and by the coastal town of Cascais, a lively mix of bars, cafes, and open-air markets where the vendors set up tables and "trade." (My bank account is still recovering from a couple of my wife's trades.) A bit like the terrain that surrounds Estoril, our golf had its ups and downs. However it was here that we found the single most impressive course of the trip, the Belas Clube de Campo.

Set high in the Carregueira mountains, Belas is a sprawling layout with broad fairways, undulating greens, and dramatic elevation changes. It's similar in look and feel to the Plantation Course at the Kapalua Resort in Hawaii, host of the PGA Tour's Mercedes Championships each January. Belas was designed by William (Rocky) Roquemore, an American responsible for several other Portuguese courses. If your course-management style errs to the daredevil side, you'll have all you can handle here, as several holes call for heroic carries. Belas is still young, but seems destined to take its place among Europe's finest and most popular layouts.

Already among that elite is Penha Longa, a Robert Trent Jones Jr. design nestled in the Sintra mountains on the site of a 14th-century convent. The signature hole here -- another member of our famed 500 -- is the sixth, a tumbling par five that's reachable in two if you can avoid the pond on the left and the remains of the ancient stone aqueduct on the right. One of my playing partners saved his par after pitching his fourth shot through one of the aquedcut's arches, an assignment he is unlikely to face anyplace else.

No Portuguese course gets closer to the sea than Quinta da Marinha, a Trent Jones Sr. design set in a wooded private estate on the edge of the Atlantic. Holes 13 through 15 play within a hundred yards or so of the blue waves, and a second course is due here soon. Less than a mile from our room at the Hotel Palacio is one of Portugal's oldest courses, the Estoril Golf Club, where the original nine-hole course dates to 1929.

In 1945 Mackenzie Ross, who designed Turnberry in Scotland, did his best to stretch this into 18 holes, but concessions later had to be made when the Lisbon-Estoril highway was built. The result is two lengthy walks across a footbridge crossing the highway, the second of them coming between the 16th and 17th holes. (If you haven't played well, this can feel like a very long trek -- believe me.)

The par here is 69, the yardage about 5,900, but some interesting holes lurk in the middle. Even long hitters can have some fun here, either by leaving the driver home and trying to pick the holes apart with long irons and short woods, or by going for broke off the tee. (At least three of the par fours are reachable by anyone who can hit a ball 250 yards off the tee.)

I, of course, chose option two, which worked for about six holes. Then I found my game. At about the same time, my body began to complain. This was the last round of a whirlwind seven-day trip, and our entire foursome had begun to suffer from an insufficiency of sleep and an oversufficiency of port. By the time I crossed that footbridge again, I was barely conscious.

However, at the uphill, 250-yard 18th hole, after once again attempting to drive the green, I recovered with my best shot of the week, a sort of turbo-flop shot that jumped from its leafy lie beside the cart barn, barely cleared the clubhouse awning, climbed over a stand of eucalyptus trees, and then soared majestically across the first tee, some decorative plantings, the putting green and two greenside bunkers before pelting down one foot from the cup. Thanks to that bit of artistry, I was able to save my double-bogey six, and yet another memory of Portugal.

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