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Southern Horizons

Long a rival to Spain's Costa del Sol for Europe's traveling golfers, the Algarve region along Portugal's Mediterranean coast boasts some of the best golf on the continent

By: Tom Harack

Appeared in November/December 2006 LINKS

As any golfer of a certain age will concede, maturity can be a mixed blessing. Course-management skills become more savvy; unfortunately, this is usually accompanied by the sense that there is more and more course to manage.

A parallel pattern is sometimes evident in golf destinations, but the Algarve—the region in southern Portugal with the lion’s share of the country’s 60 courses—seems for the most part to have aged gracefully. Like other sea-meets-land vacation spots, the Algarve has a timeless quality—the natural beauty of the water, cliffs and beaches are enough to outshine any human intrusion: resorts, real estate and the like.

Still, it is difficult to stop the onslaught of development. But even as many internationally recognized retailers—worthy of their own pedestrian mall—encamp in Faro, the bustling capital of the region, there are plenty of shops featuring pottery, copperware, and other indigenous handicrafts in sedate nearby hill towns like Loule and Alte. For every franchise eatery, there is an unassuming storefront serving the day’s catch from the nearby Atlantic and wines never to be seen back home.

The Algarve manages to embody an intriguing culture as a Portuguese golf destination rather than a bunch of courses that happen to be in Portugal—as well as the closest of continental European golf destinations to the U.S.

Part of Portugal’s appeal is its compactness and ease of navigation. Although Faro has an international airport to accommodate the Algarve’s mostly European clientele, the drive from
Lisbon is a mere two to three hours. For golfers who really cannot wait, a couple of the area’s best courses are close to the airport. One is San Lorenzo Golf Club, site of numerous championships and considered by many to be first among the must-plays, not just in Portugal but throughout Europe.

A Joe Lee layout dating to 1988, San Lorenzo is also a topographical primer for the region, with both ocean vistas and the characteristic rolling terrain, umbrella pines and other conifers of the coastal interiors. Owned by Le Meridien Dona Filipa hotel, San Lorenzo seems to play longer than its 6,824 yards. Two large lakes with peninsula greens also figure prominently in the shotmaking challenge.

Nearly next door is Quinta do Lago, one of the continent’s largest resorts. Spanning 2,000 acres, it includes part of Ria Formosa National Park, a bird sanctuary and a two-mile stretch of beachfront. A favorite of the rich and famous since opening in 1970, the resort completed the first of its two layouts in 1974. The South course, as it is now known, was designed by William Mitchell, the first American to contribute to the Algarve’s golf collection.

Home to the Portuguese Open on a half dozen occasions, the track’s longest hauls are found on several of its par 4s, as it stretches to nearly 7,100 yards. The doglegs, often framed by top-heavy pine trees, comprise some interesting perspectives, the bunkering is thoughtful, the bentgrass greens are fast, and course conditioning is consistently good.

Mitchell later collaborated with Rocky Roquemore on the North. That each designer was responsible for nine holes may be evident to some observers, but the overall effect is to make the easier, more “resortish” North a suitable complement to its sister layout.

An even bigger multicourse complex, though not a single resort, is found at Vilamoura, an upscale recreational development with a 1,000-yacht marina and five layouts. The earliest and still best-known of these is Vilamoura Old. Designed by noted British architect Frank Pennink and completed in 1969, it shows its provenance in contours and routing reminiscent of parkland and heathland courses in Great Britain.  

Accuracy is key on this par-73, 6,839-yard layout where tall pines define the tight fairways. The four par 3s resemble each other only in their difficulty—the 232-yard 6th, with out of bounds to the right, may be the toughest of the bunch.

Pennink was also responsible for the ori-ginal design of the Pinhal course, made over in 1985 by Robert Trent Jones Jr. Not as severe as the Old, it can nonetheless be sneaky long, particularly in its deployment of trees. There is also Martin Hawtree’s Millennium, and Laguna, another Lee project. Wind is a factor on both tracks, which for the most part play over open terrain.

Vilamoura’s newest course, the Victoria Club, is an indicator of the Algarve’s evolving golf ethos. The 7,174-yard Arnold Palmer design, which opened in 2004, is a course for the 21st century and hosted the 2005 World Cup, showcasing the area to a worldwide audience. “This will do a lot for golf in Portugal,” says Vilamoura developer Andre Jordan. “I think over the years this course will turn out to be one of the best in Europe.”

While Victoria is a high-profile addition to the Algarve golf scene, some of the less well-known courses are not necessarily inferior. “Go deep,” as Portuguese tourism officials advise, and do some exploring.  The weather and the exotic landscape make a bad choice unlikely.

Try Vila Sol, for example, for a comparison with Donald Steel’s work in the U.K. Or check out the stunning vistas and 200-yard carry from the clifftop par-3 16th tee at the Vale do Lobo Royal course by Sir Henry Cotton, a trailblazer in Algarve golf.

Parque da Floresta, the westernmost course in the Algarve, offers a par 71 designed by Pepe Gancedo, an architect well known in Latin American golf circles.

You will likely be exhausted before the possibilities are.   

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