On the 15th hole of West Cliffs golf course, just after I’ve pressed my tee peg into the turf, I fall into what you might call a reverie. In front of me sprawls an attractive par five that winds softly left to right through eucalyptus and native scrubland blooming with yellow flowers. The vegetation is rainforest lush and a thick ocean fog trundling across from the Atlantic clings to the fairway – it turns the whole scene into some kind of soft-focus dream sequence.
I snap away with my camera phone before ripping a drive straight down the gullet of the fairway. Let me tell you now, it is perhaps the most ecstatic I have ever felt on a golf course.
Non-golfers don’t appreciate the special kind of joy us players feel when the stars align like this – when the sheer act of getting to play a course feels like a privilege in itself. But, the truth is, when you encounter a place of the condition and quality of West Cliffs there are few pleasures in life that come close.
Portugal’s Silver Coast is where West Cliffs finds its home – a good three-hour drive from the nation’s traditional location for golf in the Algarve. But this pocket of land, just 50 miles north of Lisbon, is an emerging destination for some of the finest courses in the country.
Perhaps most interesting, though, is that these layouts have a totally different feel to their cousins further south. Mediterranean courses tend to be polished, man-made tracks that stand out from the local landscape much like a well-designed garden might do. By contrast, around this neck of the woods you’re much more likely to experience something that’s a little less tame, more attuned to its local environment and, you could argue, more exciting as a result.
Par 72; 7,003 yards
It should be no surprise that Cynthia Dye – a pioneer of a natural, environmentally sensitive style of golf course design – should have chosen to break turf in this part of the world.
West Cliffs, Dye’s first layout in Europe, proves how the best architects are shifting the focus on how we build courses to enhance a land’s topography, rather than bringing in the bulldozer and playing God. Sure, she adds the odd water hole or two, but she peppers their edge with native plant life in such a way as they appear to have always been there.
The golf holes themselves are barely discernible from the surrounding flora, as if nature shaped them itself. It creates an utterly captivating sense of being the first person to explore an untamed entity.
Enough fussing, let’s get down to the golf. The dramatic landscape and ocean views may make for a pretty sight, but distracted golfers will see their score punished heavily. There’s no two ways about it, this is a demanding track: careful shot selection is imperative, accurate tee shots are a must to avoid getting a little too close to all that natural vegetation, and an arsenal of delicate wedge shots will come in handy around the undulating greens.
The challenges come thick and fast from the start: the 419-yard third, stroke index one, requires steely nerves on the tee to thread an undulating fairway, past water right and trouble left, before firing to a green that is protected by both a lake and bunkers.
Choosing a highlight among one of the most exciting and unique courses to open in Europe for years is tricky, but the par three 16th is up there. Hidden away in a nook between the 15th and 17th holes, it plays 186 yards through a corridor of giant sandy dunes and woodland to a tiny green perched on an adjacent hill. It’s one of many smart par-three designs on the course, but it’s as daunting as it is a beautiful sight from the tee. Once you’ve made your way towards the green, though, you’ll realise it was all a trick of the eye: there was far more room than you could see originally. Put a good stroke on a long iron and you’ll make par without difficulty.
That’s the thing about this place – few courses will ask as many questions of your game, but it’s equally inclined to reward the good shots as to punish the bad. The tremendous par-four 18th is testament to this. Stretching out 449 yards downhill towards the Atlantic, the emphasis on a good drive is imperative as a shorter iron shot into the lake-protected green is preferable. Play your second shot off the bunker to the left of the green with a soft cut and you might end up putting it close. (I won’t mention my kick-in birdie…)
For more information, see westcliffs.com
Praia D’el Rey
Par 73; 7,100 yards
A ten-minute drive from West Cliffs is its older sister, Praia D’el Rey – an excellent golf resort, with three different types of accommodation, and an 18-hole championship course that works as the perfect accompaniment to Cynthia Dye’s new creation.
The Beachfront is our choice of the rooms on offer. As the name suggests, it’s a series of ocean-facing townhouses that has ample space and room for four to six golfers in one villa. It’s a great value option, but nevertheless offers a luxury of space that few hotel rooms can provide. The views from the multiple terraces towards the beach are the icing on the cake.
As for the course, American architect Cabell B Robinson (the man behind Spain’s superb Finca Cortesin and La Reserva) has created a schizophrenic beast. It bounds from sanguine woodland, scything through pines, to links-like coastal holes completely exposed to the elements. It all adds up to a round that has a distinct Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde feel.
By the time you reach the thrilling stretch of golf holes between 12 and 15 – the Atlantic crashing dramatically against the shoreline no more than 100 metres away – Praia D’el Rey will have asked a question of each facet of your game. Where most courses may have a mid-round lull, this energetic change in style and layout at any given moment is incredibly engaging; players should always be on their toes for whatever comes next.
The best holes are undoubtedly on the back nine, but they’re also the hardest. Having cleared the tricky downhill par four 15th, with nothing but sand to the left of the fairway, the par five 17th requires three hefty shots to find the green 620 yards up the hill.
A little beaten up and bewildered, my golf party left Praia D’el Rey with a broad smile on our faces. There are some golf courses that create a seamless run of holes that sew together a coherent narrative, but not here – instead you’re looking at a Now That’s What I Call Golf kind of compilation album that always seems to hit the right note.
For more information, see praia-del-rey.com
Par 71; 6,968 yards
In the vicinty of Praia D’el Rey you’ll also find the Seve Ballesteros-designed Royal Óbidos, an excellent addition for those looking to add another round to their itinerary, but my group chose to head south along the coastline in the direction of Lisbon for the final leg of our trip.
The quaint fishing port of Cascais is no more than 40 minutes away from Lisbon airport (helpful when it comes to leaving), and features all the bustle of a vibrant Portuguese town. Conveniently, it’s also a smooth three-wood away from The Oitavos golf resort nestled in the Sintra-Cascais National Park.
This modern five-star hotel comes with excellent facilities and spacious suites perfect for a spot of post-round relaxation, but the real draw is the well-conditioned golf course.
Oitavos Dunes meanders lazily through umbrella pines and sandy waste areas – and while the effect isn’t quite as raw wilderness as West Cliffs, it’s another fine example of a golf course utilising its topography to the max.
The par threes are a particular strength on this varied layout, especially the back-to-back one-shotters of 14 and 15. The former is perhaps the finer of the two and plays 170 yards across a sandy ravine to an elevated green.
Portuguese golf is often typified by the manicured courses in the Algarve but, truly, the area surrounding the nation’s capital is rich with spectacularly idiosyncratic courses that deserve your immediate attention.
For more information, see theoitavos.com