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Seve gem puts Porto Santo on the map

Given a free hand to create a course that would satisfy his own imagination, it is hardly surprising to discover that in the shape of Porto Santo, Seve has produced a gem of a layout to entertain and delight. Lewine Mair reports

It was during the 2003 Madeira Island Open at Santo da Serra that Seve Ballesteros came bursting, unannounced, into the press tent. “I’ve just been to Paradise,” he told the bemused ensemble of writers. The Paradise to which he referred was Porto Santo, a little island lying 50kms north east of Madeira – a few minutes by plane or a couple of hours by boat.

Six years on and Porto Santo is a Treasure Island of golf.Not only is it the venue of arguably the best of Seve’s layouts (along with the added bonus of a fabulous Par Three course), but there is a second Ballesteros creation in the bag,with the work due to start in the next couple of years.

When Seve made that first trip it was at the request of Francisco Taboada and Miguel Sousa, two Porto Santo officials who felt the island needed a golf resort.That way, it would become rather more than merely a summer destination for people from Madeira and the Portuguese mainland. If things went well, it would attract a steady stream of golfers from all over Europe.

Ballesteros loved what he saw as the helicopter flew over the so-called Golden Isle. But it was when the plane touched down and he was let loose on the land that his imagination ran riot.One minute he was shaping to hit an imaginary ball across the cliff tops and another he was harbouring mischievous ideas as to how he could make the most of the teasing winds as he plotted the routing.

Above all, he was smitten with the jagged gem of a coast-line on the island’s western rim. “This,” he said, “will be fantastic if only I am allowed to do what I want.”

It was probably no coincidence that an inspired Ballesteros went on to make the cut at Santo da Sierra that week. It would be the last in his long and illustrious career. Apart from asking the Spaniard to create a course which would cater for players of all standards rather than merely the professionals, Taboada and his colleagues gave the old champion the free hand he wanted.

It helped, of course, that the invitation had come at the optimum time in Seve’s career as a designer. In the mid-90s, the reaction to his alterations of the notorious 17th green at Valderrama had prompted more alarm than admiration. Again, much the same applied when he was asked to update Crans-sur-Sierre, home of the Omega European Masters. Some of his roller-coaster greens were well-nigh unplayable and, to his ill-disguised irritation, a new spate of remedial work had to be undertaken.

Gradually, Ballesteros accepted that had to please his clients rather than merely himself. At Porto Santo, they believe that he has done precisely that, though it has to be said that some among the professionals playing the course as set up for this year’s Madeira Islands Open needed a bit of convincing.“If it is tough for us,” said a chuckling Costantino Rocco, “what will it be like for amateurs.Did Seve think he was creating a course for the Masters?” Carl Sunesson volunteered that “the trouble” with Ballesteros courses in general was that the Spaniard expected everyone to have the same degree of imagination he has. “No one,” he averred, “thinks as Seve does.”

The Swede was right enough on that point but what about the other side of the argument? Namely, that if you want to be a magician, you have to practice the art and where better than Porto Santo. “If you played here all the time,” said England’s Anthony Wall,“you’d have a brilliant short-game.”

Scotland’s Stephen O’Hara, even though he had missed the cut by a shot,would not be swayed from his original view that that they were playing something very special.“It’s a great course and a demanding one,” he said.“I loved the fact that it wasn’t a matter of pulling out your lob wedge whenever you missed the green. I was hitting putts from off the edge, chips-and-runs – and generally doing something different every time.OK, the greens are small but the bail-out areas are kind.”

It was Carlos Rodiles, one of Ballesteros’ compatriots,who summed the situation up as well as anyone.“There are so many tournaments where we don’t need imagination at all,” he said.“All you have to do is bomb the ball off the tee before whacking it out of the rough. We need more weeks like this.”

The European Tour had come to much the same conclusion when they first came to survey Porto Santo.They had said that there was no point in growing the rough for the tournament – and that all that was needed to toughen the place up for the professionals was to keep the greens firm and the areas around them nicely shorn.

Seve would have loved all the to-ing and froing which ensured that his name could not have got more mentions had he spent the entire week at the top of the leader-board. Even Estanislao Goya, the thrillingly-gifted young Argentine who won by a shot from Scotland’s Macaulay, had to give best to the Spaniard in terms of publicity.

There were times over the tournament days when the players had the feeling that Seve was involved in all the debate.

For instance, it was not too long after Paul Broadhurst,who is never afraid to say what he thinks, had described some of the short-hole greens as “ridiculous”, that you could almost hear Ballesteros drawing humorous attention to events at the 230 yards 17th.There, Bernd Wiesberger, armed with a four-iron, had not only held that apparently impossible putting surface but holed in one. Again, at the 339 yards, downhill 11th,where the players had been shrugging their shoulders and complaining there was nowhere to go off the tee, news came that one Carlos del Moral had knocked his drive 346 yards on to the green and putted out from eight feet for his eagle.

No-one needs to ask if Porto Santo course is windy. You just have to look at windmills on the hill rising beyond the clubhouse – a smallholding of windmills rather than a wind farm – to know that the island is never still.Yet the winds seldom add up to anything more than 25 kms per hour,while the temperature seldom dips below 17 degrees.

For all 18 holes, the course marries with the landscape. As on Madeira itself, no-one wastes an inch of land,with the sides of the mountains nicely ridged to allow for layers of vines here, vegetables there. At Porto Santo, the same applies on the front nine with the first and second fairways on one level, the eighth and ninth on the next one down – and the prettiest of par three courses in the valley below.The par-3, incidentally, is another Seve design and one which is no less perfectly groomed than the course itself.

Yet it is the back nine, with particular reference to holes 13 to 16,which make for most of the excitement.Take the 200 yards 13th where only a pretty, open-work fence stands between course and cliff-top. The fencing will not stop a ball rolling over the edge any more than it will lessen the feeling of vertigo as you stand on a back tee in keeping with the ninth at Turnberry.

The aforementioned Rocco, incidentally, has so poor a head for heights that he had to hit his tee-shot virtually on the run.“It gives me heart pains if I see down the cliffs,” he explained. The 393 yards, downhill 14th offers a host of options, all of them inducing the fear of God.The bravest, or the most foolish – and there were quite a few competitors who were one or the other – can go for the green. The 128 yards fifteenth is a Postage Stamp of a par three,while the sixteenth tee offers the kind of staggering view which prompted Broadhurst to admit, apologetically, that Porto Santo had overtaken Crans-sur-Sierre at the top of his list of beautiful courses.

So which is the signature hole? You ask the locals and they shrug their shoulders.They have the proverbial embarrassment of riches on their hands and they will have a new vein when the second course comes into play.The land involved extends from the south side of the clubhouse rather than the north but it is completely different, featuring gorges as darkly brooding as Ballesteros himself .Already, it has the look of golfing country,what with a handful of small green islets crying out to serve as greens and tees.

Though a quick glance across the rugged landscape does not suggest of too many easy pars,word has it that the lay-out will be the easier of the two.

The picturesque qualities of the complex were best captured by one of the photographers – on this occasion in words rather than pictures.

“I feel under such pressure here,” he said nervously.“This place is so lovely that you can only lose. People expect every photo to be a stunner.”

Reproduced with kind permission of Golf International Magazine

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