The recession has some upsides, and not least is the way Portugal is busily uncorking a new golfing era. A recent presentation by eight of their top golfing regions at the Portuguese Embassy in London was evidence for it. Shaking down to euro realities, there is a general acknowledgement that over-building and over-pricing has marred the initial, dewy-bright image. And that something serious needs to be done about it.
Just talk? Not, anyway, in the capital city of Lisbon, closest of all to the money crisis. The housing market has stalled, worse probably in Portugal than most European countries. As a consequence, top designer courses inside the city's commuter belt, built as comely accessories, are crying out for tourist custom, and these days at more acceptable prices. A trip recently confirmed it, and not just because TAP out of Heathrow or Gatwick still serves you a decent sandwich and generous glass of their country’s deeply under-rated red.
Uncrowded, classily styled, maybe twothirds of the price of Algarve hotspots, Lisbon’s courses, more especially to the lesser known south and east, seek a new public. This is not to decry the long-established courses of Estoril and Cascais, westwards on the northern fringe of the Tejo’s vast estuary, or, come to that, the Atlantic coast clubs up to Praia d’El Rey, all strictly part of the 24-club ‘Lisbon Golf Coast.’ Only to point out that by their commuter-designated origin, the largely undiscovered Easterly courses have equally good minibus or hire-car accessibility, not to speak of a four-bedroom plan at the drop of a euro deposit.
Lisbon owes its prideful architecture to a disaster, the 1755 earthquake and tsunami, 30 metres high, that destroyed 85% of its buildings and killed more than 30,000 of its quarter-million population. The Algarve was all but engulfed and a two-metre high wave lashed Cornwall’s shores, but that is another story.
Today, Lisbon, lone European capital of the Atlantic seaboard, rises in noble squares and close-tiled lanes above the mighty Tejo, or Tagus, as we might have it. Two great bridges, the 25th of April and the Vasco da Gama, connect it south and south-east to what were intended as quality commuter suburbs. Roads then lead to the Alentejo and Algarve, as our family discovered on an epic Vauxhall Victor Estate expedition 47 years ago. That, again, is another story – in the Sixties you crossed the Tejo by slow, romantic ferry.
These days, the Quinta do Peru club, halfan- hour beyond the April 25 suspension bridge towards Setubal, boasts the hand of Rocky Roquemore, designer or part-designer of the Algarve quiver of Quinta do Lago North, Vale do Lobo Royal, and Quintas de Cima and da Ria. To Lisbon’s south-east, across the Vasco do Gama’s 10.7 miles of cable bridge and pontoon, come Santo Estaveo and Ribagolfe I and II, respectively the work of Donald Steel and European Golf Design. More to the north-east, up from the valley of the Tejo, comes Golden Eagle, another Rocky design, making a nap hand of resort-style courses in this distinct eastern half of Greater Lisbon.
Golf in the sunshine? That is a part of it, always allowing an occasional Atlantic muscularity to Lisbon’s weather, where the Algarve regularly milks the Azores highpressure ridge. Our Anglo-Irish group was happy enough in a May mixture of sun, cloud and rain – a week later it would have been unbroken 30 degrees. Judged by true, hard Penncross greens, Quinta do Peru was happy enough with the rain that came as we settled down that evening to a traditional Portuguese stew in our castellated Palmela pousada, Lisbon’s lights ablaze to our north.
Rocky has his Algarve critics – too long, too many shallow bunkers, too much ‘fashion’ water, too many umbrella pines… but he can’t help those, poor chap. His design at Quinta do Peru, or Farm of the Turkey, has encouraged not only some classy fairway homes, which might only incite his critics, but is home to Portugal’s best young amateur player. The 21-year-old Pedro (Figgy) Figueiredo stunned amateur golf by becoming 2008 British Boys and Irish Open champion and currently enjoying a starring role at UCLA. So, on a course ranked 57 in Europe, no talk of golfing turkeys here, only the hope of a Portuguese Ballesteros.
Its features are mature pine and cork oaks, some classy housing largely held in check for views across to the Arrabida hills, a genuine water challenge to closing holes, and bunkering and greens demanding careful thought for the low handicapper.
Typically, Rocky has gone for length, though the Tigers off 6,842 metres are leavened by a generous 5,645 for the less macho. The first hole tells you a lot, a parfive of ample fairway to a green shrewdly guarded by bunkers front and side. It cannot be hit and hope. Stroke Index One, if you please. The par threes are not hysterically over-long, the 8th of 199 metres (151 off the yellows) offering no real escape bar the drop zone, and the best of them, the 14th, a teasing 170 or 160-metre carry, or maybe a side-route offering bunkers fore and aft. At the 17th and 18th, two fours – a short, tricky dogleg then a tough, uphill 387-metre stroke-index 2 – may make you wish you were a Figgy, but the clubhouse is restorative in decent Portugal fashion.
The Donald Steel designed Santo Estevao, one of three close-grouped courses in cork forest over the Vasco da Gama bridge south-east of the capital, offers a midweek green fee of 28 euros, April to October. To add that lunch there was the best of the trip, bream in a melt-in-the-mouth tempura, creates a proper perspective.
The prime 2004 objective was the sale of generous lots for quality housing in green areas strictly outside the course environment. A few have been built for around 400,000 euros, but golfers for the time being have prime use of a typically intelligent Steel adaptation of open cork forest, trees numbered for specific harvesting.
Stray shots can usually find a lie, even among Spring flowers and golden herbs, but at cost to length. Our Scratchmen were forced to think carefully to stay in the numbers game. Notable holes of a par-73, 6,382-metre test are the 499-metre third, water straight ahead to galvanise the drive; the par-four seventh, water to catch the sliced approach; the 11th, a 421-metre par four with green set before the resort's prime lake; and another monster four, the 430-metre 17th, to catch out tired legs. Close by, in equally quiet cork-oak countryside.
Ribagolfe I and II are 2004 creations of Peter Townsend and Michael King of European Golf Design, bearing similar British hallmarks to the Donald Steel. We had time only for the longer Ribagolfe I, which at 6,707 metres, or 7,370 yards, proved testing enough for the 2006 European Seniors. The variety of tee boxes keep it within bounds for holidaymakers, but everyone can let rip on the relatively flat surfaces, always minding some deepish bunkers and relatively narrow fairways. Large greens, some on deceptive upslopes, are a constant challenge, water a later one, coming strongly in to play at the 12th, 14th and 15th holes.
Golden Eagle completed our family of Lisbon specials. This time another Top 100 European course, another Rocky Roquemore, our minibus from the city-centre Sheraton following a route north-east up the Tejo estuary, followed by a turning off towards Rio Major. An exclusive members’ club known as Quinta do Brincal when it opened in 1994, Golden Eagle was much refurbished under a change of ownership. As yet there is little sign of housing, only a sense of privilege at having a par-72, open-door 6,612-metre course in rolling, pine and cork-oak countryside an hour from the city. It has more a Florida-style lay-out with 87 svelte sand bunkers, eight designer water features, and large, true Penncross greens.
A group of Swedish ladies fearlessly set off in a drizzle. No buggies. Pulling carts. We exercised ourselves awhile on the ample practice facilities. Other than designer waterfall not gushing over landscaped rocks – in the rain no doubt a useful saving – the water challenge is at its best on the shortest hole, the 148-metre 12th (129 off the yellows). There’s nothing for it but a high iron to a peninsula green with bunkers fore and aft. I found water to the right, chipped to 18 inches from the drop zone on the far side of the green, and was so pleased by my bogey four I left my pitching wedge behind. Not too much of a problem since buggies are readily available, as everywhere, and 90-degree fairway access much the norm. You need all the stamina you have for the final holes. If criticism I have it is of clover immediately adjacent to close-cut fairway. Excuse, no doubt, for tired, wobbly driving.
In essence, when a second championship course from Bernhard Langer becomes available, this Eagle will truly have landed. And Lisbon will have further cemented itself as one of the world’s great golfing capitals.