One of Europe’s most spec­tac­u­lar cour­ses was cre­ated 20 years ago on Por­tu­gal’s At­lantic coast. Chris Ber­tram savours the sun, sand and sea spray of Praia D’El Rey.

Golf World (UK) - - CONTENTS -

Analysing the mer­its of the finest cour­ses in Europe, Chris Ber­tram heads for Praia D’El Rey – and one of the game’s great back nines.

Travel widely in Con­ti­nen­tal Europe and you will dis­cover very few of the sea­side cour­ses of­ten touted as links pass even a sym­pa­thetic lit­mus test. Yet while there are lim­ited amounts of fes­cue and mar­ram grass on main­land Europe’s coastal cour­ses – and thus re­fer­ring to most as links is frankly lu­di­crous – you do not strug­gle to un­cover breath­tak­ing sea­side set­tings. They might sit on fluffy rye­grass or poa rather than au­then­tic linksland, but Con­ti­nen­tal Europe of­fers many awe-in­spir­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties to play by the sea. And while heath­lands are usu­ally un­der-ap­pre­ci­ated for their play­ing ex­pe­ri­ence and ex­quis­ite set­tings, there is just some­thing ex­tra spe­cial about play­ing by the coast.

This month’s is­sue high­lights many such cour­ses, Top 100 venues in coun­tries rang­ing from Bel­gium to Si­cily and Turkey to Ger­many. If the al­lure of these cour­ses isn’t solely its coastal set­ting, it is un­doubt­edly a fun­da­men­tal part. Course ar­chi­tec­ture snobs will of­ten pin­point some de­sign flaws in these cour­ses, for their del­i­cate lo­ca­tions mean com­pro­mises in the over­all rout­ing and in individual holes were of­ten im­pos­si­ble to avoid. The ar­chi­tects of the cour­ses them­selves would prob­a­bly ad­mit to con­ces­sions. Yet it’s hard not to feel an over­whelm­ing ma­jor­ity of club golfers would barely no­tice them, be­cause for most, the set­ting’s ‘wow’ fac­tor over­rides nu­ances in ar­chi­tec­ture and also prob­a­bly whether or not it is an au­then­tic links.

Praia D’El Rey sits neatly in this cat­e­gory. It is not a links. It is not ‘links like’, ex­cept vis­ually. Yet any­one play­ing the stretch of holes in the mid­dle of Praia D’El Rey’s back nine will surely be able to re­call them vividly for­ever; it is one of Con­ti­nen­tal Europe’s most in­vig­o­rat­ing se­quence of holes.

PDR sits on Por­tu­gal’s At­lantic seaboard, on what is known as the ‘Sil­ver Coast’. An hour north-west of Lis­bon near the must-visit me­dieval town of Obidos, it is framed by the pro­tected land­scape of the Serra de Mon­te­junto and flaw­less beaches. It is home to Por­tu­gal’s only ma­rine na­ture re­serve and is a mecca for surfers as well as golfers.

The lat­ter group started com­ing here in num­bers 20

years ago, when PDR was laid out by American Ca­bell B Robin­son, the course be­ing the cen­tre­piece of a fledg­ling re­sort that has grown sig­nif­i­cantly over two decades.

It has been in our Con­ti­nen­tal Top 100 ever since, rank­ing 30th in 2017. That was ac­tu­ally a spot down from 2015, the irony be­ing it fell by one po­si­tion as a re­sult of a sen­sa­tional new course en­ter­ing the list at No.25 – its new sis­ter course West Cliffs, which sits five min­utes along the coast.

PDR’s set­ting has nat­u­rally been key to its en­dur­ing Top 100 sta­tus. This year it scored 18.4 out of 20 for set­ting; only a hand­ful of the other 99 topped 18 in this cat­e­gory.

The beach­side holes are the ba­sis for the af­fec­tion. This is as raw as a sea­side scene gets out­side Bri­tain and Ire­land: At­lantic waves crash­ing onto the bright white beach; piles of sand lin­ing the fair­ways that sus­tain only in­dige­nous veg­e­ta­tion; un­du­lat­ing fair­ways that were at least in part shaped by wind-blown sand; even the clas­sic pen­cil-thin fence that of­ten marks the bound­ary of our own links. There is a tan­gi­bly au­then­tic feel to PDR in these holes, with craggy dunes and en­gag­ing green sites, weath­ered wooden signs and dusty shale paths, and even a crum­bling old cot­tage over­look­ing the ocean.

The first sight of this aes­thetic treat ar­rives as you play the 10th, a strong par 5 whose el­e­vated tee of­fers a widean­gle view of the re­sort and the ocean in the back­ground. Af­ter the tough­est par 3 on the card – played straight up­hill to a green shaped like a fid­get spin­ner – comes a good

‘The 14th is a par 3 of 165 yards but is at the mercy of the sea breeze. It is hero­ically scenic’

birdie chance on this half’s sec­ond par 5. This dog-leg left takes you right down to the edge of the beach, the ap­proach shot played against the back­drop of the At­lantic.

On many cour­ses this would be the shot of the round. Here, it is merely a warm-up.

From there you turn right and look down the 13th. The ocean thun­ders in to your left and hardy, low-pro­file veg­e­ta­tion punc­tu­ates the run­ways of white pow­dery sand that line both sides of the wide, vel­vet-green fair­way.

The hole plays into the pre­vail­ing wind and the nar­row green is un­du­lat­ing and runs off into sur­round­ing hol­lows, but it is un­der 300 yards off daily tees and is a good chance for a birdie and an even bet­ter op­por­tu­nity for a pic­ture to re­flect back on at reg­u­lar in­ter­vals over the win­ter.

The 14th tee is just a few steps away – there are buggy paths here but ex­cept for a cou­ple of longer green-to-tee gaps on the front nine, it is def­i­nitely walk­a­ble – so main­tains this sud­den spike in grat­i­fi­ca­tion. It is a beau­ti­ful par 3 of 165 yards, the quaint but di­lap­i­dated clay-roofed, stone cot­tage sit­ting to the left and be­yond it the At­lantic lit­er­ally as far as the eye can see. Be­tween the pris­tine tee and green there is an en­joy­ably un­kempt and nat­u­ral sandy waste area. The long, nar­row green is pro­tected on both sides with con­ti­nen­tal at­tempts at pot bunkers sunk into the swales and mounds. They are not pot bunkers as we un­der­stand them, but are so small as to be awk­ward.

At the mercy of the sea breeze, it is hero­ically scenic but will pe­nalise any­thing other than a sweetly-struck iron.

The coastal jour­ney con­tin­ues with prob­a­bly PDR’s high­light, the 15th (see far right). This par 4 plays right along the shore with the beach and out of bounds left, and bunkers and rough to the right. You no­tice the two drive bunkers, but this is an in­spi­ra­tional rather than in­tim­i­dat­ing scene, and en­cour­ages an at­tempt to catch the downs­lope

The cli­max here is played be­tween sweet-smelling pines. The 3rd green, with the stel­lar holes of the back nine be­yond.

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