THE LURE OF THE OCEAN
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.
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.