Story and Photos by Robert Kaufman
Occasionally, it pays to make a wrong turn. At the end of the 15th century, Vasco da Gama, the renowned Portuguese explorer, set sail on a trade mission around the Cape of Good Hope towards India. Had he decided to navigate north, this nobleman may have found himself landing along the coast of Scotland, right smack in the middle of a flock of sheep and a foursome with sticks and balls playing a new game just starting to make its mark throughout the grassy hillsides. But since that was not his chosen route, the evolution of golf in Portugal was put on hold for approximately four hundred years until the country’s first golf course, Oporto Niblicks Club, was built in 1890 by, ironically, a Scottish hotel owner.
Now 126 years later with golf having transformed into a global game, the veil has been lifted off Portugal to show the world it will not be left behind. While there may be far more exotic and famous golf courses resting atop the “A” list of golf destinations, this independent kingdom has emerged as an elite location with quality courses and resorts to be enjoyed year-round mild climate conditions. When you factor in the rich culture, gastronomy, wine (and of course, the Port!) and Portuguese hospitality, it’s time to take notice.
This meteoric rise in popularity is strongly evident throughout the region surrounding the capitol city of Lisbon, most notably just to the west along the Estoril & Sintra Golf Coast. As further proof this popular destination belongs on any traveling golfer’s “go-to” itinerary, it was selected “Established Golf Destination of the Year” in 2003 by the International Association of Golf Tour Operators. It also didn’t hurt the voting knowing Europe’s largest casino is based in Estoril.
There are some 90 golf courses in Portugal, many designed by the likes of Robert Trent Jones, Jr., Arthur Hills, Jack Nicklaus, Nick Faldo and Severiano Ballesteros. The majority of golf is heavily concentrated in the popular Algarve vacation region in the southern part of Portugal but a superlative grouping of courses can be easily accessed in the Estoril & Sintra Golf Coast.
For a pure international golf experience, the Estoril & Sintra Golf Coast, regarded as the Portuguese Riviera, offers a unique blend of championship golf and close proximity (30-minute drive) to a major European capital.
Every golf destination has its enviable must-plays and this area is no exception. Arguably at the top of the pecking order is The Atlantic Course at the 5-star Penha Longa Resort, once a royal retreat now ruled by Ritz-Carlton. Situated in total seclusion amongst the Sintra hills, this Robert Trent Jones, Jr. course is ranked in the Top 30 Courses in Continental Europe and has played host to the Portuguese Open several times on the European PGA circuit. It is a serious golf challenge blended with luxury and history. Careful not to hit your ball through any of the five remaining arches of a centuries old aqueduct butting up against the right side of a tilted green at the par 5, 6th hole.
Also situated at the resort is The Monastery, a nine-hole layout, designed by Trent Jones, Jr., and opened three years after its partner course in 1995.
Much closer to the Atlantic Ocean, Trent Jones, Sr. put his stamp on the region with the Quinta da Marinha Golf Course that opened in 1984, one of two designs by RTJ in Portugal (the other is Troia). The Quinta da Marinha course, located in a private estate, stretches down to the Guincho beach and features five par five’s and six par three’s with what appear to be thousands of pine trees accentuated with sensational views of the Atlantic. A ball retriever may be a handy 14th club for the par five, 10th hole featuring a green with a 360-degree moat.
Either the 192-room hotel or one of the 60 one- and two-bedroom villas adjacent to the course provide for a great retreat that is only ten minutes from the town of Cascais with lively nightlife and diverse shopping.
A few minute’s drive within the confines of the Quinta da Marinha property is the neighboring Quinta da Marinha Oitavos Golfe, the first course in Europe designed by Arthur Hills. Christened in 2001, it blends magnificently along the coastline between the pines and dunes within the heart of the Sintra-Cascais Natural Park. For the golf purists, Oitavos offers the closest resemblance to a Scottish links with a continuous loop of holes, nine out and nine in.
To keep the play interesting throughout the routing, Oitavos tests your skills amongst three very distinct landscape forms: forested area highlighted by rare umbrella pines; dunes with a full view of the cliffs at Cabo da Roca, the westernmost point in Continental Europe; and the more open coastal transition areas. With this unique ecosystem, Oitavos Golfe became the first course in Europe and only second in the world to be recognized as a Gold Certified Signature Sanctuary.
Approximately one hour north of Lisbon sits the Praia d’El Rey Marriott Golf & Beach Resort, a five-star oceanfront resort with a championship golf course ranked one of the top courses in Europe by Golf World magazine. With plenty of dunes and pine groves to contend with over diverse terrain, golfers will experience a variety of ways to challenge the course.
A round of golf at Praia d’El Rey is best challenged in the morning for two reasons. First, sea breezes tend not to be as harsh as in the afternoon and second, you’ll want to save time in the afternoon for a visit to the nearby, walled-in, medieval town of Obidos. This journey will take you back in time many centuries when there existed other notable warnings of eminent danger prior to “fore.”
In May 2005, a Donald Steele design opened its fairways to the public only thirty minutes from Lisbon and has served as a fitting complement to the CampoReal Golf and Spa Resort.
No longer concerned about being overshadowed in the golf arena by their Spanish neighbor, Portugal has experienced a boom period with its world-class golf. As a word of caution, keep in mind which country you’re in because when you want to say thanks in Portugal, be sure to say “obrigado” and not “gracias.”
As depicted in the movie Casablanca, with the onset of World War II, Lisbon became one of the great embarkation points for many Europeans being lured by the freedoms of the Americas across the pond. How the tides have turned!