A championship links in Portugal? Can it really be true? Golf World headed out to the Lisbon coast to find out.
Golf has been played in the picture-postcard area to the west of Lisbon for 85 years. Estoril was formed in 1929, making it one of the oldest golf clubs in Europe, and on the outskirts of the neighbouring coastal town of Cascais, Quinta da Marinha and Penha Longa were added in 1984 and 1992 respectively. They formed a powerful trio, and thousands of visiting golfers were lured by the prospect of lush, sun-dappled fairways and pretty seaside settlements. Then, in 2001, arrived something that wasn’t just new to golfers visiting Cascais and Estoril or indeed Lisbon and even Portugal. It is a style of golf few players in the whole of Continental Europe often sample – a championship links.
When Oitavos Dunes was created, it was Portugal’s first championship links; it is a description that bestows enviable mystique to such a young course. And while its fairways and greens have merely 13 years of history, the story of this parcel of land on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean goes back over a century. It was in 1908 that the grandfather of today’s owner Miguel Champalimaud, Carlos Montez, discovered this seaside terrain and for nearly 30 years until his death, planted pines to stabilise the sand that blew across the rock, in order to create enduring rather than fleeting dunes. Having literally prepared the ground, Miguel’s son, Carlos Sommer, then built roads and the first homes in the 1950s as the estate developed at pace. Horse riding, tennis and a Health Club were also added and while the Champalimauds wished to add golf, developing the linksland in such a delicate ecosystem was inevitably a sensitive project; it took Miguel 17 years to secure the necessary permits and Oitavos was rewarded for his patience when it was the first course in Europe and second in the world to receive Audubon Gold Signature Sanctuary status.
American architect Arthur Hills was selected to lay out the course because, legend has it, his proposal was the only one without a lake in it, and the family were eager to create a ‘proper’ links. The final stage of development, to date at least, was the opening of a five-star hotel alongside the links. It took a further decade to get the green light for the hotel, further evidence of the protection afforded to endangered plants and wildlife. Indeed, nearly half of the property remains undeveloped – a stunning sight in itself, and one you get a flavour of as you leave the side door of the hotel heading for the clubhouse. The path flows between sand hills covered in indigenous vegetation and it is an arresting site, purple and yellow low-lying plants providing bursts of bright colour among the marram grasses and greenery. Having travelled to Lisbon in search of links golf, it is a scene which augurs well for what follows. As the clubhouse comes into view, a glance back at the hotel gives the impression of the grandest of Grand Designs; you almost expect Kevin McCloud to appear from behind a thatch of marram and ponder quizzically on exactly how much of a success this mammoth Eco project has been...
The hotel sits so snugly among the dunes, as if it’s been there for 100 years, that the bottom two floors of this shimmering building are not visible over the top of the dunes. Such a chic modern building could easily have looked odd among this achingly natural site but Golf World found it easy to warm to the resort. That was also true inside the hotel, all sharp lines, open space and organised living. It is full of nice little touches like a socket in your bedroom TV that charges your phone, and the Y-shape of the building allowing the same ‘type’ of guest – whether golfers or conference delegates – to be together. The clubhouse is every bit as gleaming and there are worse things to do than look out over the Atlantic from its first-floor restaurant and tuck into fresh swordfish and a crisp white wine.
The course is the priority, though, and as you walk down the 1st, you relish the sight of fine sand seeping through the turf. It explains why, a day after a lot of rain has fallen, the course is dry; another good indication of a course’s links status. In these early holes there are other little nods to the seaside fare we lap up in Britain and Ireland, such as swales in the fairways and greens partly obscured by mounds around their edges. It’s not Cruden Bay, but equally it is very different from almost any other course in Southern Europe.
Steep run-offs and evil little pockets of trouble surround the 4th green too, a strong par 4 played into the prevailing wind. Then as you step onto the 5th tee it almost feels as if you have been suddenly transported from the Atlantic coast to the Swiss mountains of Crans sur Sierre; the pin in the distance is framed between two hills with the mountain beyond. Once over the ridge it opens out and, compared to the opening pine-lined holes, is exposed. Then, the pace is significantly cranked up in a stellar middle section that starts with an awesome drive between the pines on the dog-legging par-5 7th. The green complex is equally notable, cuddled by dunes from which small pines are growing on its left side and at the back in addition to being guarded by three traps in a V formation at the front. Oh, and a view of the glistening Atlantic to the left. Another three-shotter follows, and despite a lack of bunkers, played into the prevailing wind, it is arguably the more exacting of the pair. Again sheltered by dunes, a mound to the front makes run-up shots you would like to play on this sandy terrain more difficult.
Following those twin trials of brawn, comes some breathtaking beauty. Walking off the back of the narrow 8th green, you follow a little path between the dunes and are greeted by a truly spectacular view from the 9th’s elevated tee. Having savoured that – and also, no doubt, some fumbling around with your camera phone – you then must tease a long iron through the wind and onto the acorn-shaped green.
In theory, the difficult stretch has been accomplished because in traditional links fashion, we turn for home at the 9th. But even with the wind behind, off the tips you still have to cover over 450 yards on the narrow par-4 10th. Hills mixes it up at the next with a short par 4 (see left) and then begins a quintet of holes without a two-shotter. After a par 3 in the same direction as the 11th, you turn round to a par 5 to an elevated amphitheatre green.
The 14th plays in same direction as the 9th and features almost as much beauty and arguably more drama; with the faraway cliffs and the Atlantic visible beyond the ‘infinity’ green, you must strike a sweet long iron into the angled green. A ravine of sandy scrub will gobble up anything short. Another par 3 follows, to an elevated green tucked away in a snug of dunes with overhanging pines catching your eye and perhaps your ball. Still no par 4. The par-5 16th is comparatively wide, and a chance for big hitters who have reined in their natural instincts to open their shoulders. Then at the 17th, we get a taste of the kind of golf we usually associate with Iberia; the linksy turf remains but played between the pines, this feels like Valderrama or San Lorenzo.
The last has been known to wreck many cards, not least those of Frederico Champalimaud, son of Miguel and so well versed in GB&I golf he qualifies for our Top 100 panel. It is easy to see why the five-handicapper struggles on 18 though, because this right-to-left dog-leg with a sloping fairway and undulating green is arguably Oitavos’ toughest hole.
It has settled numerous championships – on the EuroPro, Seniors, Ladies and four times on the European Tour. It impressed, too. “Oitavos Dunes has the potential to be the best course in Europe,” says Ryder Cup captain Paul McGinley.
His sentiments are understandable. This is unquestionably one of the finest courses on mainland Europe, justifying its position at No.20 in our biennial ranking. It may be, though, that Oitavos’ reputation – especially a World Top 100 ranking they use widely in their marketing – might count against it as visitors reflect on their round; arriving here, expectations are sky high and such anticipation is very difficult to meet. We were no different, wondering if Oitavos was a links to rival to the best of GB&I. It is very good, but is not a Birkdale, a Dornoch or a Portrush. Not yet anyway. It is easy to see how it could develop into an even better links than the outstanding one that sits there now, and certainly it can rise further in our European Top 100. Oitavos Dunes has a remarkable story, and it is one that is going to continue to entertain.
A Work of Art
American designer Arthur Hills on creating a classic links in Portugal.
Oitavos Dunes was our first opportunity to design a new course in continental Europe. It was clear from our first look at the site that it was special — not just the oceanside setting, but the shifting sands, the pine trees, and the prevailing winds. This was clearly an opportunity for a links. As we always do, Steve Forrest and I walked the site at various times of the day over several days to get familiar with it, then studied the topographical maps and other site information to get a feel for the routing. But we knew from our initial meeting this was an opportunity for us to design something special.
The environmental challenges were pretty straightforward. We had a lot of experience in the US going back to the early ’80s in designing courses on environmentally sensitive sites, and particularly in areas with wetlands, such as south Florida. We had pioneered an approach there, working with biologists and other consultants, to preserve and enhance wildlife habitat while fitting courses onto the sites with minimal disturbance. We brought this approach to Oitavos; even though it did not have wetland issues, it did have sensitive areas, which we took care not to damage. So while Oitavos did pose some challenges, they were well within our experience.
I think the success of the par 3s at Oitavos starts with where they are in the routing — that is, the 3rd is a medium-length par 3, but then there are five more holes, including a short par 4 and a ‘shortish’ par 5, both theoretical birdie holes, before you reach the second, very short par 3 at number 9. That should set you up for the back nine. 12 is then a long and tough par 3, while 14 is a second medium length one-shotter. So the variety and placement of the par 3s at Oitavos is part of why I think players like them so much. My favourite? Even though the par 3s on the front are excellent, they are also guarded from the effects of the sea breeze a bit. That makes 12 and 14 a bit more exciting and surprising, because they are so open to the elements. These are two of the most exciting and interesting par 3s I have had the pleasure of designing.
Quinta da Marinha,
Casa 25, 27500-004 Cascais,
Tel: 351 21 486 06 00