Praia D'El Rey
The Lure of the Ocean
One of Europe’s most spectacular courses was created 20 years ago on Portugal’s Atlantic coast. Golf World savours the sun, sand and sea spray of Praia D’El Rey.
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.
If the allure of a course 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 wide-angle 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 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 of an acutely-undulating fairway and leave an approach under 100 yards. Fail to do that and you will instead approach from a fairway ledge that sits much higher than the green. The kidney-shaped target sits hard to the beach, bursts of sand contrasting with the lush green swales around the green. This is the course’s furthest point and ends the seaside stretch, but another super hole follows which, when lit by evening sunshine, is almost its equal aesthetically. This tough par 4 is 470 yards and visually daunting. It is still only 80 yards from the coast so you get a stiff breeze too, but also the views its location ensures. A front pin on the huge green is easy to get at; one at the back is laced with peril.
The stroke one-index 17th – tight as it turns acutely left between the trees and then at a narrow entrance to the amphitheatre green – and 18th move inland. The level inevitably dips and the contrast is stark; there is no breeze, expansive views or rivers of sand framing the holes. Instead there is an abundance of ferns, sweet-smelling pines housing chirping birds, and tracts of sand peeping through the pine straw. Only velvety green fairways and nice green sites remain. There are now echoes of Vilamoura Old, and several fine holes, with the 4th and 5th probably the pick. While villas are in your eyeline on several inland holes (although not close to the playing area), the 4th is free from residences. This pretty par 4 plays uphill as it turns slightly right, with sandy scrubland to the left. The small, narrow green slopes back to front and is protected by a huge bunker with parallels of St Enodoc and Sandwich, plus small pines to right. The uninhibited view back down the hole to the Atlantic is splendid.
The 5th is probably PDR’s toughest two-shotter, played uphill to a false-fronted, bulb-shaped green sitting in a mini amphitheatre. The 9th is stern too. In between, many will enjoy the short 8th, played to a wide kidney-shaped green with a pond all the way along its front edge. These holes are perfectly admirable, but those driving north from Lisbon do so for those that follow by the sea, with the expectation of one of Europe’s most stirring sequences. Few will return to Portugal’s capital for their flight disappointed.