Quinta do Lago (North)
Location: Almancil, Portugal
Designer: William Mitchell / Beau Welling / Joe Lee / Paul McGinley
Quinta do Lago Golf Resort (North) is ranked number 93 in Golf World’s Top 100 Courses Europe:
Golf World witnessed the rebirth of an Algarve classic, which has been reworked to an Irish-American tune.
The renaissance of the North course at Quinta do Lago Golf Resort in the Algarve can be traced via South Carolina in America to Waterville on the south-west tip of Ireland. It is a cosmopolitan blend between three areas with little in common save for golf and the Atlantic Ocean. And the tale of how the stellar links of Waterville in County Kerry became the catalyst for the spectacular rebirth of one of Continental Europe’s most famous names is one of incredible coincidence and a bit of ‘craic’.
The middle man – providing the South Carolina flavour – is Beau Welling, once a design associate of Tom Fazio and now also the main consultant for Tiger Woods Design. “Like many Americans, my family relishes its ‘connection’ to our Irish ancestry so we make frequent visits to Ireland,” he tells Golf World. “In 2000 we rented a holiday home on Valentia Island in Kerry. Being avid golfers, several of us called into Waterville for a game and had a great time. Back at Valentia, Mr Fazio called, apologising for bothering me on vacation but saying he’d received a call from the American owners of an Irish course they were considering renovating. He wanted me to take a look at it. I explained we were on an island off the coast of a remote part of the country but asked the name of the course. He replied: “Water-something” – I replied “Waterville?!” – and he said yes. I delighted in telling him I’d just played it!”
Fazio’s company got the commission and Welling worked on Waterville for four years, turning it into one of GB&I’s top 10 courses. While there, he met John Dwyer, current CEO of Quinta do Lago Golf Resort, a Waterville man who was then at Old Head. “We’d meet over pints and dinners – maybe a game of golf or fishing in Balinskelligs Bay – nothing serious or professional, just a bit of ‘craic’,” recalls Welling. Over a decade later, the Waterville coincidence and the ‘craic’ led Dwyer to invite Welling to renovate Quinta do Lago Golf Resort’s North Course.
McGinley and Quinta do Lago Golf Resort
There is a further Irish strand to the story. While Welling led the revolution, the man he collaborated with had plenty of input too. Paul McGinley had plenty on his plate in 2014, but has an affection for Quinta do Lago that goes back 20 years, when he first visited with his father. He now takes family holidays there several times a year, so was an obvious brain for the resort to pick. McGinley and Welling first met in Ireland over a steak and a Guinness and soon realised they shared a philosophy over golf course design. Nevertheless, even with such synergy, engaging two men who’d never previously met to re-design a course that was doing perfectly well anyway – and to carry out the work in a ludicrous time scale – was high risk. Despite Dwyer’s experience and the (presumably) nerveless business brain of millionaire Irish owner Denis O’Brien, there must have been moments when they wondered if literally ripping up a successful formula was brave and astute or reckless and foolish. It now looks an outstandingly good decision, right down to the £7.5m course being ready to open a mere nine days after McGinley became one of the Ryder Cup’s most feted captains. From first spade in the ground to re-opening, it took 10 months.
It is a remarkable turnaround; while the routing remains broadly the same, the emphasis was on making it more forgiving and playable. In addition, all the grass on the 6,776-yard course was removed along with 20cm of soil and replaced with a 20cm sand cap. All greens, tees, bunkers, irrigation, drainage systems and cart paths (it is actually very walkable apart from the middle of the back nine) were also rebuilt using the latest technology, with multiple sets of tees introduced on each hole. “From taking the first sod off to having it open is incredible. It’s unheard of,” McGinley tells GW. “I learned so much working with Beau. “We have a very common idea on how golf should progress and what makes courses great – why do people play them over and over? That’s what I am trying to achieve as a designer; the enticement of hitting the shot, not thinking ‘Oh my god I’ve got 200 yards over water – how am I going to do this?’ We want people to enjoy the challenge, feel they’ve left a few out there and want to come back and try again. An example is the 16th – I can’t wait to hit the shot, it’s so enticing.” “It wouldn’t shock me if ‘findability’ doesn’t emerge as a new buzz word,” adds Welling. “If designers can address making errant balls findable on courses with reduced turf, enough playability will be preserved to present a fun experience.”
The Dubliner and the Carolinan were not missing their market when they went for playability in their re-design. The North is resort golf, part of the huge Quinta do Lago estate in over 2,000 acres of the Ria Formosa Natural Park that comprises 54 holes, several hotels (including the opulent new Conrad), lots of villas and a wealth of leisure facilities. Opened in 1972, it’s one of the Algarve’s pedigree venues, with a nice atmosphere, whether dining in the lakeside Casa do Lago restaurant or hitting balls in McGinley’s Academy. QdL are calling the revamped North their new No.1. Their marketeers would have done so even if the re-design had been a flop. But it does seem a valid statement. Some will always prefer the views of yachts bobbing on the inlet next to the scenic South, but the North now has that bit of extra class.
A look of Augusta
Many Algarve courses are very similar, for they are laid out on similar terrain.But the North does have a different feel, whether in its forgiving nature off the tee, its exacting challenge round the green or the visual impact of the white-sand bunkers and the corridors of red-brown bark that line the fairways. One hesitates to make this comparison, but with sand, bark (substituting pine straw) and towering pines, some holes do have a ‘look’ of Augusta National to them. The challenge around the greens is also considerable and will be especially felt by mid-handicappers good enough to be on the green yet not close to the pin or somewhere around the green in regulation; they’ll often face tough long putts or tricky chips to maintain par.
That said, your first shot on the new North is certainly a friendly one, an inviting downhill drive to a wide fairway where even a fleeting meeting between clubhead and ball will get you away. This gentle start is followed by a reality check on the par-3 2nd, though, which is a long hole (212 yards) off the backs given water lies to the right and in front of the small green, which itself has very little in the way of flat sections and has a steep run-off to the back. It nicely summarises the new North; despite the designers’ intention, off the backs it is far from a walkover. The arrow-straight 575-yard 3rd enhances this feeling.
Then there is a change of terrain at the 5th, a sporty par-4 dog-leg that turns to the left as it climbs steeply to a narrow green with three tiers that are fertile ground for three putts. Your labours are accompanied by a sweet smell of pines and bark and the aforementioned contrast between bunkers, fairways and bark is especially pleasing. This is a really good section of the new North, with the 6th a super strategic hole where the brave (and skilled) can take a lot of the stress out of their approach if they can thread a drive between the bunkers with a draw. For the rest of us, it’s a tough task to feather our iron shot between bunker (right) and overhanging trees (left). The terrain on the par 5 that follows is more undulating and open, all the way up to the exposed, elevated green. The Augusta similarity is again no great stretch of the imagination.
The 8th is a picturesque par 3 played down to a green guarded by deep pits and surrounded by tall pines. There is a similar test on the short 14th too before McGiney’s favourite, the 16th – a fabulous par 3 played across a valley to a table-top green in its own amphitheatre. It’s followed by a stellar par 4 where you draw your tee shot between three bunkers on the right and one on the left then fire an approach between umbrella pines to a bulb-shaped, two-tier green with a jigsaw-shaped trap to the right. With the super climax to follow, it is a very strong finish, impressive enough to nudge the North into the highest echelon of Portugal’s courses.
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