Location: Almancil, Portugal
Designer: Joseph Lee
Golf World unearths some of the lesser-known stories surrounding San Lorenzo Golf Course, one of Continental Europe’s best-known courses.
In 1962 Ben Hogan decided to have a round away from Seminole, his customary venue for pre-season fine tuning, intrigued at the whispers he’d heard of a new course down the Florida coast. A few hours later, he wrote in Pine Tree’s visitors’ book: “One of the finest courses in the world.” What made Pine Tree so impressive was that the large site at Delray Beach given to Dick Wilson and his young associate Joe Lee was so unremarkable. The course was so good, so quickly, that Arnold Palmer immediately applied for membership – weighing in at $12,000 – despite being professionally attached to another club in the area.
A quarter of a century after creating this jewel from a modest landscape, Lee landed at Faro airport in the Algarve to take a look at a potential project that would be part of the second wave of golf course construction on Portugal’s southern coast. When he walked the site that bordered the precious Ria Formosa nature reserve and estuary, his thoughts must have been markedly different from those as he surveyed the farmland that Pine Tree was to be built on. In fact, we know they were. “Joe loved the course but he said the good Lord did most of the work,” his widow Jinny tells Golf World. “It was one of his favourite designs – and is my all-time favourite golf course.”
Joe Lee’s name on the deeds of one of the Continent’s most famous courses might look a little strange given his low profile in Europe. He is, however, one of America’s most prolific and vaunted architects, laying out over 250 courses including Cog Hill, Doral (Blue Monster), Bay Hill and La Costa in a stellar 25-year career. “Joe Lee has never built a bad course,” Jack Nicklaus once said of a man whose legacy continues with the 30 scholarships his foundation gives to students of families that work at courses he designed. Wilson – the only real rival to Robert Trent Jones Snr back in the day – was his mentor, with Lee even living with the Wilson family for 13 years until he married Jinny in 1971. ‘Gentleman Joe’, as he was known, took over the business after Wilson’s death in 1965, by which time the apprentice was already being quietly credited for a lot of his master’s work – Pine Tree being one example.
Lee’s exalted reputation in America secured him the San Lorenzo job but, aged 66, he now had firmly by his side Rocky Roquemore, who was also a friend of the Wilson family. From the foothold of San Lorenzo in 1988, Roquemore worked widely in Europe including Top 200 courses Quinta do Peru, Quinta da Ria, Quinta da Cima and the original Quinta do Lago (North), as well as Makila in south-west France and Kilsyth Lennox in Scotland. San Lorenzo Golf Course, though, is both Lee and Roquemore’s outstanding legacy in Europe, an ever present in Golf World’s Continental European Top 100 ranking and biennially ranked either No.1 or No.2 in Portugal. In conjunction with the five-star Dona Filipa Hotel which sits along the coast, it has been voted European Golf Resort of the Year.
For those not acquainted with the Algarve, while San Lorenzo Golf Course sits in the south-east corner of the Quinta do Lago estate, close to the North and South courses, Dona Filipa Hotel is located within the equally vast neighbouring resort of Vale do Lobo. Such independence – sitting proudly amid capacious estates – might be slightly confusing, but it fits with the singularities of San Lorenzo Golf Course that begin as you enter a dusty car park populated by weathered signage and a clubhouse of dark wood exterior. Some visitors may believe they are in the wrong place, for this is not the shiny, polished scene that greets you at most of the rest of the Algarve’s resorts. Most golfers, though, will surely enjoy such rare character and pedigree that is in keeping with the status of a course that isn’t the Algarve’s oldest but is, along with Vilamoura Old, its most cherished.
Much of this affection for San Lorenzo, which is owned and operated by JJW Hotels and Resorts, stems from the spectacular second half of the front nine that sees fairways run alongside saltwater marshes, freshwater lagoons and the Atlantic Ocean. But it is hardly let down by the holes that weave harmoniously through the undulating, pine-covered topography, a precious area that is home to more than 70 species of bird, including herons, white storks, coots, black winged stilts and the purple gallinule.
Routed in two figures of eight with the bustle of a very ‘social’ clubhouse at its centre, San Lorenzo neatly encapsulates the work of Lee, whose hallmarks are playability and fairness. His courses don’t leave high-handicappers running short of balls by the 12th hole; they forgive modest shots and reward fine ones with birdie and eagle chances. Even on modest sites such as Pine Tree he is renowned for creating courses that are ‘as much artistry as architecture’, sitting in elegant landscapes that soothe any pain suffered by competitors in the scenic playground he has created. Lee wanted to ensure a day playing golf was a day enjoyed, not a chore. His courses were not without protection though, usually in the form of undulating greens, cleverly-positioned hazards (in plain sight), and shapely bunkering. These trademarks are in evidence on the 1st at San Lorenzo Golf Course, a par 5 set in a U-shaped valley that turns left and then right. Drive bunkers on the first corner are supported by more ahead of and at the green, and so at 550 yards, this is no early gimme.
The next three are actually more forgiving – a par 3 over a gully and then two short but acutely dog-legged two-shotters – before the legendary beauty of San Lorenzo is glimpsed on the 5th tee. The course’s shortest hole enjoys a majestic view – beyond a sprinkling of slender pines – of the beach and the Atlantic. Your journey to the seaside continues from the elevated tee of the 6th, from which you take in the sights, sounds and smells of the sea; the salty air, the chattering birds, the quacking ducks, the industrious fishermen. This is stroke one, though, and requires a drawn tee shot to ease you round the corner into the prime position from which to find the small green. Once there, you will putt under the gaze of joggers and cyclists passing on the path that runs along the estuary beach. It is a scene of idyllic tranquility... as long as you didn’t hook your drive into the shrub on the inside of the dog-leg.
The 7th (see left) continues along the shoreline and begins from another elevated tee with an expansive panorama of sand flats and dunes, and while the 8th turns you inland, the wetland feel continues. A large lake lined by reeds lurks all the way down the right of a snaking fairway that is extremely narrow in places, meaning even lay-up shots are nervy affairs. This spectacular but dangerous par 5 ends on a square-shaped green that is guarded by water all along its front edge as well as to the right. The uphill 9th returns you to the clubhouse with something of a damp squib compared to what has gone before. That said, what has gone before is one of the most eye-catching stretches of golf in Continental Europe.
The back nine – which constitutes the top of the figure of eight – begins with a stout, twisting par 5 on a rollercoaster fairway and is followed with a nice-looking driving hole, the green seemingly perched at the foot of a mountain range. The lofty position of the 12th tee permits views of the wetlands over the tops of the pines and its benched fairway between bank and chasm means it is probably San Lorenzo Golf Course’s toughest test.
A run of nice par 4s ends with the dog-leg 13th, before the short 14th takes you to the edge of the salty lagoons and is followed up with the pick of the back nine’s short holes at the 16th, which enjoys an open feel around its wide but shallow elevated green. The 17th turns back inland and tracks the opposing edge of the lake that dominates the 8th. It is an appetiser for the grandstand finish, where water threatens on the left off the tee and then to the front, back and right of the tiny, well-bunkered green.
It is a pretty, fun but nicely anxious conclusion to one of the Continent’s finest courses. A course Ben Hogan himself would surely have enjoyed.
To view the Top 100 Golf Courses in the Europe please click here.