It takes something special for a new course to break straight into the top 25 of our ranking of Europe’s top courses. But West Cliffs on Portugal’s Silver Coast is just that. Duncan Lennard discovers the magic behind our highest new entry in a decade.
Some golf courses are created; others were there all the time. Take Augusta National. When Bobby Jones first set eyes on the Fruitlands nursery in Georgia back in 1931, he famously observed: “It seemed that this land had been lying here for years, waiting for someone to lay a golf course upon it.” While the elevated, coastal location of West Cliffs is about as far from Augusta National as you could imagine, architect Cynthia Dye reports a similar experience; “The course was really already there for us,” she tells Golf World. “We just had to shape the holes to create the incredible, dramatic golfing experience the site deserved.”
It’s not hard to share Dye’s enthusiasm for what is a rare and special setting. Opened in June 2017, her 7,000-yard golf course unfurls across a marvellously muscular and panoramic landscape, perched on the cliffs some 150m above Portugal’s Silver Coast – so-called because the setting sun turns the Atlantic to liquid metal every evening. It’s a process you can watch from any one of the course’s tumbling, firm fairways. Pulling the fairways apart are occasional stands of pines and giant swathes of native vegetation, contributing to a wonderful sense of space and nature. Contrived bunkering is minimal, with exposed and natural sandy bluffs preferred. With the steady aroma of thyme and sea breeze, and the sea birds and eagles patrolling overhead, it’s hard to imagine a course more in tune with its environment. “There were a few times when we had to build up green sites to create the putting surfaces we wanted,” Dye admits. “But we basically respected every little bump and hollow that was here. The whole policy was to disturb as little of the land as we could; and after all, with a location this spectacular, we simply didn’t need to.”
The longest hole on the course, the magnificent par-5 7th hole encapsulates what West Cliffs is about. The drive from any of the back four tees – there are five on each hole – is from an island of turf set into the scrub, and demands a carry to a generous fairway. Like so many holes here, swales and humps mask its true scale and make the drive feel tougher than it is. A natural sandy waste area has been left in situ to bisect the hole, helping make this a genuine three-shotter, before the fairway rises and snakes between two dunes up the green. Though assigned just one bunker, the putting surface is more than capable of protecting itself thanks to run-offs either side and a series of subtle breaks. The sound of the white surf, breaking on the coastline to the left and behind the green, makes for a fittingly unproduced soundtrack.
From the more pine-lined opener to the raised duneland of the last few holes – which take the vistas literally to new heights – the golf course riffs on this theme of raw, running golf. If the firm, fast fairways are wide, the penalty for missing them is severe – you’ll be lucky to have a ball, never mind a shot. The greens are generous but hard to hold and multi-contoured -– a design Dye credits to her uncle Pete, but one she executes expertly.
The 7th – along with the super, shortish downhill par-4 14th, complete with scrub island before the green – are also great examples of the rare blend of fun and challenge achieved at West Cliffs. Though it can stretch to 7,000 yards off the tips this is primarily a resort course, designed for enjoyable recreational play. The author of some 50 courses around the world, Dye was anxious to avoid an over-penal test. Consequently the course enjoys five sets of tees, wide approaches, limited bunkering and comfortable bail-out areas. The longest of four super one-shotters measures just 182 yards off the second-longest tees. “I wanted to increase playability,” Dye says, “and by modern standards the course is not hugely long – just 6,085 yards off the middle tees. But the sheer width of the fairways can make holes play a lot longer if you pick the wrong line, and if the breeze gets up this is a handful for anyone.”
Whether West Cliffs ranks as a ‘true links’ is tough to say… and in any case, this has to be one of golf’s more tedious questions. But it has certainly been created to play like one; and if you can ignore the occasional pine clusters and the incongruous but essential man-made lakes on 3, 9 and 18, these firm, fast fairways offer as close to an authentic links experience as most will care to demand.
It is without question the open, panoramic nature of the site – a few miles north of Praia D’el Rey and neighbouring Royal Obidos – that makes West Cliffs so special. Yet it could have all been very different. “I first walked on this site back in 2003,” says Dye, whose famous uncle Pete designed the TPC at Sawgrass. “But back then the whole area was covered in timber pine. There were simply ATV trails up through the forest.”
At the time, government regulations mandated the pines should be kept. However, while Dye and her team were working on a forested routing, the authorities changed their minds. “Suddenly they wanted them cut down,” Dye remembers. “It was due to weevil infestation, the threat of forest fires, but also I think a growing appreciation that these trees were not indigenous. They were introduced in the 13th century to help build ships, but then used to stop sand dunes encroaching on farmland.”
By the time the permits were finally granted, the trees had been felled. Dye’s routing could now occupy a dramatic, open landscape with unobstructed views south to the coastal town of Peniche, north to the Obidos lagoon and west to the Atlantic. “But we had another bonus,” says Dye. “With the felling of the trees, we also had this unexpected explosion of the native flora. So much of Portugal is covered in pine forest so you don’t see it; but once the land was opened up, this coastal habitat just blossomed.” Depending on what time of year you visit, you will play through the purples of heather and wild lavender, the white and red blossoms of the native Corema broom or the vibrant yellow of Rock-rose.
Indeed, this native vegetation is perhaps the course’s defining characteristic. A combination of governmental limits on how much of the land could be turfed, plus the fact the site has only one bore hole – Obidos has seven – means West Cliffs’ fairways are effectively islands in the scrub. It’s a state of affairs that influenced the course’s strategy and challenge. The penal nature of the scrub means enforced wider hitting areas… but as at the Old Course, that doesn’t necessarily make things easier. Natural undulation frequently hides sections of grass, making the course feel tighter than it is. The short par-4 8th (see signature hole) is a good example, a natural rise in the fairway hiding a section of short grass and making what is actually a fairly friendly tee shot feel quite intimidating. Indeed, the sheer width of the fairways means there is sometimes no readily visible target, or clear line off the tee. This, coupled with the semi-blind shots created by high duneland that occupies much of the back nine, makes visualising and seeing the shot a genuine challenge. This is certainly a course that takes two or three rounds to work out… and one that works on your mind just as much as your technique.
West Cliffs opened to a fanfare of praise. Though immature and in need of bedding in, Dye’s layout had commentators scratching their heads as to which courses in Portugal were better – GW‘s ranking lists only Monte Rei (13th), Troia (17th ) and Oitavos Dunes (21st). Given the accent placed on creating enjoyable golf, it is galling for Dye and general manager Francisco Cadete that the one criticism that has come West Cliffs’ way is based on playability. With pretty much every tee featuring a carry over lost-ball territory to reach the fairway, the chances of reaching the next tee only to see the group ahead prowling around the scrubland in front of the fairway, is worryingly high. It’s raised the restless spirit of slow play, and the charge the course is too tough for the average player. Off the back tees, the carries on four, 15 and 18 are only a little under 200 yards.“It’s simply not fair to say the course does not suit higher handicaps,” Cadete asserts. “The whole key here is to play off the right set of tees. Off the shortest tees it’s only 4,800 yards and those carries to the fairways are only about 40-to-50. Yes, I would advise the longer-handicapper to work on his long game before playing here; but as long as you play off the right tee you will enjoy the game a lot more, and speed up play.”
Why so many golfers want to make a game, already under fire for being too difficult, even harder, is one of golf’s true mysteries. For their part, West Cliffs work hard on advising appropriate tees for each group and have chosen to number and not colour-code them. But Cadete is spot-on; play the appropriate yardage and it’s hard to imagine a more fun, beautiful and engaging experience. And nowhere is this more apparent than the raised tees of the final hole, whose drive from one of the highest points on the course plunges down to a cleverly angled fairway. Take it down the right and you have the shorter approach, but must carry more of the lake that marshals the right side of the green; the safe line, left, leaves a longer but more likely drier approach.
Off the backs, this is 460 yards of pain for anyone but the elite player; but off the right tee, 18 becomes a thrilling two-shotter, and a fitting way to sign off a round that will leave your head roaring with sky, sea and golf.
How we ranked West Cliffs
Wide fairways but accurate placement needed for the easier approach. Generous greens belie devilish multi-break borrows.
After an unremarkable start the course blooms to take full advantage of a special elevated coastal setting.
Wonderful use of sandy waste areas complements relatively few shaggy created bunkers. Lack of rough helps firm, fast surfaces.
Affected by tee selection, but miss the wide fairways and expect a lost ball. Reasonable bail-outs on each approach.
Par 3s are arguably a little short but offer great variety. Terrific use of short par 4s and epic three-shotter at the 7th.
After a mediocre opening three holes, the course delivers one jaw-dropping hole after another. The use of Declaration bent grass resists invasive poa and helps produce even, smooth putting surfaces.
Still has some bedding in to do, but a potent blend of strategy, playability and dynamic setting marks this out as a special course.
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