If, as I do, you measure the level of civilisation attained by a country by the number of golf courses it has per head of population, then Portugal ranks right up there with the very best. Although Bermuda probably just edges it out of the coveted top spot, when the present Euro-led economic downturn is over, possibly triggered by Cristiano Ronaldo switching his current account back to his homeland, another wave of golf course investment might well sweep Portugal back to No 1.
But it’s not only the number and quality of the courses that make it so attractive to the golfing Brit. There’s the climate which, moderated by Atlantic influences, is pretty well ideal. The people are lovely and, despite present economic woes, remain unremittingly cheerful. They are also incredibly well disposed towards us for reasons that have their origins in the Anglo- Portuguese Alliance. Ratified at the Treaty of Windsor in 1386, it not only pre-dates golf but is the oldest alliance in the world. It obliges both parties to come to the aid of the other in times of need, which is the diplomatic equivalent of helping look for each other’s balls. Perhaps of rather less real importance, but of some symbolic significance, is the fact that we are locked into the same time zone.
So there’s no need to fiddle with your watch moments after landing. And whilst on matters aeronautical, it is probably worth mentioning that Portugal’s national airline TAP only charges £17 each way for carrying a golf bag, which suggests they are much better disposed towards golfers than some other airlines I could mention.
Anyway, on this particular visit to Portugal, instead of very familiar Faro, I flew into lovely Lisbon.
Did you know it was the oldest city in Western Europe and is hundreds of years older than, say, Paris, London or Rome? And the other fact you might care to note is there’s no warmer European capital in winter. The average daytime temperature between December and February is a tolerable 15°C (59°F).
Even if you don’t normally like warm old things, you will surely love Lisbon. Despite receiving a severe battering on 1 November 1755, when a devastating earthquake and subsequent tsunami destroyed about 85% of its buildings and killed approximately 35,000 of its inhabitants, Lisbon is breathtakingly beautiful and well worth walking around for a day or two even if it means missing a round of golf.
Increasingly over recent years, presumably having grown weary of living in one of the loveliest city’s on earth with its oppressively warm winters, Lisbonites have been escaping to the affluent nearby resort towns of Estoril and Cascais. The latter is blessed with two delightful courses and, just as important for the purpose of this latest attempt to find the perfect complement to golf, a long stretch of gloriously sandy beach upon which pound impressive Atlantic waves.
But let’s begin with golf. Designed by Robert Trent Jones Snr and built in the early 1980s, Quinta da Marinha has been tweaked a few times to accommodate the expanding development around it, which includes a superb 5-star hotel. Having hacked round it about 25 years ago, I thought I would have a considerable edge over my playing partners.
Although a few holes looked vaguely familiar, the routing is so different that my edge was severely blunted.
One of the happy consequences of the changes is a rather idiosyncratic hole sequence. There are only two par-fours and no fewer than five par-fives in the first 11 holes, which is refreshingly different and not unappealing. Less attractive, however, are the several places where you have to cross over a fairway to reach the next tee. Timing is an important element in golf and it’s vital to get it right at these crossovers if you’re to avoid being hit.
The only other mild criticism is that the first tee is quite a walk from the driving range. Although perhaps it’s only right to be punished for seeking to gain an advantage by practising before teeing off, my walk back seemed to be through the outlying suburbs of Cascais and whatever benefits hitting balls might have bestowed were thoroughly negated by the stress of very nearly missing my tee time. Subsequent research revealed a path I should have used by which time, of course, the damage had been done.
When my pulse had subsided sufficiently (around the 2nd green) I began to appreciate what a delightful course it is. The tightish fairways put a premium on accuracy and the adjacent umbrella pines gently punish anything off line. The big tree on the third was a subject of some dispute between the owner and Robert Trent Jones’s then assistant, Cabell Robinson. The latter wanted it removed whereas the former preferred it left. RTJ intervened and explained that he would apply the ‘Golden Rule’ to settle the issue. “The one who has the gold makes the rule,” explained the wise and successful golf course architect. The six par-threes are a balanced mix of fun and fright. The Ladies European Tour, the Seniors Tour and the Challenge Tour have all staged tournaments here.
Being the consummate professional, while my playing partners enjoyed a relaxing post-round pint on the clubhouse terrace, I somehow summoned up the energy to visit the nearby beach to have a go at surfing. According to the Guincho Surf School leaflet, surfing is a sport that everyone from six to 66 can enjoy, which gives me about 18 months. Having lived the latter half of my life regretting not having taken up golf a lot earlier, am I now going to feel the same way about surfing?
Pedro, who looked as if he’d spent every moment of his waking life basking in sunshine, greeted me with a firm handshake and the news that it was really too windy and we should postpone our lesson until the following morning when it would be a lot calmer. “I’m playing golf then,” I explained and could already see a conflict developing between the foam and the fairways.
“It’s difficult to handle the board in the wind but, OK, we’ll try.”
Pedro had evidently surfed all over the world and, as I struggled to pull on the wetsuit, he talked enthusiastically about Tahiti, Ecuador, Nicaragua and New Zealand. The thought of visiting these places on behalf of Surf International to write travel features persuaded me to make one last supreme effort to squeeze into the wetsuit.
Pedro handed me a big surfboard. The advantage of a big board is that it’s easier to find your balance; the disadvantage in windy conditions is that it acts like a sail and is harder to control. First we had to warm up. Since I was already perspiring from the gruelling wetsuit donning episode, it hardly seemed necessary but, as jogging is something I can do reasonably competently, I happily ran up and down the beach behind Pedro for a couple of minutes.
After some stretching exercises, Pedro passed on a few health and safety tips. Foremost among these is the necessity to keep looking around for other people. Next comes the importance of falling backwards rather than forwards. And finally there’s the need, when having fallen, to protect your head by adopting the pose boxers employ when being battered by blows from a superior opponent. Hands up around the ears, chin tucked in and elbows pointing downwards. In this case, the blows might be struck by a flying board.
Like golf, surfing has its etiquette and Pedro explained that, when returning back out to sea to catch another wave, you do so via a route around the outside of any other surfers rather than simply turning around and going straight back through the middle.
Next we tried some simulation and the rather tricky manoeuvre, especially for those fast approaching the age of retirement, of elevating from the prone to the erect position on the surfboard. Theoretically, this is accomplished by pulling one knee up, sort of half rolling over and then standing up remembering all the while to look ahead to the beach not down at your feet. To be honest, I struggled with this one almost as much as I do with bunkers.
The final rehearsal was of the classic surfers’ pose of head facing forward, left arm stretched out in front and knees bent. It came rather more easily than did standing up and so my confidence was restored as Pedro and I at last headed out through the bubbling inshore surf in search of the perfect wave.
There were loads to choose from and I felt like a child as I skipped over some, turned my back on others and dived through the biggest. The interval between them was sufficient to allow me, when the time came, to lie on my board and wait for a shove from Pedro that launched my surfing career. The first bit is comparatively easy and I was soon hurtling towards the beach in the prone position. Possibly because it was both reasonably comfortable and quite enjoyable, I didn’t bother to even attempt to stand up and so was still lying flat when the board hit the very shallow water and slid to a halt.
Patient Pedro said nothing other than, ‘Let’s try again.” The second time, I predictably lost my balance as I struggled to my feet and promptly crashed inelegantly into the water. “Look ahead not at your feet,” urged Pedro as I failed again. Miraculously, I succeeded on my fourth attempt and experienced the same sort of thrill when finally standing up that Homo Erectus must have felt all those millions of years ago. It didn’t last very long, however, as I tumbled off as my board ran aground.
Having made it once, you could be forgiven for thinking that, just like riding a bicycle, it would get easier and easier and I would soon be shooting the tube.
But you would be wrong. Instead, I simply grew progressively wearier and only made it to my feet one more time before eventually grew too exhausted, gave up and needed help from Pedro to extricate myself from the wetsuit.
Not having to pull on a wetsuit or indulge in much in the way of physical exertion, golf the next day seemed even more appealing than it does ordinarily. Because I love Portugal so much and have visited it so often, I honestly thought I had played every decent course at least once. And so it came as something of a surprise to discover there was a course which, like Jose Mourinho, was a rather special one. Penha Longa is a very smart resort that feels like an English country estate, only warmer. The course is a cracker.
Designed by Robert Trent Jones Jnr and lying just to the north of Cascais and Estoril, in the foothills of the Sintra hills, it makes great use of the considerable height it enjoys with elevated tees, sweeping fairways and glorious views. There are plenty of olive, cork and eucalyptus trees that help provide definition.
Water, too, plays its part in creating a rich and lovely landscape. About 7,000 yards off the back tees, it has hosted the Portuguese Open and rightfully deserves its high ranking among the very best courses on the continent.
Having ticked off a course I hadn’t played before, I next played a course I wouldn’t recognise. The drive to Lagos takes a few hours but was worth it because the changes made to Onyria Palmares (formerly plain old Palmares) are dramatic.
Robert Trent Jones Jnr (yes, him again) has improved the course out of all recognition. Nothing of the original has survived and, much though I liked it, I have to admit the new version is a huge improvement and a dramatic demonstration of what a skilled course architect can do. In particular, I enjoyed the four holes down by the beach which, like a rhyming couplet of which RTJ is so fond, go par-five, par-three; par-five, par-three.
Or maybe I’m just irresistibly drawn to the water in a subconscious desire for another crack at surfing!