‘This is the kind of landscape we architects try to create, but at Praia D'El Rey it's all here naturally.’ Cabell B. Robinson
An hour north of Lisbon lies Portugal’s Silver Coast, an area of outstanding natural beauty blessed with rugged cliffs, pristine beaches, historic towns and the Praia D’El Rey golf course, itself an astonishing sensory experience. Designed by American architect Cabell B. Robinson, who spent twenty years working for Robert Trent Jones, Praia D'El Rey is part of a greater residential development and features a prominent section of spectacular holes that overlook the crashing surf of the Atlantic Ocean.
Opening in 1997, the development was actually first proposed during the late 1970’s and thankfully prior zoning permissions obtained by the original developer enabled Robinson to utilize the beachfront topography and route three holes right along the cliffs, something no longer possible in this part of the world. Away from the Atlantic the rest of the course is either set within a fragrant and undulating pine forest or cast from pure white sand dunes covered in a thick indigenous ice-plant.
Arranged in two clockwise loops, Praia D'El Rey starts within the thinned out forest but quickly brings golfers within sight of the ocean at the 2nd and 3rd holes before heading back away from the water until midway through the back nine. The well-bunkered par four 12th doglegs toward the coast and is the hole that reintroduces players to the sea. It is then followed by a stunning three-hole stretch right along the shoreline, which includes a beautiful short hole sandwiched between dramatic par fours that are played through the coastal dunes. These are the holes that will linger longest in the memory, although they are by no means Praia’s only attractions. Better offshore moments include the last part of the tumbling par five 2nd, the brilliant 4th and the wicked plateau green on the 6th. The closing sequence is also strong, the 16th is a fine hole with an obscured drive and the 17th is a huge par five through a menacing sandbank that would be a great challenge were it not for the extreme target area.
Given the dramatic nature of the site, and the fact that in many areas houses separate fairways and actually occupy some of the prime golf land, there is a major disparity between the best and worst of Praia D'El Rey but Robinson did an admirable job routing his holes through as much duneland as he was given and with the restrictions involved in building an estate layout such as this. The highlights of his course are fantastic and often quite strategic. The reachable par four 4th, for instance, features a massive sandy blow-out that gets progressively more in play the further one drives from the tee, yet the clever green is tight and tricky to hold from any sort of distance. Similarly the cliff-side 13th is another tempting gem which is played across small ripples to a tiny green that is well protected but an enticing target despite the obvious perils.
Although none of the site could be described as dull, the best golf land here is quite extraordinary and a close look at the surrounding estate reveals further potential classics were lost to bricks and mortar, which seems a golfing tragedy. There are also a couple of unnecessary ponds on nice natural dune holes that are not ideal. This is a great place to visit, however, with the views, the weather and the opportunity to experience holes like 4, 13, 14, 15 and 16 something special. Indeed with this offering less than an hour from Lisbon and close to the fortified medieval town of Óbidos, an historic National Heritage site that was traditionally given as a wedding gift by the King of Portugal to his new Queen, it really is hard to understand why the Algarve is more popular with traveling golfers.
While it will break the hearts of some purists to read that the course featured in these photographs is part of an integrated housing estate, the seaside terrain here is incredible and there are certainly more than enough quality golf holes within the layout for Praia D’El Rey to come highly recommend.