Europe’s best golf is in Spain and Portugal
The following article was originally written for PGATour.com by David Brice, President of Golf International. The articles represent trips available to Golf International customers.
Contrary to common belief, quality golf, “Across the Pond”, is not limited to the cool, damp climates of Northern Europe, in fact most of Continental Europe’s very best courses, bask in year round sunshine, far to the south. Nowhere is this more in evidence than in Spain and Portugal, the joint occupants of The Iberian Peninsula, which over the past half century have established themselves as Europe’s Golf Headquarters. Yes, these two countries of Fado and Flamenco, each with its own colorful history, rich cultural heritage, fine gastronomy, intriguing ancient cites and so much more, have over the past half century, carefully developed golf infrastructures that rank alongside the world’s best.
With the decided advantage of weather on their side and no fear of hurricanes or other natural disasters that increasingly plague sunshine destinations closer to home, golf on the Iberian Peninsula has been growing by leaps and bounds. Wisely it has been a controlled development, with a particular emphasis on quality and the protection of the environment. Learning from the mistakes of others, Portugal and Spain have established the standards by which others are now judged.
The concentration of the best courses on The Iberian Peninsula, very much follows its southerly coastline. Starting from Portugal’s enchanting capital city of Lisbon, following the Atlantic shore south to The Algarve, then crossing into Spain and continuing into The Mediterranean Sea to the Costa del Sol. From here Iberia’s golf trail continues northeast, hugging the Mediterranean shore to Valencia, then Barcelona and onward to the French border.
It’s a lot of coast — 325 miles in Portugal and another 1,000 miles in Spain, but it’s also a cornucopia of quality golf courses. Many of the names will be unfamiliar, but selecting those best suited to your own wants and playing abilities, needn’t be confusing. Put your trust in a reputable golf travel company, such as Golf International, taking advantage of their expertise and knowledge.
For the golf aficionado, looking to experience the very best of Iberia’s impressive collection of courses, the following are my personal choices, intentionally limited to just 6 in Portugal and 6 in Spain. They are however, only the tip of the iceberg, leaving plenty of others that could be included. So regard this little golf tour as just an appetizer for the golfing banquet that is the Iberian Peninsula.
In Portugal, we start our journey on the Lisbon Coast, just an hour’s drive north of the charming capital.
Praia d’El Rey – This links-like layout, spread out along a few miles of gorgeously pristine Atlantic beach, contains a maturity and challenge, way beyond its tender years. As tough as they come from the back tees, the course graciously caters to the less accomplished players from the front. Don’t miss a visit to the nearby, fascinating medieval town of Obidos, either before or after your round of golf.
Oitavos Dunes – Located a brief 30-minutes by car or convenient commuter train from the heart of Lisbon, in the beach resort of Cascais, Oitavos took Europe’s golfing intelligentsia by storm when it hosted the Portuguese Open just 4 years after opening in 2001 and it hasn’t looked back since. It hosted this prestigious tournament again in 2007 and 2008. The severity of Oitavos’ test is only complicated by the incessant winds blowing in from the Atlantic, the only consolation being the superb sea and mountain views from every hole. The 18th here just might be the toughest closing hole in European golf.
Troia – An extremely intelligent design from Robert Trent Jones Sr., Troia will always be a showpiece of Portugal’s golf and one of the best layouts on the entire Iberian Peninsula. The small, sometimes deviously contoured greens are well defended by superbly placed bunkers that are often frighteningly deep. This is an exhilarating test for the better players and a thrill packed ride for the rest of us. Troia is located on picturesque sliver of a peninsula, just a 45-minute drive and short ferry ride, south of the city of Lisbon.
From Lisbon, it’s only a 2-hour motorway drive to The Algarve, Portugal’s relaxed southernmost region and another important golf center with more than its share of top ranked courses. Vilamoura, located in the center of The Algarve is a very special resort community, boasting 5 superb courses, two of which make their way onto the list of Portugal’s best
Vilamoura Victoria Club is a piece of design artistry from our own Arnold Palmer and for many, his very best design effort. Hosting the WGC World Cup within a year of opening and selected as the regular venue for the new European Tour event, The Portugal Masters. Victoria is quite simply Portugal’s # 1 course and a must play for any serious golfer.
Vilamoura Old Course is the pioneer layout here and the work of the great English architect, Frank Pennink. Reminiscent of a classic English parkland course, The Old remains a favorite of everyone who has the pleasure of playing it. It’s a course for the thinking golfer, where the mature trees come very much into play and even the short holes are no walk in the park. Superbly maintained, this is one that will make you thankful you play the game.
San Lorenzo is one of Portugal’s top courses, a position it has held since first opening in 1988. The design is imaginative, the setting immaculate, and American designer, Joseph Lee has united the two into a thrilling golf experience, capable of testing the most accomplished player to the extreme. Containing every difficulty in the book and the ability to use every club in your bag, the high handicappers will encounter more than a few difficulties, but for the rest, it will be an experience filled with memories.
It will take a couple of hours to drive from the central Algarve across the Spanish border and into Spain’s Costa del Sol, and the heaviest concentration of golf courses in the entire country.
Valderrama – Since hosting The Ryder Cup in 1997, Valderrama has become the most widely recognized golf club in all of Europe. It has also been consistently ranked as Continental Europe’s best course and was the permanent venue for The European Tour’s most prestigious event, the season closing, Volvo Masters. Golf pedigrees just don’t come any better than that. Any golfer visiting this part of Spain simply must play this stunning layout, but visitor times are limited and you will be well advised to get some assistance from an experienced golf travel company, such as Golf International.
Sotogrande is located only a few minutes further from Valderrama. There are tough restrictions on visitors to this exclusive private club, so again, you will need the assistance of a qualified golf travel company, but it will be well worth it. This is a great example of Robert Trent Jones at his best, with innumerable water hazards, huge undulating greens and majestic trees — a real beauty.
Finca Cortesin is one of the most handsome layouts along the Mediterranean coast, with stunning views and a level of maintenance and landscaping that is absolutely top drawer. It keeps a perfectly natural flow from start to finish and is jam packed with a never ending variety of challenges – keeping even the low handicappers on their toes and alert, all the way. Measuring almost 7,000 meters from the tips, with over 100 bunkers, this is a monster course and one of the longest in Europe, making Finca an immediate sweetheart for the big-hitters. Generously wide fairways may appear to be forgiving of shortcomings in the accuracy department, but be warned, life is not that simple and any lack of precision can be costly.
Las Brisas is located about a 30-minute drive away, toward the fashionable resort town of Marbella. This is another crackerjack course filled with variety and constantly changing challenges. The multitude of elevated greens makes approach shots tricky and each green is jealously protected by shrewd and sometimes downright devious bunkering. Adding to the excitement is water that comes into play on 12 holes. A thriller from beginning to end, it’s a course to please everyone.
El Saler sits some 300 miles northeast of the Costa del Sol, just outside of the historic city of Valencia, which would be well worth a couple of days stay, even if there was no golf, but El Saler is ranked as Spain’s number two layout and can’t be missed if you are collecting the best of Spanish golf. Noted Spanish designer, Javier Arana is responsible for this combination of British style links and forested layout, which can be brutally tough. The large undulating greens are often blind and difficult to read, once you find them. Playing to your handicap is a definite accomplishment.
PGA Catalunya is situated about an hour’s drive northeast of Barcelona, en route to the Costa Brava. The top ranked course in the Catalonia region, this is a handsome layout that is also extremely demanding. Hilly, but with wide, rolling fairways that wend their way through dense forest where the rough is as unforgiving as most will have experienced. A couple of lakes add to the good looks and join the defense arsenal of excellent bunkering, sloping terrain and that uncompromising rough. Another course for the tough guys.
Focus on one country or combine Spain and Portugal into the same trip for a complete Iberian experience. Either way you are going to discover the Iberian Peninsula is not only home to an excellent selection of Europe’s most impressive golf courses, but with so many other diversions, a wonderful vacation for non-golfers as well. Only adding icing to the cake, the current strength of the US dollar makes both Spain and Portugal, a pair of Europe’s very best values.
©2015 David Brice / Golf International, Inc. All Rights Reserved.