As the greatest British golfer of his generation and a three-time winner of the Claret Jug, Henry Cotton could withstand the wind and cold. But in his later years he had enough of the bad weather. He bought a house in Portugal, where he ate fresh seafood, drank good wine and indulged his interest in golf design. In 1966, Cotton cut the ribbon on Penina, which was not a world beater, but was a turning point: the first race in the Algarve, the sun-drenched southern coastal region of Portugal. A wave of golf development followed, making the Algarve a magnet for northern Europeans – Iberia’s answer to Myrtle Beach.
That has been the image of golf in Portugal ever since: resort courses packed with drunken Brits and Scandinavians on carts. It was certainly the wave I heard a lot about in the early 1990s, when I spent a year in Lisbon teaching English to bored bankers. Those package deals in the south didn’t sound that bad, but I didn’t have a car, had a meager budget, and the Algarve was three hours away. The Lisbon area, in turn, had a few nice clubs that catered to wealthy expats, but little else. The only round I played was on an unassuming nine-hole course that I tried to reach by bus but ended up getting lost, wandering down a cobbled street with my sticks, where I met a friendly farmer who took me to the clubhouse on a mule . -pulled cart.
Memories! They seem like a lifetime ago. So much has changed. For example: Uber. Golfing in Portugal is also different. It’s not just about the Algarve anymore.
“Not a bad place, right?” says David McLay Kidd. It’s a warm October afternoon, about an hour south of Lisbon, and the Scottish-born architect of Bandon Dunes is riding shotgun into my rental property. He leads me along unmarked roads through a rolling landscape of dunes and pine trees. We’re in a coastal area called Comporta, which travel magazines liken to the Hamptons because of its popularity with well-heeled beachgoers. The difference is that it never had waves.
That quietly changed two summers ago, when Discovery Land, the private club network known for its Tom Fazio courses and luxury comfort stations, completed Costa Terra, a few clicks up the coast. Sweet spot, but only for members. The bigger golf news from Comporta concerns the man in my passenger seat and his very first design in continental Europe: the Dunas course on Terras da Comporta. We now drive to the bag drop.
Like many of today’s major golf destinations, the place has an understated, luxurious feel. Sleek, blond wooden clubhouse. Pro shop counter that could pass for a spa check-in. But the most important minimalist feature is the track itself. A muscular, rural beauty, with wide fairways, spacious greens and yawning sandy plains.
It has been open to the public since late summer 2023, but Kidd has stepped in to make it official. Tomorrow, before a gathering of local dignitaries, he will hit a ceremonial shot and give a charming toast to kick off a scramble tournament. The crowd will eat it up. Portuguese television will cover the occasion.
Today, however, there is time for a practice round. The tee shot on the par-4 1st hole gives a taste of what is to come. There is a lot of room to the right, but that makes for a worse angle relative to the flag. The better line involves a risky transfer of sand. In its rustic look and strategic options, I see a kinship with other Kidd designs such as Gamble Sands and Mammoth Dunes, on a terrain that is so natural for golf. I wonder why there wasn’t a job here a long time ago.
“Believe me,” Kidd says. “It wasn’t for lack of trying.”
Kidd’s efforts on the project date back to 2008, when he was brought on board and inherited an itinerary drawn by Donald Steel a decade earlier. He wanted to get started, but the calamities were piling up. The 2008 economic crisis put a stop to work, which resumed a few years later, only to come to a halt again in 2014 when the venerable Portuguese bank that owned the country collapsed in Lehman Brothers-like flames that scorched the financial nerves across the EU. In 2017, a new owner took over at Comporta, but then the pandemic hit. Decades after its conception, the Dunas Course was finally born.
Now a sibling is in the works, the Torre Course, a collaboration between Sergio García and José María Olazábal that has broken new ground in the area, with an opening date yet to be determined.
While all this was happening in Comporta, the golf scene in and around Lisbon was slowly maturing. A notable addition was Oitavos Dunes, an early arrival that brought with it a hint of a link to the cool seaside town of Cascais. Then there were the activities a little further north. A day before I left Lisbon for Comporta, I took a drive of the same length in the opposite direction from the capital, along the Costa da Prata, or Silver Coast, which, like so many other things in Portugal, no longer seems like a secret. Here along the water, surrounded by cliffs reminiscent of the cliffs of Torrey Pines, traditional fishing villages double as surf towns, with all the cultural trappings that entails. On restaurant menus you can take your pick: bacalhau or quinoa burgers.
Golf courses in the area are clustered around Praia D’El Rey, a resort with a seaside golf course of the same name that Cabell Robinson designed in 1997. Today, the adjacent layouts include Royal Obidos, by Seve Ballesteros, and West Cliffs, where Cynthia Dye (Pete’s niece) finished in 2017, after working on the project for almost as long as Kidd did on Comporta.
Dye calls West Cliffs “my baby.”
“You don’t often work directly on the water, so it’s special,” she says.
West Cliffs is to the left and offers ocean views in abundance. Put your ears to the back nine and you can hear the waves. The other soundtrack is construction: big houses popping up at an impressive clip.
So much money is flowing into Portugal that the government recently changed its tax code over concerns that foreign investment was pushing property values beyond the reach of locals. Real estate prices have soared, yet golf remains a relative bargain. During my morning run at West Cliffs, I’m paired with three friend-tripping German broheims whose flamboyant neon fashion contrasts with their no-nonsense attitude.
“This place is of great value,” one of them, an engineer named Ule, tells me. He can’t remember what he and his friends paid in green fees, as their golf courses and rooms were bundled together. “But it was maybe 60 euros. You can’t get anything close to that at home.”
The Dunas Course costs about three times as much. In its planning and branding, the developer behind it is going for relaxed luxury, with a blueprint that promises environmentally conscious, low-density real estate on the surrounding coastal area. The target market is still continental Europe, but the hope is to attract more American golfers, who make up a small portion of the rounds played in Portugal.
On the course, Kidd and I reached the 16th hole, a drivable par-4 where the potential payouts raise the prospect of a sandy punishment. It’s find-your-ball fun on a course designed for firm, fast play, the kind of golf people travel far for these days.
It’s not hard to imagine golfers from the United States hopping on a plane and, like Henry Cotton, escaping to the warm coastal weather. A six-hour flight from New York and a short drive from Lisbon. Simple. Although I wouldn’t like to guess how long it would take per mule.
Portugal, in numbers
89 — Courses in the country
38 — Courses in the Algarve
17 — Courses in the Lisbon region
25,739 — Average number of rounds per course per year