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Eden of the Algarve

The broad plain of the Algarve occupies the whole of Portugal's southern coast, but as recently as thirty years ago the only golf courses on the premises were made of oil and sand. Portugal in the sixties hadn't yet been incorporated into the magic kingdom of late-twentieth-century tourism, and the hoteliers in the Algarve offered golf as mere amusement, a distraction as trifling as quoits or bumper pool for the holiday crowds enjoying what was then the cheapest beach vacation in Europe. The south coast was for the most part unimproved, the long shoreline--approximately 100 miles west to east from Cabo de São Vicente to the Spanish frontier--as empty as the winter horizon. Like the fishing quays at Albufeira and Portimão, the picturesque towns of Lagos and Sagres looked much as they had when they served as fifteenth-century ports of embarkation for the small wooden ships sailing in search of new sea routes to the Indies.

When the scenery began to change in the late sixties, the first rush of land speculation circumvented the nuisance of building and environmental codes. Within a matter of five or six years, so much construction was in progress that the directors of the region's tourist traffic began to worry about destroying the wonders of nature from which they fashioned their postcards and handsome returns on investment. What if the southern coast of Portugal turned into another vulgar ruin?What then?

Fortunately for all concerned, somebody mentioned golf. Golf was a game played by rich people, and if the Algarve could be reconfigured as a golfer's garden of earthly delights (something along the lines of Peter Pan's Neverland or Henry Adams's "banker's Olympus"), maybe the money could be made at the high end of the tourist trade. Sir Henry Cotton, a retired British Open champion, had designed the first of the region's courses at Penina in 1966, supervising its construction while seated on the donkey that he also employed as his caddie. The success of Cotton's enterprise encouraged the authorities to think of the game as a means of aligning environmental concerns with commercial interests, and the golf architects began with the advantages of a warm sun, exotic birds and the same flowering trees--orange, fig, oleander, almond--believed to have bloomed in Eden.

By 2000 they had completed twenty-odd courses. On being given the chance recently to review them, I came first to the question of what constituted a fair measure of judgment. So many golf courses have been set up in so many parts of the world over the last thirty years (advancing different principles of design, different intimations of immortality) that it's hard to know how to rate the several theories of the good, the true and the beautiful. Before leaving New York, I looked through a number of books on the subject. Because most of the Algarve courses had been built by Englishmen, I thought it fair to rely on the authority of Dr. Alister MacKenzie. He published a slim volume in 1920 under the simple title Golf Architecture (reprinted in 1987, with a foreword by Herbert Warren Wind and an afterword by my father). MacKenzie believed in the supremacy of mind over matter and regarded a well-made golf course as "largely a question of the spirit in which the problem is approached. Does the player look upon it from the 'card and pencil' point of view and condemn anything that has disturbed his steady series of threes and fours, or does he approach the question in 'the spirit of adventure' of the true sportsman?"

Taking the doctor's point, I also took his book to Portugal. This proved to be a lucky choice, for on the early-morning plane from London to Faro I found myself seated across the aisle from a British golfer whose home course was the one that MacKenzie had designed at Moortown. The man busied himself with his newspapers during the first two hours of the flight, clearly indicating that he didn't wish to be disturbed.

But when he saw that I was reading MacKenzie's chapter titled "Ideal Holes," he extended me the privilege of his acquaintance. As a general rule, he said, he didn't speak to Americans--too many of them turn out to be the kind of people who talk too much about wedge shots gone missing in a pond --but anybody who knew enough to know MacKenzie clearly could be trusted to bear in silence the misfortune of a dead stymie behind a eucalyptus tree.


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