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Eden of the Algarve

The San Lorenzo course lies within both the Quinta do Lago estate and the Ria Formosa Natural Park, which encompasses around 45,000 acres of wetlands protected by the Portuguese government as a refuge for migrating birds. Designed by William "Rocky" Roquemore and Joseph Lee and rated among the three best on the European continent, the course makes wonderful use of what MacKenzie would have recognized as "the innocent and natural undulations of the ground," the fairways wide enough to suggest alternate routes to the bottle-shaped greens, the distances from the back tees not oppressively long. The justly famous home hole borders the far shore of a lake, which presents itself as a hazard to the golfer but not to the birds that rest among its reeds. I saw sultana chickens, egrets and purple gallinules. The gentlemen in my group mentioned prior sightings of storks, hoopoes and an Egyptian vulture.

The Vilamoura plantation spreads across more than four thousand acres and provides the conveniences of a yacht basin, a small airport and a gambling casino. Of its four golf courses, the best is The Old Course, completed in 1969 and designed by Frank Pennink. The feeling is that of an English park, graceful and calm, the umbrella pine trees now grown to stately heights and the bunkers placed in such a way as to bear out MacKenzie's observation about the like-mindedness of the golf architect and the camoufleur: "Surprise is the most important thing in war, and by camouflage you are able to attain this not only on the defence but in the attack." The pine between the tee and the green at the 178-yard, par-three fourth forces the player to carry the ball directly over it and so deploys an otherwise "innocent-looking feature of the landscape" in a manner likely to "give pleasurable excitement to the golfer" and restore "confidence and improvement in the morale to the solider."

The third course that I thought exceptional is the one Cotton built in 1968 on the edge of the sea at Vale do Lobo. The adjacent real estate development has since been greatly enlarged, allowing for the construction of another eighteen holes, myriad holiday villas and the Le Meridien Dona Filipa. The two golf courses have been formed with combinations of older and newer holes, but those designed by Cotton--most magnificently the par-three sixteenth on the Royal course (a carry of 224 yards across a precipice of honey-colored cliffs)--satisfy MacKenzie's definition of the ideal hole: "One that affords the greatest pleasure to the greatest number, gives the fullest advantage for accurate play, stimulates players to improve their game, and never becomes monotonous."

Within the span of a week I managed to play another five courses, all but one in the eastern Algarve. On the Quinta do Lago course, most of the approach shots must be played uphill to a blind green, and despite some fine effects on both the front and back nines, the steepness of the fairways forces the use of a cart, which, as MacKenzie would have guessed, disturbs "the harmony and the continuity of the game." The courses at Vila Sol and Pinheiros Altos also present a number of fine holes, but not enough of them to warrant the doctor's unqualified praise.

By the end of the third day I discovered why I never had any trouble arranging a tee time and why I seldom needed more than three and one-half hours to play a round. Because the weather in late November and early December can turn wet and cold, the agencies that book golf tours send their clients to the Caribbean. But if it so happens that the skies stay blue and warm (as they did when I was on the coast), then the fortunate traveler from the land of death and time stumbles, "from a golfing point of view," into the best possible world. The starters greet the new arrival as if welcoming a long-lost friend, and the golfer who hits a poor shot from a fairway or a tee can recover his faith in a just Providence with the playing of a second ball.

The local attitude toward tourists, however, didn't need much explanation. If the Portuguese know 365 ways to prepare a codfish, they also know 365 ways to cook mullet, prawns, lobster, tuna and bream, and they don't make fine distinctions between the different species of golfer that comprise the day's catch at the airport in Faro. All are welcome; all can be accommodated. For those who don't play golf, the Algarve offers the full complement of lesser attractions (hang gliding, horseback riding, tennis), as well as shopping, arcades, discotheques, Roman ruins and an assortment of restaurants famous not only for fish but for the native wines and sweet desserts made with eggs and almonds.

On Friday I Drove The Entire length of the two-lane highway from Faro to Cabo de São Vicente with the hope of maybe playing the courses at Palmares or Penina. A few miles west of Portimão the road begins to look as if it is running backward in time. Fishing villages take the place of hotels; the trees on the parched hillsides dwindle into gorse bushes; at the outdoor tables of the roadside cafés, old men in wool caps drink coffee and play dominos, their donkeys tethered to the signs promising miracles of real estate development as yet unseen in Heaven or on earth. Between Portimão and Lagos I stopped at Penina, the original Sir Henry Cotton course (now equipped with a first-class Le Meridien hotel). A tournament was in progress, but from what I could tell by looking at the map on the card, the design resembles Vale do Lobo's Ocean course, with its similarly treacherous arrangement of bunkers and multiple angles of approach on the long, doglegged holes.


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