“Joe Lee has never built a bad course,” Jack Nicklaus once said.
But unless you are a serious golf course architecture buff, Joe Lee is not a name you are likely to be familiar with. He was an American designer and he did much of his work several decades ago.
That said, so did Robert Trent Jones – and his name is widely known in Europe, no doubt because RTJ has legacy designs over here – notably Valderrama and the surrounding area – that maintain his profile long after he passed away.
But, in fact, so has Lee, with one of the continent’s most spectacular stretches of holes within the portfolio of ‘Gentleman Joe’, as he was known.
It is part of a fine CV, laying out over 250 courses in his 25-year career, including Cog Hill, Doral (Blue Monster), Bay Hill and La Costa.
His career began under Dick Wilson, who was the only real rival to RTJ in that era; Wilson not only tutored Lee in architecture, he also let his protege stay with the Wilson family for 13 years until he married!
He took over the business after Wilson’s death in 1965, and established a strong reputation for his work within the industry – not least the most decorated player of all time.
That reputation led to him being invited in 1980 to fly to Portugal to cast his eye over some land that was to form one of the new courses that would be part of the second wave of course construction in the Algarve.
The site bordered the Ria Formosa nature reserve and estuary, and Lee was instantly smitten.
“Joe loved the course but he said the good Lord did most of the work,” his widow Jinny once told NCG. “It was one of his favourite designs – and is my all-time favourite golf course.”
Lee turned that promising site into one of Continental Europe’s most famous and scenic courses – San Lorenzo.
By now though, history was repeating itself, and while Lee was fully involved in San Lorenzo, it was his younger associate Rocky Roquemore who had his shoulder to the wheel.
Roquemore’s work at San Lorenzo was sufficiently impressive to gain his solo contracts across Europe, ranging from Lisbon’s Quinta do Peru to Makila in France.
The jaw-dropping beauty for which San Lorenzo is famed reveals itself on the tee of the par-3 5th.
None come close to overshadowing what Roquemore and his boss did at San Lorenzo though. That said, it is easy to understand why Lee credited nature for much of the acclaim his course has attracted.
Much of San Lorenzo’s reputation stems from a truly breathtaking second half of the front nine, where fairways run alongside saltwater marshes, freshwater lagoons and the Atlantic Ocean. This precious area next to the course is home to over 70 species of bird.
The jaw-dropping beauty for which San Lorenzo is famed is revealed on the tee of the par-3 5th.
The course’s shortest hole plays directly towards the beach and Atlantic beyond a sprinkling of slender pines around the back of the green.
The next keeps you playing towards the seaside and is a cliched assault on the senses; while your eyes feast on the glistening water, marshland and dunes, your nose takes in the salty air, and your ears capture the sounds of chattering birds and clanking poles of boats of fishermen.
Hit a good drive off the 6th tee and it is a most satisfying walk down the picturesque fairway to your ball.
It is also a stringent hole, requiring a draw off the elevated tee to follow the line of the right-to-left dog-leg and set up your approach into a small green.
Hit a good drive off the 6th tee and it is a most satisfying walk down the picturesque fairway to your ball. The 6th’s challenge is far from over though, because the green sits hard to a beach path popular with runners and cyclists.
The 7th starts from an elevated tee slightly further inland but continues along the shoreline and offers an expansive panorama of sand flats and marshes to the right of the S-shaped fairway. Up at the green, water eats into the front and right side.
The 8th turns inland but water still plays a key part, a large lake lurking all the way down the right of an often narrow fairway and water at the front and right of a square-shaped green.
This stretch is the obvious highlight of San Lorenzo, which is routed in two figures of eight with the clubhouse at its centre.
Much of the remainder sees holes with undulating fairways weave through pine-covered land.
Be its undulating greens, water hazards and bunkering make San Lorenzo a proper test for all.
On the back nine, high points literally come at the 12th, whose elevated tee permits views of the wetlands over the tops of the pines and whose benched fairway between bank and chasm means it is probably San Lorenzo’s toughest test.
It highlights a nice run of par 4s that ends with the dog-leg 13th, before the short 14th takes you to the edge of the salty lagoons and is followed up with the pick of the back nine’s short holes at the 16th, which enjoys an open feel around its wide but shallow elevated green.
And underpinning it all is a playability that was the hallmark of Lee’s philosophy. He was known for creating courses that are ‘as much artistry as architecture’ – but its undulating greens, water hazards and bunkering make San Lorenzo a proper test for all. Chris Bertram