It took 14 tantalising years, but the wait was worth it. Cynthia Dye first surveyed the site for a new course in Portugal in 2004, and she very much liked what she saw.
The 200 hectares of sand dunes and coastal vegetation ran along the Atlantic coast and the topography ranged between gently rolling and dramatically undulating. It was, essentially, every course architect’s dream.
“With its amazing location and terrain, it is the most fantastic natural site imaginable,” she says. “The course was really already there – it was our job to shape the holes to create an incredible, dramatic experience.”
But there was a problem. As with most epic sites for golf, environmental sensitivity had, quite rightly, to be stringently considered.
So Dye, the niece of the recently departed Pete, had to be patient. Eventually, the green light arrived and the American could start working her dream landscape, which is located an hour north of Lisbon near the medieval town of Obidos.
It opened in 2018 to much fanfare, which is a doubled-edged sword, mixing useful exposure and anticipation with the pressure that such high expectation brings.
In addition to its desirable seaside location, it is also the first Dye design in Portugal – and only the fourth in Europe – so the golf world expected a lot.
Few who have been would argue Dye has not delivered on the site’s promise though; West Cliffs has something for everyone.
Those who seek aesthetic pleasure will lap up the views of the Atlantic Ocean from all 18 holes. Those who want to be confronted by strategic holes will find something to muse over on more holes than not. Those who want to have their game challenged unremittingly can certainly have that off the 7,003-yard back tees.
The setting – especially on the back nine – will be the aspect most visitors will remember most about West Cliffs, but it is patently obvious how much thought Dye put into the small details here, small details that make for truly great holes and all add up to make a classic course.
The all-world par-5 7th and the dramatic point-to-point short 16th will stand out for many while connoisseurs will lap up another of the par 3s, the 5th – essentially Dye’s take on Redan – while there are sporty two-shot holes at 8 and 14.
If there is a criticism to be made, it is that West Cliffs is unforgiving, especially in a stiff breeze that is not uncommon here.
Mindful of the precious environment she was working in, Dye and her team built the course while leaving much of the indigenous scrub vegetation intact.
It was, needless to say, a commendable decision and also undoubtedly adds to the beauty and natural feel of the course (and outwith the native scrub and fairways the rest is sandy waste areas), but the drawback is that slightly errant shots can quite easily lead to balls being swallowed up by the low-lying vegetation and never seen again.
There are some hefty carries from the tees too, which the shorter hitter may not relish.
And of the holes themselves, the 9th and 18th – dog-legs played eventually towards pond-side greens – lack the charm and character of the rest. The 17th is also an acquired taste, given it is such an acute dog-leg around a high dune where it is so easy to be snookered for your second.
Those gripes are however more than compensated for by the rest of West Cliffs, which is the sister of fellow Continental Top 100 course Praia d’El Rey, a 10-minute drive down the coast.
Dye chose to include only four par 3s and incorporated back-to-back par 5s while she successfully mixed risk-reward par 4s with more demanding, classy two-shotters.
The short holes might be the highlight. The first of them at the 2nd is a nice start, playing downhill to a perpendicular green that straddles a long ridge, creating plenty of movement on almost all putts.
But the 5th raises the bar notably and might be this golfer’s favourite. It plays directly at the ocean from a lower tee, the green surrounded by heather and marram grass with bunkers left and steep slopes around all but the back portion. It slopes front to back in the much-copied Redan style.
The 12th is less dramatic but has the cliffs of the Silver Coast in the background to enjoy. There is a sandy waste bunker on the right but room on the left to favour that side.
Then comes 16th, set down on a dune that is the highest point on the property, offering fabulous views of the course and ocean. Tees have been cut into the huge sand hill and from the back boxes you have to feather a long iron between the the pines and the dune, which obscures part of the green. Those who dislike any kind of blindness on a course will probably not take to it, and the other mild examples elsewhere at West Cliffs.
There are so many fine two-shot holes to pick out. The risk-reward 3rd, playing towards the ocean as it skirts lakes on the right, inviting longer hitters to have a go at finding the downslope of the fairway that will leave a very short approach.
Or the 8th, where the elevated tees offer a glorious view of the heather-lined fairway that dog-legs left and asks the golfer how much of the corner they dare cut off in order to make their approach to the ridge-top green in front of the Atlantic an easier one.
Then there is 14, which Dye admits was laid out more by Mother Nature than her. Again played from elevated tees surrounded by native vegetation, a dune dissects the fairway and the approach to the green.
The back nine will likely live longest in the memory for those who live for views, but the three holes from the 5th make a strong case for the front nine too.
After the Redan par 3 comes the consecutive par 5s, starting with a downhill drive from a high ridge
and then an uphill second followed by a blind approach into a long narrow green.
The next turns you round and plays in the opposite direction, so no matter the wind direction, one will play long and one short. If the wind is into you on the 7th, the longest hole on the course, it is a beast – even if the view of the cliffs and surf of the ocean can be enjoyed while you’re tackling it. Its tiered green straddles a ridge with a large dune on the left.
Two more 5s follow on the back nine, at 13 (open and tempting) and 15 (long, uphill and dangerous).
Other highlights include the constant ocean views all the way down the 10th, the fun to be had on the domed green of the dog-leg 4th, and the course management and execution required to navigate a clear view of the selectively blind 11th. The 1st, a relatively gentle opener to a funky green, is a pleasing start too.
The penultimate hole will divide opinion; find a good drive and you will likely see the green – way down below – as you try to approach it but any kind of mis-hit will result in a blind second over a tall dune.
It is a high-octane and mildly controversial end, coming as it does after the also partially blind 16th.
It would have taken the most disciplined of architects not to use these redoubtable sand hills in the manner Dye has though – not least because this kind of job, this kind of dream site, might only come along once in a career.
“This has been an incredible project to be involved in, right from the moment I first visited the site and saw what was possible 14 years ago,” she told NCG as she opened the course.
At No.15 in our Continental European Top 100, it feels as if Dye’s patience has been vindicated. Chris Bertram