I have always loved Quinta do Lago, as repeated visits over a period of some 30 years testify. So I was delighted to be invited to the formal opening of the new North course. However, needing practice for the inaugural competition, after a light lunch of the most delicate garlic sautéed prawns on the clubhouse terrace, I re-acquainted myself with the South Course.
I have always tended to prefer the South, with its generous fairways and dramatic undulations, and of course, its 15th and 17th signature holes requiring shots over the lake. Today, playing with my Danish friend, Mikkel, (handicap two), my game was properly tested. He made every par five green in two strikes and it is at times like this that I contemplate taking up an alternative form of exercise – like knitting, and when I dumped two balls in the aforementioned lago, I conceded the match.
Consolation awaited that night in the Shack, where we gentlemen of the press congregated for some modest refreshment. The Shack is a pretty timber pavilion overlooking the self-same lago, serving succulent barbecued portions of every type of fish or meat washed down with constantly replenished glasses of excellent Douro wines.
I’m sure that I had a great evening – I just don’t recall much of it and it took several cups of strong black coffee to get me to the North course the next morning for a ceremonial tree planting by Paul McGinley; as Denis O’Brien, Quinta do Lago’s Irish owner commented “who better qualified to shovel earth” into the tree pit?
Twenty-nine million euros have already been invested with a further 21 million to come to make Quinta do Lago a leading world resort. Beau Welling, the American golf course architect has been working with McGinley, (he is also currently working with Tiger on his first course), on the ecology of the course, re-contouring it to catch water for recycling and replacing grassed areas with extensive use of pinestraw and weeping lovegrass, which needs no irrigation (and looks fabulous).
McGinley has also brought what he refers to as “playability and fun” to the design. His philosophy is that one of the main reasons golf numbers are static, or even falling, is the difficulty of the game, particularly for those taking it up later in life.
Certainly courses are needed that set challenges for scratch golfers as well as the average player, and that was why he narrowed the fairways and placed bunkers around the 250-yard mark, but also provided generous fairways for the longer handicapper.
The new course rewards good course management; the angling and set-up of the greens rewards the well-placed approach shot. In short, he has created a course to entice rather than intimidate. Inspired after the opening ceremony, I went straight to Quinta’s beautiful range overlooking pine-covered hills, and positively drilled every ball from the pyramid. Now Mr.McGinley, I thought, I’m going to master your course.
Inevitably, with a card in my hand, I played my usual rubbish, finishing well off the pace, but where I finished quite honestly didn’t matter a jot – I loved the course so much that I could have gone straight out and played it again.
Every hole presents a challenge, is aesthetically pleasing and, above all, playable, whatever your handicap. While there is always a risk offered to be rewarded, there is also always a safe option, perhaps best epitomised by the 12th hole, one of the few, (thankfully), with a lake to carry.
At 375 yards to the green from the yellow tees, there is plenty of room on the fairway on the right, but a safe route will leave you with a 175-yard carry over water, should you feel up to it. On the other hand, there is still room on the
right of the green for a lay-up and the chance of a pitch and a putt for par.
However, what particularly impressed, even more than the obvious intelligence of the design, was the constant aesthetic pleasure provided by the combination of the umbrella pines and pinestraw which edge the fairways beyond the manicured fescue rough, and also the beautiful weeping lovegrass.
I have to admit that this is a new species to me; about 40cm high and with a distinct weeping form, it is both lovely to look at and as an edge treatment, completely impenetrable, providing a haven for birds and animals, thus enriching the ecology of the golf course.
But here is the masterstroke; at Quinta, the weeping lovegrass is designated as a protected area so golfers are forbidden to enter it, but given a FREE drop at point of entry, thus complying with Alister MacKenzie’s essential rule that “there should be a complete absence of the annoyance and irritation caused by the necessity of searching for lost balls”, and, of course, speeding up play. As I say, genius. R&A please take note.