Resort spotlight: San Lorenzo, Portugal

Courses and Travel

Add one of Portugal's finest courses to one of the Algarve's leading hotels and you obviously have one of Continental Europe's elite golf resorts, says Chris Bertram

Unless you are a 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 will be known to many of you, no doubt because RTJ has legacy designs in Europe – especially notably Valderrama and the surrounding area – to maintain his profile long after he passed away.

But, actually, so has Lee. He didn’t ever enjoy quite the reputation of RTJ, but ‘Gentleman Joe’, as he was known, has a fine portfolio of his own. He laid 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. In fact Lee was the ultimate protege, even living with the Wilson family for 13 years until he married.

He took over the business after Wilson’s death in 1965, having already begun to take on most of the work in his mentor’s latter days and building a strong reputation for his consistent work.

“Joe Lee has never built a bad course,” Jack Nicklaus once said.

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.”

Nature the real star at San Lorenzo

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.

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 is golf in its most natural form and in total harmony with the environment; the precious area next to the course is home to over 70 species of bird, including herons, white storks, coots, black winged stilts and the purple gallinule.

The legendary stretch

The jaw-dropping beauty for which San Lorenzo is famed reveals itself on the tee of the par-3 5th.

The course’s shortest hole enjoys a delicious site, playing directly towards the beach and Atlantic beyond the sprinkling of slender pines around the back of the green. It is a thrilling scene, and so is the next, which keeps you playing towards the seaside.

It is the 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 belonging to industrious fishermen.

Your brain also needs to engage, because it is also a stringent golf hole, requiring a draw off the elevated tee to follow the line of the right-to-left dog-leg and set up your shot into a small green.

Hit a good one and you cannot do anything other than smugly enjoy striding down the fairway to your ball and then eye up a pleasing but dangerous approach. Dangerous, because the green sits hard to the beach path, a scenic route that is popular with runners and cyclists.

The 7th continues along the shoreline and begins from another elevated tee with an expansive panorama of sand flats and dunes. From its tee, with an exhilarating view of the marshes to the right, you are asked to find an S-shaped fairway with a steep bank to the left. Water  eats into the front and right side of the green.

While the 8th turns you inland, the fun is far from over as the wetland feel continues. A large lake lurks all the way down the right of a snaking fairway that is extremely narrow in places and this engrossing, nervy par 5 ends on a square-shaped green guarded by water to the front and right.

These holes are the clear highlights of San Lorenzo, but don’t dismiss the rest. Routed in two figures of eight with the clubhouse at its centre, the holes whose undulating fairways weave through pine-covered land also have merit.

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 be assured that its undulating greens, water hazards and bunkering make San Lorenzo a proper test for all.

Idyllic all-round resort

On its own, San Lorenzo is one of Continental Europe’s finest courses.

But it is not a single commodity because although the course has nothing more than a clubhouse on site, it is owned and operated by JJW Hotels and Resorts that has hotels and other courses in its portfolio.

Indeed, in conjunction with the five-star Dona Filipa Hotel which sits along the coast, it was once voted European Gοlf Resort of the Year.

San Lorenzo sits in the south-east corner of the spawning Quinta do Lago estate while Dona Filipa Hotel is located 20 minutes away within the Vale do Lobo resort.

Dona Filipa underwent a multimillion pound refurbishment in 2015 and this fivestar hotel is patently one of the finest in the Algarve.

The luxury beachfront property boasts extensive leisure facilities including a supervised Kangaroo Club for children, three tennis courts, two restaurants, a heated outdoor swimming pool, a games and billiard room, a stylish bar and lounge and a massage and beauty centre.

Hotel guests also have access to their own exclusive section of Vale do Lobo beach.

In addition to the renovated public areasincluding the reception, bar and loungethe 154 rooms and suites were also upgraded to a sparkling degree.

The group also has a second course in its group, Pinheiros Altos, should you wish a second course during your stay here. It is a solid championship-level venue even if it lacks San Lorenzo’s wow factor. Then again, few courses in Continental Europe can.

Travel essentials

When to go: One of the best aspects of a golf holiday in the Algarve. The climate here is spectacularly good, being relatively mild all year round. I would say May to September inclusive guarantees sunshine hot enough to swim in a warm pool but equally Spring is also a brilliant option with cheaper prices yet still gorgeous weather. Even in winter you are likely to play in shirt sleeves – I’ve been blessed with glorious weather in January.

The journey: As with any golf holiday to the Algarve, this is a huge bonus to this break. There are so many cheap and regular flights to Faro from so many airports in Britain. In fact it is almost easier to quote which UK airports don’t fly to Faro than those that do. Rest assured that no matter where you live in mainland Britain, there will be a flight option close to you. If you book early you can expect to get a return for under £100. To get to Amendoeira and the rest of the courses it is no more than a 40-minute drive.

Dona Filipa beach

Off the course: Explore the airport town of Faro is a top spot for a night or day out, being packed with shops, bars and restaurants. For the kids, enjoy olphin shows mix with water slides at Zoomarine and Aqualand. At the beach, you can do all sorts of water sports or just work on your tan on the Algarve’s many stunning beaches and coves.

For more information, visit the Golf in the Algarve website.

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