Surprising Lisbon: An exceptional city with outstanding golf

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February 11, 2011
David Brice, Golf Internation, Inc.

David Brice, CEO of Golf International, reviews destinations on PGATOUR.COM that can be experienced by purchasing a package with Golf international, a leading provider of high-end international golf travel. For more information about this trip or any other of Golf International's destination trips, click here.

We always expect a lot from a European capital -- the best hotels and restaurants, a healthy serving of culture and history, nightlife and entertainment, top shopping, museums and art galleries and only the best levels of service. Lisbon, the often surprising capital of little Portugal, delivers on all of the above, then as if to prove it can do better than even the big boys, takes extra steps to provide a few things most don't expect.

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Oitavos Dunes is a stunner and not to be missed by any serious golfer.
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Oitavos has many links-like qualities including a serious wind.
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Oitavos Dunes -destined for the top ranks of European golf.
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Penha Longa - One of Europe's most elegant golf resorts.
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Don't be deceived by Penha Longa's good looks - this is a course to test the very best.
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Packed with variety Praia d'El Rey enjoys an idyllic seaside setting.
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Reminiscent of a tough Scottish links Praia d'El Rey is one for the memory book.
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A friendly local population is hard to find in many Northern European capitals, but in Lisbon they are everywhere. It's second nature to the Portuguese and none more so than the natives of Lisbon, who are justly proud of their city and welcome all who care to visit, with an unmatched, totally genuine warmth.

Good value for money is a stranger to most of Europe these days, but again, Lisbon marches to a different drummer and offers one of the best values to be found on the entire Continent.

No experienced, international golf traveler ever expects to be able to play the best courses surrounding any European capital, where private clubs are common and private means just that. But this is where Lisbon once again, dances to a different tune - 23 top-drawer golf courses form an emerald green necklace around the city and each and every one puts the welcome mat out for visiting golfers, whether the club is private or not -- it's just a part of the natural, Portuguese hospitality that only adds to the country's charm.

Arrive in Lisbon and the usual question of, "which courses may I play", just doesn't exist, the entire golf collection is available to you, so it comes down to which you prefer. Choosing between almost two dozen layouts can become a confusing task, so take a look at this small sampling of just three, which I consider as being among the best, listed alphabetically.

Oitavos Dunes is something of a wunderkind in the world of golf and was the very first European design for American architect, Arthur Hills. Far from delivering the anticipated American style layout, Hills produced a course with a distinctly European accent and strong, links-like overtones. Despite only being opened in 2001, Oitavos Dunes has the look and feel of a wise old-timer that has been sitting here for a century or more, but don't be deceived by the handsome good looks. This is as tough a track as any and the golfer of modest abilities is guaranteed a succession of stern if not discouraging examinations of skills for each of its almost 7,000 yards.

The cliff top setting is spectacular, fronted by the Atlantic Ocean with the Sintra Mountains behind; it's open and exposed to the vagaries of the sea breezes, which can quickly become cantankerous, gusting winds. Adding to the excitement are some impressive sand dunes running through the middle holes, only complicating matters further. The imaginative design is packed with variety and a never-ending arsenal of different challenges. It will be the thinking golfer of some talent, who eventually might succeed on this thoroughly memorable layout.

The European Tour was intrigued enough to invite Oitavos Dunes to host the 2005 Portugal Open, a mere 4 years after its inauguration. It impressed players and Tour officials enough to be honored with repeat performances in 2007, 2008 and in 2009. Such celebrity for a course so young says it all. Make sure Oitavos Dunes is on your must play list.

The Penha Longa Hotel Spa and Golf Resort sits 5 short miles, inland from Oitavos Dunes, nestled among the foothills of the Sintra Mountains. Operated by the prestigious, Ritz-Carlton Group, this is 5 star luxury at its best and arguably, one of Europe's leading golf resorts. As impressive as the hotel is, Penha Longa's Atlantic Course, a championship layout in every way, is nothing less -- a superb piece of artistry from Robert Trent Jones Jr.

There is a myth in golf that resort courses are something to be disdained and not really serious layouts at all, just something to amuse the hotel guests in between spa treatments and room service. I invite these non-believers to experience Penha Longa's Atlantic Course and have their minds changed forever.

The first clue will be the length of The Atlantic, stretching to within a hair's breadth of 7,000 yards from the back tees; it's also hilly terrain, providing an immediate reassurance that this will be no walk in the park. Robert Trent Jones, Jr. did not receive worldwide acclaim for his easy designs and The Atlantic, though never unfair, is no exception to the rule.

In true gentlemanly style, the course sets out with four par 4's that gradually increase in difficulty, politely easing you into the challenges that lie ahead. With introductions completed, the serious golf begins at the 6th, rated by Britain's Golf World Magazine, among the Top 500 Holes in the World. Downhill and downwind, the dogleg right is a cunning examination of accuracy as shrewdly placed bunkers are avoided on the journey to a generous green. Fronted by a lake with an historic Roman aqueduct behind, leave your admiration for the scenery until the ball is holed and you could escape with only bogey.

And so the test continues until you eventually reach the closing trio, as impressive a grand finale as exists, with the 16th presenting the toughest of all. A dramatic dogleg protected by pot bunkers, encroaching trees and distracting views of the Sintra Mountains. Reach the green in two and this will be the most rewarding hole of the entire round.

Praia d'El Rey is located a little further away from Lisbon, but the hour's drive north to experience another Lisbon Coast gem will be more than worthwhile and an opportunity to sample the artistry of another noted designer, transplanted American, Cabell Robinson. Anytime you see this name attached to a course, you are guaranteed a very special golfing experience and Praia d'El Rey may well be Robinson's best.

Set out along 3 miles of pristine Atlantic shoreline, fringed with pure white sand beaches and dramatic cliffs extending as far as the eye can see, Praia d'El Rey occupies one of the most idyllic locations imaginable. Inland a landscape of rolling hills and dense pine forests complete the picture, bringing the astounding variety on which this thriller of a layout has built its reputation -- a combination of links, parkland and forest, with never a dull moment. This is serious golf for serious golfers playing from the back tees, but with a selection of tee positions, played from the front, it becomes an enjoyable round for even the high handicappers.

Praia d'El Rey sets out through pine trees and alongside lakes, offering a few tantalizing glimpses of the Atlantic. By the third hole the senses have been aroused by the smell and thunderous roar of waves crashing on the beach below, but teasingly, the track turns abruptly inland, darting through parkland into dense growths of pine. Turning on its heels again at the eighth, it charges down to the shoreline, spectacular vistas at your feet.

There may be no more stunning display of sights and sounds than the string of holes running from the eleventh to the fifteenth. The fairway takes you along perilous cliff-tops, with the wind whistling in from the Atlantic, pounding waves beneath and spectacular panoramas everywhere. Stay focused on your game, these are some of the trickiest holes of all and length without accuracy is a folly that Praia d'El Rey penalizes without mercy.

The best is saved until last, on the turn for home. The 17th, measuring almost 600 yards is nothing less than a magnificent monster and one of the longest holes in Europe. Not surprisingly, it's also Praia d'El Reys most testing.

These are only three of the best courses in a region filled with superb golf and there are others that could easily have been included, a testament to the excellence that is golf on the Lisbon Coast. It's a golfer's paradise that must be experienced to be appreciated, but don't restrict your activities to only golf. The Lisbon Coast is filled with history, culture and a myriad of sightseeing opportunities that shouldn't be missed.

Experience as much of this enchanting country as you can, but the chances are that just like most other visitors, your first visit to Portugal and the area surrounding her capital, will only be the beginning of a long-term love affair -- and you will return.

For more ideas on how to get the most of your escape to Lisbon, contact the Portugal experts at Golf International by calling toll free (800) 833-1389, or click here.

©2011 David Brice / Golf International, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Golf International -- Providers of quality golf travel arrangements since 1988.

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