Penina and Palmares -- Still two of The Algarve's best

November 20, 2007
David Brice, Golf International, Inc.

The Algarve's well-earned reputation as a leading light on the European golfing scene, though only now coming to the attention of American golfers, had its beginnings more than 40 years ago. The approaching half century of golf development has been slow but sure and always well planned, with the private and public sectors working closely in partnership, to ensure that golf in The Algarve would always be of a standard to rank alongside the best anywhere.

cow_image_1.jpg
Penina marked the beginnings of golf on The Algarve.

It was a development approach that has proved its worth, time and time again and nowhere is the evidence as clear as in those original layouts. Designed by the pioneering architects of the 1960's and 1970's, these highly esteemed courses still hold their heads high and remain listed among Portugal's best.

Much of the credit belongs to three-time British Open champion and noted golf architect, Sir Henry Cotton, an Englishman and a leading figure in taking golf through its transition from the traditional game of its origins, into the modern day era. Cotton was invited to The Algarve in the early sixties, to investigate the region's suitability to golf development.

Thoroughly enchanted by what he saw, Cotton grasped the opportunity to design The Algarve's very first course on a flat, treeless piece of desolate real estate, located at the western end of the coast, near the fishing village of Portimao. The end result at Penina is still considered a masterpiece and perhaps his best design ever.

cow_image_2.jpg
Water plays a prominent role at Penina.

Any golfer playing Penina's championship course today, can only be impressed. Almost fifty years after its inauguration, the layout sparkles every bit as much as it did back in 1966, but with a maturity and seasoned experience that lets you know, this is a wily, modern day, "Old Timer" that knows every trick in the book -- and then some -- it's a course that has earned its stripes.

Today, it's hard to imagine how the mundane site Cotton had to work with, has been transformed. He planted almost 400,000 trees, which now fully matured, bring a sense of grandeur to the course. The generous use of bunkering, though seldom penal, adds a sense of adventure and a distinctly British flavor, reminiscent of Scotland's Carnoustie. Streams, lakes and ponds bring water into play on almost half the holes, not only adding an aesthetic quality, but also placing a further accent on the need for accuracy and good course management. Penina is a course to be taken very seriously, its length from the back tees of more than 7,000 yards, only emphasizing the point.

cow_image_3.jpg
The Meridien Penina Golf Resort - Classic golf at its best.

If there is one criticism to be made of Penina, it is a lack of forgiveness for the higher handicapper. Just like its perfectionist designer, the course makes high demands of every player, expecting all to rise to the occasion and offering no easier alternatives for those of lesser skills. There is some respite from the forward tees, which mellow the layout somewhat, but it remains a stern test. Nowhere is this more apparent than on the back nine where two pairs of ominous, par-5's are presented, separated by an imposing but knee knocking, 200-yard par-3. The tempting direct route requires a tee to green carry over water, all the way. Fail here and a watery grave is assured. Immaculately maintained year round, this is a course to be savored, appreciated and enjoyed to the fullest

But Penina is a complete golf resort and not without some sympathy for less accomplished players. Accompanying the Championship Course are two 9-hole layouts, both less strategically demanding than the main attraction, yet still testy, great fun to play and both were designed by the same, Sir Henry Cotton.

Focal point of the entire 360-acre complex is the elegant, Meridien Penina Golf and Resort Hotel, a luxurious 5 star property, specifically designed with the golfer in mind. But even golfers need a change of pace and with an equestrian center, 6 tennis courts, a gigantic swimming pool and the beach all close at hand, there is no time for boredom.

cow_image_4.jpg
Penina No. 18.

It's only a short few miles drive to reach another outstanding design dating from golf's early days on The Algarve. Palmares Golf enjoys a spectacular location overlooking Lagos Bay and the historic town of the same name. Combine Palmares' handsome good looks with the variety created by the unique combination of links and woodland challenges and you have a course, which is deserving of far more attention from visitors than is the case.

The design is from Frank Pennink, the renowned English architect, who also created Vilamoura's highly acclaimed, Old Course in the Central Algarve. By reputation, Pennink ranks up there with the very best golf architects and his skilful accomplishment at Palmares will be no disappointment to any fans.

The course sets out in dramatic fashion with a par-4, dogleg right, requiring a tee shot from an elevated tee with a stunning, though distracting view of the Atlantic. The fairway drops away steeply to a green that is tucked away, out of sight -- concentration and forethought is the order of the day.

cow_image_5.jpg
Palmares, opened in 1976, is one of The Algarves most attractive courses.

The following 5 holes are pure links delight, running along the shoreline, where the wind blowing in from the sea can create more than a problem or two, only complicated further by sand-dunes that offer a sporadic protection of sorts. The most testing of the links holes is the Fifth, a stern 600-yard par 5. More than lengthy by any standard, this is a chance for the big-hitters to spread their shoulders and let it rip. Be wary, the fairway appears deceivingly wide, but it's not and lined with sand on both sides - the frustrating opportunity to end up here is unwillingly accepted by many.

From here the layout takes you away from the sea, rising through undulating hillside terrain into the trees, a glorious sight in spring when the carob and almond trees are in full blossom. A golf cart might be advisable for those not up to the climb, but if you are fit, walking has its own rewards with the opportunity to soak in Palmares' constantly changing panoramas -- the Atlantic Ocean, the magnificent Monchique Mountains and the ancient port of Alvor.

cow_image_6.jpg
Palmares offers big hitters a few chances to spread their shoulders.

As challenging as Palmares can be, it is consistently very fair and always with a sense of fun. This is one to be enjoyed to the fullest and nowhere is the fun more apparent than in the closing trio of holes.

The 16th is a 460-yard, uphill hike and considered the toughest par 4 on the course. From the back tee, all that can be seen is the fairway vanishing into the sky -- a good drive must reach the top of the hill to reveal a view of the green, but it's still not plain sailing. The fairway drops off sharply to the left and any overly evasive shot to the right will end up amid fig and olive trees.

There's another cunning test of wits and will power waiting on the 17th, a short, 500-yard par-5, twisting to the left and galloping downhill all the way. The temptation will be to fire your second shot across the open area of scrub to the left, looking for a certain birdie. Do so at your own risk, few survive the short cut.

cow_image_7.jpg
Palmares - The 9th hole.

For all of the cocktail of thrills that has gone on before, the closing hole shows an amazingly kind side of Palmares, allowing even the less accomplished player to reach the clubhouse with some honor still intact and no unnecessary embarrassment in front of onlookers.

Between the two of them, Penina and Palmares represent all that is so good about golf on The Algarve. They are two of the originals that blazed the trail for golf in these parts and even after 30 and 40 years, they are still showing the rest of the world what Algarve golf is all about.

To learn more about playing the best courses on The Algarve, click here.

© 2007 David Brice / Golf International Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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