Heathland arguably provides the best terrain for golf after the classic sand dunes of seaside links.
The heather courses of the UK, and also those found in Holland, are widely regarded as classics in the world of golf, many being formed around the turn of the last century as golfers sought inland sites for golf containing natural hazards and obstacles. Heathland was of very limited agricultural use but suited the needs of the golfers admirably.
Outside those restricted areas, though, heathland is scarce. The land at Bom Sucesso near Obidos, around one hour's drive to the north of Lisbon in Portugal, provides a rare opportunity for the creation of a genuine heathland course – and is currently being developed by Martin Ebert of Mackenzie & Ebert. "Giving the course the heathland stamp is a significant challenge," he says. "Unlike the old heathland courses which were hewn from existing heath, there will be a slow, gradual process to the same result at Bom Sucesso." "When we were initially invited to look at the site, virtually the entire area was covered with a dense eucalyptus forest," continues Ebert. "We could only rely on the topographical survey plans for an indication of the contours of the land.
However, there were signs of the growth of heather in certain areas of the site and in one small, cleared section, the heather and gorse had taken hold, and was so dense that even walking through it was difficult.
These sights provided us with the ambition and impetus to attempt to create a heathland course." The first task was to clear the eucalyptus, which removed all traces of any of the heather plants. Construction is being carried out by the British firm J&E Ely.
"We took the advice of the agronomist, David Stansfield, and a local landscape architect, Pedro Figueiredo, about how we might get the heather to thrive outside of the course playing areas," says Ebert.
"There is undoubtedly a lot of seed naturally to be found in the soil but, in an age where instant results are the requirement, we do not have the time to allow this to fill up the rough areas from bare ground. David has recommended a fescue seed mix for the rough areas which will be open enough to still allow the heather to come through in time, eventually leading to rough which is a mixture of the two. The landscape architect is busy with the creation of a nursery to develop heather plugs which can be planted in critical areas such as bunker faces and crucial ridges. Patience will be the key. The temptation to be avoided is to opt for wall to wall grass to make the rough areas more uniform in cover." "The land is wonderful in itself and will make a great course with or without a framework of heather. Generally the contouring is ideal for golf with some ideal valleys, ridges and mainly gently sloping.
However, there is one portion of the site, protected from building development by an ecological designation, where the changes of levels are severe. Routing of the golf course was permitted in this area but its use had to be sparing as a result of its steepness. However, the three holes designed in the area, the final three of the course, will be some of the most exciting in all of Portugal and the seventeenth in particular has the potential to be one of the great holes in golf. It is a par five and is located at the highest elevation of the site, swinging downhill and right to left over some superb ridges to a green which will have the lagoon of Obidos as its backdrop.
The temptation will be to cut the corner to reach the green in two but the steeply sloping ground to the left of the hole will make this a dangerous approach." The rest of the Bom Sucesso development is likely to be as distinctive as the golf course. Developer Miguel Roque Martins has hired 14 of Portugal's leading architects to create a village of 600 houses in the spirit of the Modern Movement. "We are going to create a place that will be a permanent exhibition of architecture," he says. "We have found a beautiful site and are saying to the best modern architects we can find 'Show us how to build a great home'."
This article first appeared in issue 1 of Golf Course Architecture, published in July 2005.