As a player, Nick Faldo was known for winning tournaments through mental strength as well as technique. As a golf course designer, he's creating courses that demand the same.
One of the most important challenges a player will face at Amendoeira's Faldo course is to overcome the fear instilled by holes that, upon first inspection, seem alarmingly difficult.
It's a characteristic that Guy Hockley, lead architect for the course, is particularly fond of: "I like to make a course look more difficult than it actually plays. I think you get a much more enjoyable experience that way." It's a compelling point – there's far greater satisfaction walking away from a hole with a par or birdie if it looks fearsome.
And it's the thoughtful player that is most likely to achieve success. "I think you have to make a golf course cerebral," adds Hockley. "I don't want people to stand on the tee and completely understand the golf hole in an instant. I like there to be a lot of optional variety that is not immediately obvious the first time you play the course." Amendoeira is located in the Algarve region of Portugal, a few miles inland and close to the small farming town of Alcantarilha. The development comprises real estate, two golf courses (Faldo's and another designed by Christy O' Connor Jnr), a sporting club and small village centre. Owners Oceanico Developments have since bought five more courses in the Algarve including Vilamoura Old, one of the first and best courses in Portugal, and the Palmer-designed Victoria course, current venue for the Portugal Masters event on the PGA European Tour, making a strong golf portfolio of seven courses in the area.
The site of the Faldo course comprises two limestone hillsides separated by a flood plain. The flood plain had just half a metre in fall over its two kilometres in length, included a bullet straight agricultural drainage channel and none of the native vegetation found on the hillsides. Following a process of extensive hydro-modelling under various design scenarios, benchmark elevations were established for greens and tees and the previously featureless flood plain was infused with character; the agricultural channel was transformed into a meandering waterway which forms a strategic part of play, as do the lakes and seasonal wetlands that were installed and the areas where indigenous vegetation is now being encouraged to flourish.
Faldo describes the course as having "a definite echo of Arizona," and says: "It is pioneering a similarly arid style of golf course but with Mediterranean and Atlantic vegetation." There is a very defined grass edge to each hole, then two classes of material – a fine gravel which gives a very clean lie to play off, and crushed limestone which is slightly coarser. Beyond that it's native scrub that Hockley describes as "beautiful, particularly in Spring – full of herbs, orchids, all sorts of wildlife, evergreen oaks and cork oak trees". The native vegetation gives the course a strong characteristic that reflects the natural beauty of the region and once fully established on the flood plain, will bring consistency to the two distinct types of landscape.
Whereas in Arizona local regulations dictate the maximum irrigated area for a course and thereby to some degree force a particular aesthetic upon course designers, in Portugal the decision was made by Oceanico and the Faldo team. "I think we are all obliged to be doing what we can to preserve the water resource and limit the amount of application we make on the golf course," says Hockley. According to Oceanico's project manager Steven Richardson, in terms of water resource the net effect of this development has been positive, as more water was required to irrigate the potato crops than is now used to maintain the golf courses.
The desert-like aesthetic is very pleasing indeed; the gravel and limestone frames each hole, an effect further enhanced by the contrast in colour between the tall fescue semi rough and bermuda grass fairways. Natural features, such as rocky outcrops and clusters of cork oak trees have also been elegantly integrated, influencing strategy on many holes.
Many such features emerged during the construction phase, as Hockley explains: "Generally the limestone is quite soft to carve but we did find hard pockets in some places. That's why the carry on the fourth has a large outcrop. Our original grading was to cut into it but it was particularly hard so we adapted the design of the hole to accommodate that." Most impressive is where such features have been integrated in a way that both enhances the visual appeal of the course, and provides strategic signposts.
On the fourth hole, the rock outcrop asks how much of the corner the player wants to cut. On the twelfth and thirteenth holes, they form the fulcrum of the decision; play safe to the left or take a risk by playing over or to the right of the hazard.
It's clear that rewarding the strategic player has been uppermost in the architects' minds. "It's a recurring theme to get preferential views and angles of approach depending on how you've managed to think out your placement of a tee shot, or second shot on a par five," says Hockley. This is the case in point from the outset – choose to play towards the rocks at the right of the opening fairway and you've got much more visibility for a Redan-esque approach.
The par five holes are particularly strong in this regard. The decision from the tee branches out into further decisions for the next shot, giving numerous combinations of play for each hole. Take the sixth for example: "If you want to get up in two there's only one place where you can play your approach from but you have two different ways to get there – either over the bunker on the left or by drawing it round. Virtually every degree right you go it changes your options for the second shot; you firstly get to a point where your second shot can't realistically hold the green, and then further right to a point where the more advantageous left side of the approach fairway becomes less accessible," explains Hockley.
The need to satisfy various markets has also been well catered for. It would be no surprise to see a European Tour event hosted on the Faldo course. "We really ask questions about controlling a golf ball as well as hitting it long," says Hockley. "For pros, we're always trying to find the pinch points on fairways at about 300 yards or more, where it's no good just being able to hit a ball long and straight but you have to be able to manoeuvre it, hold it with a fade into a slope, move it around a bunker into the best position or, quite often, don't take a driver." But this is also a resort course, and a home club for people who buy property there. Of particular appeal to the latter group is how the course reveals itself in layers, although perhaps more quickly to the thoughtful player. And the requirement for control is more relaxed in the areas amateurs are going to reach.
Nevertheless, the developers clearly provided different briefs to Faldo and O' Connor Jnr, with the latter offering a course that is more approachable and perhaps more forgiving. Richardson suggests that many resort guests would be well advised to enjoy a few rounds on the O' Connor course before taking on Faldo's challenge.
This article first appeared in issue 15 of Golf Course Architecture, published in January 2009.