Whoever first thought of building golf courses on Madeira was ambitious indeed.
It's true that the island's climate – mild all year, never too hot in the summer – is perfect for a four seasons golf destination. But the topography of the island is far from obviously ideal. It stands to reason that, on an island where the airport's runway had to be extended and supported by hundreds of tall concrete pillars, it will not be easy to find land suitable for a golf course.
But land has been found: Cabell Robinson's Palheiro course, the Robert Trent Jones-designed Santo da Serra, higher up the mountain, and the soonto- be-built Nick Faldo course on a spectacular plateau high above the isolated western coast of the island. It is, though, a little ironic that a sport that grew up on the coast should find a home on a small island, but only inland, and only on mountain plateaus! Madeira's position in the middle of the Atlantic means that it inevitably attracts weather events. Santo da Serra in particular, being further up the mountain, seems prone to inclement conditions, even if the sun is beating down on Funchal below. There are wonderful holes on the golf course – the spectacular par three fourth being the most obvious example – and the views are tremendous. Dragging oneself back up the hill to the clubhouse, though, is tough work. I am not a fan of golf carts – it's a walking game – but one might be advisable here.
The other main island in the archipelago, Porto Santo, looks far more naturally suited for golf. It has a decentsized hill at its centre, but at 210m it is a mere pimple compared to the 1,862m high mountain that it is the summit of Madeira itself. At the south-eastern corner of Porto Santo, there are even some natural sand dunes to be found.
On the other side of the island is Porto Santo's first golf course, designed a few years ago by Trajectory, Seve Ballesteros' practice. Soon, hopefully, to become a 36- hole complex (the new holes are already staked out) Porto Santo Golf starts gently enough, but on entering the back nine, suddenly becomes a far more dramatic challenge. From the twelfth hole until the close, the course plays quite like a links, and the holes around the sea cliffs themselves are dramatic. The par three thirteenth, with tee and green both hard against the cliff edge, requires a very solidly struck iron shot – especially given the strong breeze likely to be blowing off the ocean. The severe dogleg of the fourteenth fairway gives players an entertaining 'bite off as much as you can chew' option; and the short par three fifteenth has a gloriously positioned clifftop green.
At only nine kilometres long, though, the scope for building more golf on Porto Santo is obviously limited. And, although I look forward eagerly to seeing the Faldo course at Ponta da Pargo, the brutal topography of Madeira itself makes the bigger island a difficult proposition for further development. But what is there already makes for an interesting golf destination.
This article first appeared in issue 13 of Golf Course Architecture, published in July 2008.