The process of developing a successful high-end golf resort is well-understood. Find a site with good weather, decent access and great views, hire a land planner to parcel the property up into its component parts of golf, villas, hotel and the rest, and partner with people that can be relied upon to do good work and whose name will help to attract visitors. At Monte Rei, a major new development in the emerging area to the east of the Algarvian capital of Faro, the process has been followed to a T.
Everything at Monte Rei exudes quality.
From the typical American-style service at the golf club – the bag drop, the shoe shines in the locker rooms, the excellent food – to the sheer standard of finishing on the golf course itself, this is a project shooting for the top of the market. And, with the first of two golf courses designed by Jack Nicklaus's practice now ready to open, expect to be hearing more about the place in the near future.
Monte Rei's North course bears Nicklaus Design's highest brand – the Jack Nicklaus Signature Course designation. Chock full of good golf holes, its major flaw is the one that inevitably goes with the real estate-driven nature of the project – long distances between tees and greens, and thus the need to take a golf cart. One could walk Monte Rei – it is not so hilly as to be impossible – but the hikes between holes would make for a long and tiring day.
The best aspect of the golf course at Monte Rei is the property itself. Set on an undulating plateau around 6km inland from the sea, near to the historic and pretty town of Tavira, the site is relatively undulating, but not so severe as to make for poor golf. For some distance around, the land, to use a popular phrase, simply looks like golf, although the rocky nature of the soil makes for complicated construction. And Nicklaus's team have, sensibly, resisted the temptation to eliminate the natural humps and hollows on the golf course itself, meaning that the course, even with the obviously unnatural swathes of green among the brown native areas, sits fairly lightly on the land. Those native areas look intimidating, but their wispy character means that balls can generally be found, unless one is unfortunate enough to find some of the denser stuff, which, counter-intuitively, is often to be found close to the edges of the fairway, because these areas fall under the coverage of the Rain Bird irrigation system. Conditioning is outstanding: the A-1 bentgrass greens are firm and bouncy, but roll true and fast, remarkably so for their youth.
The course has five par threes and five par fives, making for a varied and interesting challenge. And those par threes are a tremendous set, although the hugely difficult seventh may stand out for its sheer toughness. In excess of 230 yards from the back tee, the green seems to provide a run-up option with its open front. But on reaching the putting surface, the golfer sees that only a very narrow channel is available for such a shot – the ground sheds on both sides into deep hollows, and another hollow, fed by a crease in the putting surface, lurks at back left. The eleventh is another long and difficult short hole, while the fourteenth, with a pond fronting the left side of the offset green, is no picnic either, particularly if the flagstick is set close to the water. Perhaps only the ninth hole, a pretty drop shot to a canted green, narrow at the front but wider further back, offers much in the way of respite.
The back nine occupies lower ground on the southern side of the site, and has the course's most picturesque holes. The twelfth is a par four water hole designed to offer the opportunity for the bold player to drive the green: a small collar of fairway to the right side of the putting surface shortens the carry very slightly, but on the day GCA visited a strong headwind made the shot impossible. The thirteenth is perhaps the most interesting hole on the course. Cascading down a natural valley (Nicklaus's fondness for elevated tees is well-known and is on regular show at Monte Rei), the wide fairway has two bunkers set into it to threaten the tee shot and make the golfer stop and think. Past the bunkers, the downslope becomes steeper, and an aggressive tee shot can roll down to within a few yards of the green. Even from down here, though, the second is not simple. A severe false front on the narrow entrance to the green makes a front pin position extremely difficult – there will be many players who find their balls returning to their feet – and the green is set on a promontory, jutting out into perhaps the most attractive of the course's many water hazards.
Hole fourteen is part of the same complex as its predecessor. Another tough par three, the green is set diagonally to the line of play with the pond tight to the left edge of the putting surface, although there is at least some thick grass to give the golfer hope if his ball leaks off the green. With the pin set left, the tee shot is extremely intimidating. Although there is plenty of room out right, the golfer who takes the cautious route to the tee will find himself chipping towards a flag that might be only five paces from the water.
Greens set slightly out of line with the main angle of play are a recurring theme at Monte Rei, with several holes – perhaps too many – featuring this design ploy. At the third and fifteenth, the green is tucked behind just enough water to allow a safer shot to the dry side.
Nicklaus's team has used a similar feature at the sixth and eighth holes, with huge and intimidating bunkers standing in for the water. Certainly this is a good riskreward ploy; but did it need to be used quite so frequently? Nicklaus and his team might have been given a brief similar to that supplied to AW Tillinghast when commissioned to build Winged Foot: 'Give us a man-sized course.' They have certainly done so: the course measures over 7,200 yards from the back tees, and has water hazards on eleven of the holes. Bunkering too is on the grand scale, although perhaps the ultra-white sand is a little jarring in this environment. The bunkers themselves, though, are often deep, with rolled edges and sand walls compacted firmly so balls that hit into the faces generally roll down to the bottom. The scale of the bunkers often leaves the player facing a thirty or forty yard carry over sand in order to reach the green. Sometimes, discretion is the better part of valour! It is always difficult to assess courses like this in their early years. Several very large villas are already under construction around the property, but most of the estate remains undeveloped, and the feeling of spaciousness and separation is powerful. Will this remain the same when the development is complete? It is very hard to tell, although the planned development is relatively low density, and land planners WATG have done a very good job providing interesting land for the golf holes themselves. But, as ever, the villas will be located on the higher ground to maximise the views, so their presence will be unavoidable. Of its kind, though, Monte Rei is a development of the highest quality.