Comporta Dunes: Back from the dead

  • Comporta
    Conor Walsh

    Comporta Dunes is finally taking shape after a six-year gap in construction

  • Comporta
    Conor Walsh

    The layout has been designed by David McLay Kidd with Conor Walsh overseeing construction

  • Comporta
    Conor Walsh

    The course is fescue from tee to green, but greens are a new creeping bent variant called Pure Select

  • Comporta
    Conor Walsh

    The site at Comporta is sandy

  • Comporta
    Conor Walsh

    The entire course is expected to be seeded by the first week of June

Adam Lawrence
By Adam Lawrence

In the years after the 2008 financial crisis, the world became accustomed to seeing previously blue-chip banks in trouble. But for anyone with any knowledge of the Portuguese economy, the collapse of the Banco Espírito Santo in July 2014, still came as a shock. Since its foundation by José Maria do Espírito Santo e Silva in the nineteenth century, the Espírito Santo dynasty had represented Portugal’s most powerful banking force, and one of Europe’s great family fortunes. If Espírito Santo was vulnerable, who was not?

It is not within the remit of a golf magazine to examine the ins and outs of the falling from grace of one of the great banking names. Suffice to say that, after almost 150 years, the family lost control of its empire, and though the bank itself was saved (renamed Novo Banco, ‘new bank’, by partition and the creation of a ‘bad bank’, which bore the toxic assets), the Portuguese economy took a severe hit.

One part of the Espírito Santo empire, though, does come within our ambit. At the time the bank collapsed, it was behind the development of a huge tourism complex on the Alentejo coast, about an hour south of Lisbon. Launched in 2010, the Comporta development was to include two golf complexes, Comporta Dunes, designed by David McLay Kidd, who has been involved with the project since May 2007, and Comporta Links, a 36-hole facility by Tom Fazio. The latter was proposed as Portugal’s prospective host for the 2018 Ryder Cup (which eventually went to Le Golf National outside Paris).

After France won the right to hold the 2018 Ryder Cup, the construction of Comporta Links was put on hold, while Comporta Dunes went ahead, full speed. Kidd’s team moved fast. When this writer visited the property in early April 2014, almost half the course was ready for seed. But two months later, the heavily indebted family company through which the Espírito Santo empire was controlled hit trouble. After intense pressure from Portuguese regulators, family patriarch Ricardo Espírito Santo Salgado, chief executive of the bank and boss of the family holding company, resigned. In early July, the holding company filed for bankruptcy, with debts of €6.4 billion ($8.4 billion), and in August the bank, which reported losses of €3.6 billion, was rescued by the Portuguese state. Down at Comporta, nine holes and the practice facility were seeded, while six of the back nine holes were finished and ready for seed. But they never got it, as the collapse of the parent company put a sudden and, seemingly, final halt to construction operations.

Five years on, though, in November 2019, fate threw Comporta a lifeline. A consortium composed of Vanguard Properties, a real estate developer controlled by French-Swiss investor Claude Berra and Portuguese executive José Cardoso Botelho, and luxury brand – and boutique hotel operator – Amorim, bought the development. Founded only in 2017, Vanguard has quickly become Portugal’s largest real estate developer, focused on luxury residential and tourist assets – it has 19 projects currently underway, spread over the country. Comporta is the company’s first golf project.

Clearly, to get the Comporta development back on track, it was vital first to complete the Dunes golf course. To this end, Vanguard made contact with original designer David McLay Kidd, but the travel problems caused by the emergence of the Covid-19 pandemic made it difficult for the Oregon-based architect to commit his resources to the project in the short term.

Kidd therefore suggested to Vanguard that they should contract with Conor Walsh, formerly a staff shaper for the architect, but now running his own golf construction company – CJW Golf – to execute the work. Walsh was lead shaper during the original build of Comporta Dunes, and naturally has intimate knowledge of the project. “We were relatively close by, and we have experience of the original build,” says Walsh. “We know where the irrigation pipes are and we are familiar with the design philosophy – we know what David wants off the tee and for approach shots.” Walsh and his team mobilised on site and started construction work on 20 January.

After being left to its own devices for six and a half years, the golf course had naturally run rather wild. Therefore, the turf that had established itself on the course has had to be stripped off – revealing all the original shaping and micro-contours – before being reseeded. All bunkers are being rebuilt. Walsh says that the grassing plan has changed, and the design has had to be adjusted to deal with that. “Previously, the entire course was going to be fescue, but now it is fescue from tee to green, but the greens are a new creeping bent variant called Pure Select. Naturally this means they will run faster, so the contours are being massaged very slightly to allow for this.” The Pure Select is supplied by Pure Seed through its Portuguese distributor Jordao.

Architect Kidd told GCA: “Switching to creeping bent was my decision. I’ve concluded in the last few years that a large proportion of golfers simply don’t ‘get’ fescue greens. Gamble Sands, for example, a course I built a few years ago in Washington state, has fescue greens. They’re fantastic, and to someone with a high golf IQ, they are wonderful. But ordinary golfers don’t get them. They aren’t as fast as they expect, and they’re not a uniform green.”

Although no one in the golf industry would ideally choose to let a newly constructed course lay fallow for six years before finishing, Walsh says that, in many ways, it is a good thing, because the vegetation has had chance to grow back, helping the course naturalise and avoid the ‘raw’ look so common on new courses. “It is almost a dream, being able to shape a course and then leave it for years to naturalise,” he says happily. “It looks phenomenal – the transition from golf, through small plants, to big plants is fantastic. We are clearing the growth very selectively to make the best possible use of this – we have our backdrops and we’re clearing where we want playable areas to be. But the landscape palette is quite wonderful.”

Although architect Kidd has not yet been able to get back to the site during this phase of construction, Walsh says he is very closely involved in the process. “David is 100 per cent involved in the work,” he explains. “We chat and FaceTime every day, and send sketches of particular features back and forth all the time. There’s no cutting him out – this is still going to be a David McLay Kidd course.”

Kidd said: “If it hadn’t been for the pandemic, we would have figured out how to get our crew out to finish the course. But in the circumstances we had to find another solution, so I told the client that Conor was the best choice, given that he shaped the course originally. I knew that, with Conor’s talent and the team he has around him, he would be able to get it done.”

The site at Comporta is beautifully sandy, and the Portuguese climate is extremely suitable for good growth of golfing turf – Walsh says that germination is taking only four days, and fairways can be mowed within two weeks of seeding – but it isn’t all plain sailing. The sand, he explains, is hydrophobic, so has needed to be amended to give the grass the best chance to prosper. Fairways are getting organic soil amendments, while zeolite is being used in the greens. Walsh says that the plan is to have the entire course seeded by the first week of June. It will then be left to grow in for more than a year, before an official opening in late summer of 2022.

As co-owner Amorim’s business interests include a chain of small luxury hotels, one will naturally be built at Comporta, while the development also includes a number of substantial real estate plots. It has taken longer than expected, but the Comporta project is finally getting moving.

This article first appeared in the April 2021 issue of Golf Course Architecture. For a printed subscription or free digital edition, please visit our subscriptions page.