Developing and building a golf course is rarely a quick business.
Let’s say you are a wealthy golf lover and would like your own course. First, you need to find some land. We know that the quality of the land is the largest single influence on the quality of the course, so ideally, you’d better find something good – sandy soil and interesting ground contour preferred. If you don’t already own the site, you’ll need to buy it, or at least come to some sort of lease arrangement with the owner.
You need a design, and you need to apply to the relevant government agency or agencies for planning consent in all its myriad forms.
And then, once you have secured the land, you have a design, and you have permission, you can start building. If you’re lucky and everything falls in line, you might get the course built in a year, but most go over that. Once construction is complete, you need to hand the course over to your grass guys to grow it in, generally taking another year or so (though if you’re in a warm season turf environment, where grass grows quickly, that might be less). You need to construct whatever buildings are needed to operate the course.
And then, finally, you, your friends and (hopefully) your paying customers, whether members or green-fee guests, can start playing golf on your new course. If you’re lucky, from start to finish, five years might have elapsed. More likely you are ten or more years older than when you first thought about building a course. I hope you haven’t got so old and/or decrepit that your body will no longer allow you to play!
Architect David McLay Kidd first came to Comporta, in the Portuguese region of Alentejo, an hour south of Lisbon, in 2008. He was hired, by the Espírito Santo banking family, one of the great business dynasties of Europe, to build a golf course on a huge site about a kilometre from the Atlantic Ocean. Kidd worked on the project for a year, and then things went quiet for a while.
Three years later, in 2012, Comporta came alive again, and the course went into construction. By mid-2014, nine holes were completed and grassed, and the other nine were almost ready for seeding. “At the time, I was building the Beaverbrook course south of London, and one morning, I was sitting having breakfast with one of the owners of that club,” Kidd says. “He was reading the Financial Times, and suddenly he looked up from his paper and said to me, ‘You might want to read this’.”
‘This’ was an item in the paper suggesting that the Espírito Santo bank might be in trouble. Kidd flew to Portugal and sat down with his client, who assured him there was nothing to worry about. But at the end of June 2014, the bank collapsed with enormous debts, the product of some very dubious financial dealings. And with it went the Comporta development.
The course sat there for six years, with the irrigation system still running – “they basically flooded it and cut it to four inches occasionally,” says Kidd – until it was acquired by leading Portuguese real estate developer Vanguard Properties. Vanguard has never previously had any involvement with golf, but CEO Jose Cardoso Botelho knew a good proposition when he saw one.
Vanguard acquired the Comporta development in 2018 and made contact with Kidd to bring the golf course back to life. It needed a lot of work: the bunkers were completely overgrown, and there were trees growing through the tees. Kidd’s former staff shaper Conor Walsh, now an independent contractor, first came to the property in 2019 – by this point Kidd, now US-based, no longer had a European-based construction operation – and work was just getting under way when, in early 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic hit. Kidd, helped by Vanguard’s influence, was eventually able to get a permit to enter Portugal, but could not hope to get his construction crew to the site to finish the job. Walsh, therefore, was contracted to handle the build, which he did in close collaboration with the architect.
Now, after its incredibly extended birthing process (it is actually even longer than described above, because the property had been lined up for development long before Kidd got involved; the original golf course routing was done by Donald Steel), the course is finished and ready to make a bow. It will open formally in October (though it is in a soft opening phase now) and in my opinion, the day it opens, Portugal will have a new number one golf course.
When Kidd first visited Comporta in 2008, he must have become very excited, very quickly. The whole of the Tróia peninsula, at the base of which the course sits, is sand, with pine trees and scrub vegetation. It is perfect golfing country: if enough water was available, it could easily play host to dozens of excellent courses. And the property the Dunas course occupies is remarkable even by the standards of its surroundings: a kilometre from the Atlantic and measuring a total of 2,500 acres (the golf course sits on about 250 acres of that). It is, essentially, huge sand dune country, though the vegetation is not obviously seaside. The holes rear and fall across enormous valleys; it is the kind of property a golf architect dreams of.
The course is like nothing anyone who has only played golf in Europe will ever have seen before. My closest comparison is with Kidd’s own Mammoth Dunes course at Sand Valley in Wisconsin; the two share a sense of scale, and the landscapes are vaguely similar, though perhaps Mammoth has an eccentricity, exemplified by the short par-four sixth with its crazily wide boomerang green, that is not present at Comporta.
The sheer size of the undulations at Dunas gives rise to a lot of partial blindness. Kidd says the most dangerous place is usually the best place to be on his courses, but here he often allows golfers to pick their poison: on several occasions you can trade a shorter route for a better view. The greens are creeping bentgrass, but everything else has been seeded with fescue, surely a first for southern Europe. At the moment, the course is young and quite green, but assuming that it is allowed to dry out and firm up as it matures, it will truly play like the links course its architect says it is. Angles will matter here.
The greens are enormous, though, compared to the scale of the contour that surrounds them, I thought they were quieter than I had expected. I paced off the green of the par-three third hole, for example, and it was 69 paces long (though the hole is massive, well over 200 metres from the back tee, so perhaps it needs it).
There is a lot of sand: one of my playing partners found sand six times in the first four holes. Most of the holes are either up, down or both. The par-five twelfth stood out to me as being mostly level; perhaps this is appropriate, as the hole that follows it is the most severely downhill on the course. The par threes are an excellent, and varied set. My favourite was the sixth, a fairly short hole to a green tucked into a saddle between two dunes, but the others are no slouches, and the picture postcard seventeenth, the shortest on the course, will be one of the most photographed.
Truly, the only downside I could see was that the course will be a very difficult walk if anyone chooses to try: the routing is rather spread out, with some substantial gaps between holes, and the scale of undulation will not help here. At present, anyone trying to walk will have little choice but to follow the cart paths between holes. There is an attractive wooden walking path through the sand barren between the seventh and eighth holes; some more of these would help. Mention of carts, and knowing the course is mostly fescue inevitably makes one wonder how the grass will stand up to the traffic. “If fescue is maintained correctly, it can take cart traffic,” says Kidd. “What will help here is that there will be less cart traffic when the fescue is most stressed, in the heat of summer.”
Kidd says that the Tróia peninsula sits on top of a large and well-filled aquifer, so water, which comes from boreholes, will not be in short supply, though the developer is working on a project to recycle the water used in the local rice fields for irrigation. Vanguard CEO Jose Cardoso Botelho says Comporta will be the most sustainable project of its kind in Europe. Every house will produce solar energy, and will be able to share it back with the rest of the development. Eighty per cent of Comporta’s energy requirements will be produced within the grounds. Every building, including the hotels, will be made of wood, there will be no concrete involved in the construction of the clubhouse, and all houses will be carbon neutral. Two five-star hotels are planned, though the brands of those hotels has not yet been announced. Kidd, for one, would like Vanguard to build a less fancy lodge for golfers, along the lines of the accommodation at Bandon Dunes and similar resorts. I share his view: I don’t believe that golfers are looking for super luxury and think that such a lodge could be the foundation of the ‘European Bandon’, something the continent lacks.
The course, when it opens fully in October, will be priced at €175, inclusive of cart and range balls; in present market conditions a bargain. See it if you can.
This article first appeared in the July 2023 issue of Golf Course Architecture. For a printed subscription or free digital edition, please visit our subscriptions page.