Keeping Espiche Golf on the straight and narrow

Once upon a time, I played golf with a friend every Saturday morning. We are still friends though we rarely play golf together now.

I could sustain a case that geography drove land and mountains between us, but the greater truth is that Donal – we will call him Donal, for that is his name – liked golf to be a cruel, unforgiving experience that we could use as some form of collateral when we reach the eternal 19th hole. Like climbing Croagh Patrick, I suppose.

And so, when it was wet and dark on winter mornings, we would steel ourselves like intrepid television reporters leaning into Hurricane Irma, cocking ears off the first tee for the dull, though comforting, thud of a fairway hit somewhere out there. One time we played three holes at Fermoy Golf Club before we could trace the whereabouts of a shot.

Mainly though, we limited our madness to Killarney. No matter that it rained steel rods, we played on. When it got bad we hunkered down – Donal would dismiss it as ‘squally’ - and when the sleet and snow showers arrived, we hunkered lower again, eschewing the sanity of Paul Cotter’s halfway chapel at the 9th. 

Afterwards we would sit in silence – the four of us - in the clubhouse, nursing coffee and a Snack bar as purple as each one of us, ostensibly
savouring the view from the summit.

At least I think Donal did. This was no altar of defiance for me. I nodded as the sane voices asked me, quietly now, what sort of a gobshite was I, and what was the purpose of this insane ritual (beyond proving the capacity of persistent dampening leading to arthritis). 

Somewhere in that insane decade, I pledged only a private vengeance on the weather-makers, that at every possible moment available to me I would play golf in glorious sunshine, in searing heat. 

Those days are infrequent, truth be told. The days when towels are less for drying clubs than for wiping sweat and sunscreen off our hands. 

When ice is as mandatory as the rehydrating water it’s chilling, and does not fall as golf ball-sized hailstones, denting the back of each numbed hand.

Those who look quizzically at me venturing off in the 30-degree heat and midday sun of the western Algarve might not quote Coward (or was it Kipling?) so blithely – mad dogs, Englishmen etc – were they able to peer back through the mists and gales that halved us going up the lakeside first on Killeen. 

I had all the justification I needed to play golf in the scorching summer.

Plus, there was another reason for discovering what Espiche Golf – far removed from the heavily-trafficked fairways of Vilamoura – had in its locker. Two golfers, neither called Donal, had reported back wildly contrasting critiques of this tight, rustic-looking track in the hills above Lagos. 

One ventured that if it wasn’t quite a hidden gem, it was certainly worth the trouble to find and play. Surprisingly good, he thought and better than Morgado, near Monchique, which hosted a secondary European Tour event this year.

The second, a local, addressed the Espiche Golf question with the expression of someone who’d prefer to pick scabs off a mountain goat than return there with his clubs.

The divergent views are understandable. The award-winning clubhouse at Espiche is beautiful in its expanse and the vista it presents but stepping out onto the first tee, a different experience begins. 

A brief conversation there with what I presumed was a member teed my brother and I up for what lay ahead: “You’ll either love it or hate it’”

Espiche is not resort golf. Only Parque de Floresta (which is a resort) lies further west on the Algarve, an area of Portugal’s sun trap where surfers are more common than golfers. When South African property developer Paul Langley eyed the land at Espiche, not far from the popular resort of Praia da Luz, he acknowledged his course designer Peter Sauerman had a rough diamond to be working with. But he liked his compatriot’s original, rough sketches and the course was opened a dozen years ago.

At over 6,400 yards from the tips, the north to south of Espiche is manageable. But what lies east and west of the fairways is the issue for most golfers. 

The short answer is nothing, or certainly nothing one would wish to venture into to recover a ball. Either for the preservation of the ecosystem or possibly planning obstacles in development, Espiche was essentially developed with scarcely any run-offs and rough. 

One veers off the mown grass and the drive is invariably irretrievable in waste areas of knotted brambles and gorse. Lesson No 1 for Espiche: put away the big dog unless you hit it like a frozen rope.

“I hope you know a good second-hand golf ball supplier,” my doubting local friend had advised in advance and though we lost a sleeve or two between us, perhaps only two of them were down to the course as much as our inaccuracy (the 13th stands out, where I was possibly 15m right of centre cut). 

However, the premium on short, tidy golf is manifestly evident from the second hole, a short par four of just over 300m that should require a wedge approach – if one wasn’t lost right off the tee.

The Index 1 No 3 is a cracking golf hole with water up the left – the conservation of water is a primary consideration at Espiche - and a long iron to a sloping green. Thereafter, the primary consideration on most tee boxes should be keeping it between the dead zones.

We encountered geckos and a snake as we made our way through the outward nine, but July is low season for the locals, hence many greens were heavily sanded in preparation for high-season traffic this month and next. The greens weren’t quick in July, but one imagines they’d be up on the stimp this time of the season.

Anyone who has ventured to the Algarve for golf at this time of the year can’t but be frustrated by some resorts which shoehorn as many fourballs into daylight as they can manage – oblivious to the damage five and a half hour rounds do to their reputation as the autumn golf destination of choice for Irish and British visitors. 

It’s unlikely Espiche anticipates the footfall of a Vilamoura, or even an Amendoeira, Penina or Palmares as one moves from east towards Lagos, but the course investment and construction of a superb clubhouse in 2014 – one already acclaimed architecturally – has created a conversation that will entice some golfers further west than heretofore. 

At €150 for a two-ball with a buggy in high season, it’s unquestionably worth a punt for anyone who has noticed the Algarve’s return to exorbitant golf rates in high season. I would like another crack for sure, armed this time with the knowledge that this is no resort track.

“There is certainly a premium on keeping tee shots on the fairway, resulting in approach shots being unaffected by the tightness (of the course)”, offered the course designer, Peter Sauerman. He added in an interview with a South African magazine: “An uppermost thought in my mind was that a good hole should be challenging for the best golfers, yet provide an easy routing to the hole for the average golfer.”

Upon reading that, I wasn’t sure which category I belonged to.

By the time we had looped around to back nine, I had accepted the par 5 tenth could be the last occasion at Espiche I’d hit driver. Sensible me would have taken that advice, but the course topography was seductive enough to grip it and rip it a few more times – with inevitable results.

Like any course, I’d play smarter and think better next time at Espiche. Even in the clubhouse after, the urge to revisit a number of club selections was considerable. 

Yet the frustration is fleeting, washed away by temptations on the table around us at Geckos restaurant – and the panoramic clubhouse design of architect Nadine Berger – a “jewel on a small scale”, according to a global architecture panel which placed it third in the category of new constructions for golf courses.

What Mr Langley and his fellow owners, Peter Thornton and Rob Cawthorn, do next with Espiche will be interesting. 

A marketing push, for certain. Perhaps making a virtue of the fact Espiche is a thinking player’s course. 

One which causes a degree of pain in the search for pleasure. One which Donal would enjoy.

What you need to know

Contact: +351.282 688250

Email: info-reception@espiche-golf.com

Website: espiche-golf.com

Golf Manager: Pauline Binnie

White tees: 5,862 metres

Fairways: Bermuda

Greens: Paspalum cv

Rates (High Season): Two players, buggy (€150); One player, buggy (€100)

Course video: espiche-golf.com/video-gallery


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