Terras da Comporta puts Lisbon on the golf map

About 90 minutes south of Portugal's capital city, David McLay Kidd's Dunas Course is showcasing what the region has to offer as a golf destination

The road west from Alcacer do Sal to Comporta is apt to get a golfer’s attention. After turning off the A2 highway about an hour south of Lisbon, Portugal’s beautiful capital city, there is a 20-mile or more stretch along N253 where there is nothing to see but sand and Mediterranean Stone pines. There may not be a single golf course along this quiet road, but what there is will make the fan of Pinehurst, Sand Valley, London’s great heathland courses, and even the Melbourne Sandbelt giddy with anticipation.

To the right, the sand doesn’t extend far before meeting the banks of the Sado River estuary. To the left, however, it continues for maybe 25 miles with nothing to break it up save for a few dirt tracks, boundary lines and circle-irrigation fields. 

This is the sort of land golf architects fantasize about. And with 300,000 acres, give or take a few, to play with, a real optimist might dream of building 1,500 regulation-length courses. That may seem a bit excessive, but there is certainly room for a more manageable Pinehurst-style resort with 10 18-holers and a short course. Even a five 18-hole and two short-course property like Bandon Dunes will do, for starters.

Terras da Comporta
Golf course architect David McLay Kidd was tabbed to design Terras da Comporta in 2008, but a series of delays and obstacles kept the project from being completed until this year.

As they so often do, however, environmental regulations will thwart the wildest daydreams. Antonio Lacerda, executive director of Visit Alentejo, a governmental agency that promotes tourism to the region east and south of Lisbon, says the land around Comporta is mostly classified as a National Agricultural Reserve or, even more significantly, a National Ecological Reserve — a European protection classification that makes it virtually untouchable.

An exception was made, however, for David McLay Kidd’s Dunas Course at Terras da Comporta, which opened in October and is almost certainly Portugal’s finest course already.

“Terras da Comporta was authorized within the scope of the National Strategic Tourism Plan,” Lacerda says. “It was of national interest, and therefore subject to special dispensation.” 

The first company to take advantage of this exemption, in the mid-1990s, was one of the country’s largest banks — Banco Espirito Santo — with the extremely wealthy and influential Espirito Santo family behind it.

English designer Donald Steel was hired to create a routing that would enable the project to get the necessary permits. In the decade or so that it took for them to be issued, however, Steel, then in his mid-60s, more or less retired from course design.

So, in 2008, the Espirito Santo family hired McLay Kidd, who lived just a short flight away in London and was considered the best course architect in Europe after his designs at Bandon Dunes, Nanea and Queenwood had earned much critical acclaim.

“I was still based in the U.K.,” says McLay Kidd, “so I was thrilled to have a project in Europe that had the potential of Bandon. The ground at Comporta was almost as good. I had this wonderfully-sandy, unsullied site. The only thing it lacked was a view of the ocean.” 

The Scotsman and his team worked on the course for a year between 2008 and 2009 before fallout from the global recession shut it down. The Portuguese economy, heavily influenced by the financial well-being of the Espirito Santos, had regained sufficient momentum for work to continue by 2012, but disaster struck again two years later when Banco Espirito Santo and Rioforte, the family’s non-financial holding company, collapsed. The family filed for bankruptcy with debts of over $8 billion. Ricardo Salgado, the family patriarch and executive chairman of the bank, was detained on fraud and money laundering charges and forced to post 3 million Euros bail. Salgado was eventually accused of 65 offenses and, in March 2022, was sentenced to six years in prison. 

Terras da Comporta — 2
The sand-rich coastal Portugal soil made for an ideal location to build the Dunas Course.

The Comporta property had, by then, been in the possession of Vanguard Properties for four years. Founded in 2017 by French-Swiss investor Claude Berda and Portuguese entrepreneur José Cardoso Botelho, Vanguard quickly became Portugal’s largest real estate developer and, in 2018, had contacted McLay Kidd with a view to reviving the golf course. Maintained only sparingly, it had become seriously overgrown in the years since its designer had last seen it.

Despite now being a resident of Bend, Oregon, McLay Kidd committed to the project, eager to see the course he had designed 10 years previously become what he knew it could be. But, if the recession and downfall of the original owner hadn’t been enough to crush Comporta, COVID-19 would surely secure its demise. 

Being in Oregon made logistics difficult at first for McLay Kidd to get to Portugal, but Vanguard used its influence to ease his entry into the country. “I was actually there quite frequently,” says McLay Kidd, who estimates he made 10 or 11 trips, staying for a week at a time. His U.S.-based team was unable to accompany him, however, so Conor Walsh, a former shaper for the architect’s firm in the U.K. who had since formed his own course construction company, stepped in.

Walsh, a part of the team that had worked on the course in 2014, remained on site for five months reshaping every contour and rebuilding every bunker edge. “None of us went home during the construction period,” he says. “That was difficult, but being involved with Comporta again was a big wish come true. I felt a real sense of calm there. Of all the courses I’ve worked on around the world, Dunas is special.”

The course officially opened on Oct. 5, nearly 25 years after the project began, with McLay Kidd skying the inaugural tee shot high and left before smacking a second ball 270 yards down the middle. Few courses are worth waiting a quarter of a century for, though Dunas is probably one. Because the topography and terrain are so similar, the course could easily be dropped somewhere in the North Carolina sandhills or even adjacent to Pine Valley.

Though the greens are creeping bentgrass, the course was seeded entirely with fescue. Earlier this year, Director of Golf Rodrigo Ulrich and superintendent Joao Machado traveled to Washington to play Gamble Sands, whose fescue fairways and greens are probably the best in America. “We were there for five days and learned a lot about this grass which we know very little about in Portugal,” Ulrich says. “We saw how best to manage it in high temperatures to produce the firm conditions we want at Terras da Comporta.”

One new layout does not a destination make, of course, but Dunas will help Lisbon become a legitimate golf city. The Algarve on the country’s south coast, now home to 30-plus courses, has long been a popular winter and spring escape for British golfers — over 80% of the Algarve’s golf traffic comes from the U.K., but it now faces real competition from the capital. Besides Dunas, Terras da Comporta is adding a second course — Torre — that will open in 2025. Designed by Sergio Garcia, it is being constructed by Walsh’s company on ground first earmarked for a 27-hole Tom Fazio design that pushed hard for the 2018 Ryder Cup before being edged out by Paris’s Le Golf National.

Development of Fazio’s layout was stopped following the decision and then Vanguard chose to hire the 2017 Masters champion instead. The Spaniard’s design skills are largely unknown — he consulted at TPC San Antonio in 2009 and 2010 and has a couple of other projects in the works — but the site, like that at Dunas, is phenomenal, so expectations are justifiably high. 

Then there’s Cynthia Dye McGarey’s West Cliffs about an hour north of the city, Cabell Robinson’s Praia d’El Rey, Arthur Hills’ Oitavos Dunes and Robert Trent Jones Jr.’s Penha Longa. Seve Ballesteros designed the very pleasant Royal Obidos shortly before he died, and Rocky Roquemore’s Quinta do Peru is a lovely walk. English architect Frank Pennink laid out the original course at Aroeira in 1972, while Donald Steel and his young associate Martin Ebert (now of Mackenzie and Ebert) added a second course in 2000. The excellent Herdade do Pinheirinho, designed by Portuguese architect Jorge Santana da Silva, will finally reopen in 2024 after years of ownership changes and other issues. Fazio may have been denied the opportunity to build a course in Comporta, but he does have a Portuguese design (a collaboration with son Logan, who died in August 2022), 20 minutes south at CostaTerra, a private Discovery Land property.

And Troia, of course. The Robert Trent Jones Sr. design has been one of the continent’s most popular courses since opening nearly 45 years ago and, though its maintenance standards have dropped in recent years, the layout remains a fabulous round through the pines and over the dunes at the northern end of the Troia Peninsula, about 15 minutes north of Comporta. 

Ten minutes south of the village is the 3,500-acre development at Terras da Comporta where, besides the two golf courses, Vanguard is building a mixed-use resort where four five-star hotels are planned. Jose Cardoso Botelho says it will be the most environmentally-conscious resort in the world with net-zero energy buildings, its own water treatment facility, 80% of its energy produced by solar photovoltaic systems and a negative CO2 score.

While no New York, Chicago, Melbourne, London, Edinburgh, Paris or Monterey Peninsula, Lisbon is becoming a destination U.S. golfers should seriously consider visiting. And the flight time from New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport is barely an hour longer than New York to Portland for those heading to Bandon Dunes.

“And there’s no four-hour drive once you’re there,” McLay Kidd says. “There’s also a direct flight from San Francisco. The roads are good, the food’s great, the hospitality is wonderful, and it’s cheap as chips. The hotels, food, gas, and car rental, all cost less than in the U.S., plus you're paying $100-$150 for tee-times, not $400-$450. I think Portugal is an undiscovered country in a first-world continent. It's such an amazing place. Lisbon has incredible potential for golf travel. And Comporta could be ground zero."