This year marks the 50th anniversary of golf in the Algarve. Essential looks back on the history of the pioneering golf resort at Penina and the development of golf in the region .
The Algarve, Portugal’s southern-most region, is primarily known as one of the world's top golfing destinations. With its year-round mild climate and 42 verdant courses (both 18 and 9 holes) spread from east to west, the region attracts over a million golfers every year. It's hard to imagine what it was like before the sport was introduced to this 165km stretch of coast. This year it celebrates a milestone, 50 years since the opening of its first 18-hole course - Penina.
Some may argue that golf arrived in the Algarve in 1937, just a few years before the Second World War broke out. In fact 9 holes were built in Praia da Rocha: sand fairways with “browns” (greens made of oil and sand) designed to entertain the Brits that stayed at the Grande Hotel da Praia da Rocha. Sadly, the course’s management changed hands and it was left to wither away. Golf wasn't heard of again in the Algarve. That is, until John Stilwell, an Englishman born in Lisbon, decided to invest in tourism in the Algarve. On holiday with his family in Praia da Rocha in 1961, as tourism was starting to develop, John had the idea to open a hotel.
He realised he needed something more to attract tourists and decided golf was the answer. “Since water was needed to irrigate we chose Tapada da Penina, a rice producing property which belonged to a distant cousin of mine,” explains John, now 91 years old. This is where, together with family and friends, he built the first 5-star hotel and golf course of the region.
With the help of Sir Henry Cotton, who designed Penina’s iconic course, his vision became a reality. 300.000 trees were planted on the property, amongst which the golf course was built. On the 1st of June 1966 the first players teed off on Penina’s Championship course.
Inviting journalists and opinion leaders from the UK and the USA to visit the brand new resort, John soon brought the spotlight onto this blossoming region, otherwise overlooked by the rest of the world. Penina attracted some of the greatest golfers and celebrities of the time: Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Tony Jacklin, Nick Faldo, Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, Sean Connery and Lee Trevino, among others, came to spend time with living legend Sir Henry Cotton, who was always accompanied on the course by his faithful caddie, Pacifico the donkey.
But the most notable celebrity to this day to have stayed and made his mark on Penina has to be Sir Paul McCartney. “One evening during his stay at the hotel (in 1968) he spontaneously joined the house band in the bar and played the drums,” recalls John, “he also wrote a song about Penina.”
The rest is history, 50 years this year to be precise. Since then, both Portuguese and foreign entrepreneurs have flocked to this southern coast to make the most of its potential, turning it into a thriving holiday and golfing destination. Thanks to entrepreneurs and visionaries such as André Jordan the Algarve continued to grow and attract world-wide attention.
Vale do Lobo’s Ocean course, also designed by three time Open Champion Sir Henry Cotton, and Oceânico's Old Course in Vilamoura, by Frank Pennick, were the next courses to be built, in 1969. A few years later, another world famous course was built at Quinta do Lago.
Then came the Portuguese revolution in 1975, which brought tourism to a stand still for a while. Penina itself was grounds for political discourse that year as the hotel was chosen by the Portuguese government as the location for the conference which led to the "Acordo de Alvor”, the treaty for the independence of Angola, making Penina a historic landmark.
A second wave of golf course building in the Algarve came about in 1988 with San Lorenzo, in Quinta do Lago. A wave which quickly swelled and thanks to which the region now boasts more than half of Portuguese courses, some of them counted among the best European and worldwide courses. Like Seve Ballesteros (Quinta do Vale, 2008), several celebrity course designers including Arnold Palmer (Oceânico Victoria, 2004), Jack Nicklaus (Monte Rei, 2007) and Sir Nick Faldo (Oceânico Faldo, 2008) contributed towards the region’s high quality golf courses. As for Sir Henry Cotton, who lived in a villa on his beloved Penina Championship Course, he went on to design three more courses in the Algarve: Alto Golf close to Vau, once again with his friend John Stilwell, Vale do Lobo Royal and Benamor in Tavira. He died in 1987 and is buried in Mexilhoeira-Grande cemetery, but his legacy lives on throughout the region.
Today the Algarve caters for every golfer’s needs, not only with some of the world's top courses but with all of the supporting equipment and services needed for the sport, such as golf academies and specialised shops. Vilamoura golf school alone has produced some of the greatest Portuguese players of all time. This is where Antonio Sobrinho, Ricardo Santos and Ricardo Melo Gouveia picked up their first club and went on to become national heroes.
So what does the Algarve hold in store for us? According to Maria Manuel Delgado e Silva, Golf Product Manager for the Algarve’s Tourism Association, “the region is more popular than ever, after record statistics were reported with 1.2m rounds played in 2015. And early indications suggest 2016 is set to continue on a similar path.”
But not only does the region attract players, its international events also attract fans who come to support their favourite players. According to Keith Pelley, chief executive of the European Tour, “the Algarve continues to be a terrific backdrop for tournament golf, having hosted 35 tournaments on the European Tour and Senior Tour, as well as the Senior Tour Qualifying School since 2001.”
This year will be no exception, the Algarve has hosted the Portuguese Open on no fewer than 23 occasions and Europe’s finest players are back in October for the 10th edition of the Portugal Masters at Oceânico Victoria in Vilamoura. It’s bound to be a golden year for golf in the Algarve!
So what does the Algarve hold in store for us? The region is more popular than ever, after record statistics were reported with 1.2m rounds played in 2015. And early indications suggest 2016 is set to continue on a similar path. According to Luis Araújo, president of Portugal Tourism Board, this 50th anniversary is indeed a significant achievement, "Portugal has much to be thrilled about with this milestone, which is the result of a combined effort from our golf tourism industry over five decades.” Each visiting golfer will be invited to play their part in marking the milestone by playing from the new golden tees and will then get the chance to register their details on a dedicated website for an opportunity to win 50 green fees to be played on the Algarve courses throughout 2017.
Text: Alexandra Stilwell
Originally published in