In real terms, the Algarve region of Portugal is a fledgling golfing destination, however this is not a negative comment as age does not necessarily a great golf course make! The most ‘historic’ of all of the southern Portuguese golf courses is “The Penina” as it is reverentially known. Built in 1966 by Sir Henry Cotton it is situated in a pleasant 360-acre estate midway between the traditional fishing village of Portimao and the historic town of Lagos.
Penina was built on land that was originally used for growing rice and therefore Cotton planted over 360,000 trees and shrubs to create the wonderful wooded feel the course possesses. He also carefully and sensitively remodelled the land including developing the natural streams and lakes to produce a magnificent golf course. The quality of which was immediately recognised by all who played there and since its inception Penina has been the host for many professional tournaments including the Portuguese Open on no less than eight occasions.
The Penina Hotel & Golf Resort layout is a fairly traditional design of two loops of 9 holes; however, untraditionally the course is a par 73 with only one par five on the front nine holes and four on the back nine. With the sun shining as it often is and the smell of eucalyptus in the air from the many trees the golfer could be mistaken for thinking that they were in for a nice relaxing round. This would be a mistake. From the very start of the round, the quality of the course, and the test the golfer is going to be subjected to is much in evidence.
The gently rolling fairways are well manicured, the hazards are well placed and numerous and the greens are always in great condition, difficult to read and often tough to find. Right from the outset the golfer’s game will be tested. The first hole at Penina is a long dog-leg left to a well guarded narrow green, and this is followed by SI 1, a 401-metre par four that plays to a domed and undulating green tucked to the left and protected at the front by a stream.
The pick of the other holes on the front nine are the 5th, 7th and the 9th. The 5th is the only par five on the front nine and only measures 451 metres from the back tees, however it’s a perfectly designed risk and reward hole. A good drive in the centre of the fairway will have the golfer considering trying for the green in two, however a large lake and out of bounds await all but the crispest approach shot.
The 7th is a superb little short par four with a lake left and a stream across the fairway at the driving distance. A long, narrow green protected by two large bunkers means an accurate approach both in line and length is required. Finally, on the front nine is the 9th, a dog-leg left par four that only measures 388 metres from the championship tees, however the hole feels much longer as the approach is up hill to a narrow, sloping green.
As already mentioned the back nine at Penina contains four par fives, the 10th, 11th, 17th and 18th, however, in our opinion, the pick of the holes on the back nine are the 12th and 13th although none of the others could be described as weak.
The 12th is a cracking long par four measuring 385 metres. Almost dead straight and with only one fairway bunker and the trees as trouble off the tee it’s not until the golfer arrives at his ball for the approach will this hole’s true majesty be realised. The green, which is not large, sits nestled directly behind a lake that snakes its way through the hole and on to cause further consternation at the next hole, the wonderful, terrifying 13th.
It is said that 1 in 5 golfers fall foul of the lake guarding the 13th, a long par three measuring 185 metres from the white tees. In fact, a dredging operation in 1986 recovered an amazing 20,000 balls from this lake alone. The green is narrow, wide and sloping back to the water so selecting the right club is crucial.Two par fives to finish allow some respite and even the chance of a birdie or two to hopefully end your Penina experience on a high. The course whilst not a masterpiece is an excellent, attractive and challenging classic Mediterranean layout and is thoroughly recommended.
I’ve stayed at Penina twice now, over which time I’ve played the Henry Cotton Championship Course three, maybe four times. Whilst I’ve enjoyed my trips to the resort, it took me by genuine surprise to find that the course had received as many 6-ball ratings as it had, so I felt like a more balanced review was needed, as to be frank, architecturally the Championship Course offers nothing outstanding. Played across two loops of nine, it’s a tree-lined layout amidst flat terrain where you have to negotiate with a fair amount of water. Of all the holes across the 18, I found the most interesting to be the 9th that returns back to the hotel. You need to hit an iron shot towards bunkers at the dogleg in the fairway before the hole turns sharply left towards the hotel with a well guarded raised green. The 13th also touts itself as a great hole, “One of the best 500 holes in the world” is the sign that greets you on the tee, but it isn’t a hole that fully lives up to that boast, you just need to carry your tee shot over a lake. When a course feels the need to advertise one its holes as one of the best in the world, I’d argue that it probably isn’t as good as what it’s making itself out to be.
I’ve also found the course conditioning at Penina generally a little disappointing, it was looking somewhat tired during both of my visits and I’ve found areas of the fairways and tees to be patchy in parts.
On a positive note, if you’re looking for a relaxed golf trip with multiple courses, excellent practice facilities, good restaurants, a nice bar at which to finish your round, and of course some sunshine, Penina hits all of these criteria. This will please many, myself included, but in my opinion if you took all of these periphery details away and simply picked up the course and placed it in England and played it on an overcast day, you’d only find the Championship Course to be an average layout. The fact that it has staged so many tour events is probably more to do with the resort having large practice facilities and lots of land available for hospitality.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve enjoyed my two trips here and wouldn’t discourage anyone from visiting, just don’t come here expecting a world class golf course. By all means, make the trip to Penina, it’s a lovely resort, but my advice would be to make time in your itinerary and take the short drive to nearby Palmares where you’ll see a marked difference in course quality.
Good review. Refreshing comparison. Even if many of us are grateful to be playing in nice weather during the low/off season November-March and even if we are told that greenkeepers in the Mediterranean region struggle with water availability and quality, we all too often are confronted with overhyped, overpriced courses of questionable design quality...and in very variable, but seldom very good condition.
Reminds me about a discussion I had with our secretary and head green-keeper the other week. They had been somewhere down South (not Penina I think) and generally found the conditioning and working practices shocking ("if we presented a course like that to our members, we would be fired on the spot!")
It’s exactly fifty years since Penina was completed, and Sir Henry Cotton’s trailblazing layout is still the spiritual home of golf in a region that now boasts literally dozens of golf courses. The hotel at the centre of the 360-acre property looms over the finishing holes on each nine of the championship course and there’s an unmistakeable air of understated opulence about the place, though the massive outdoor swimming pool to the left of the first tee does give the 5-star game away just a little bit.
It’s easy to see why the Portuguese Open has been held here ten times in the last half century as the off course golfing facilities are second to none with a short academy 9-hole course, a large practice area and a testing 9-hole resort course located on the other side of the main highway, accessed by a tunnel under the road.
The championship course starts with a downhill doglegged hole that sweeps to the left from an elevated tee position then the remaining tree-lined holes on the front nine play out on rather flat ground before the 9th doglegs left then uphill to a raised green that sits in front of the imposing hotel. The 5th is easily the best hole on the outward half, veering left to a two-tiered green which is protected in front by a pond and it’s a par five that only a foolhardy golfer would ever try to tame in two blows.
The back nine plays to a par of 38 and it’s configured rather uniquely because it begins and end with a pair of par fives. Best hole here is the par three 13th, mentioned in the Golf Magazine book “The 500 World’s Greatest Golf Holes,” where water runs along the right side of the hole and sand protects the green on the other side. The 18th crosses a ditch before it climbs to the home green and this putting surface, like the 5th and 9th, is of the two-tiered variety but they’re the only three greens on the entire course with any real contours, which was a bit of a disappointment.
Nonetheless, Penina offers a parkland test like no other in this part of the world – it’s been described by one commentator as a communion of golf and nature – and it’s worth experiencing if traditional English parkland golf is your game of choice.