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  • Alistair Tait

Europe's Toughest Golf Course?

The late Robert Trent Jones Snr must have been in a bad mood when he designed Tróia Golf Resort on the Tróia Peninsula south of Portuguese capital Lisbon.

The par-72, 6,317-metre layout is arguably the toughest course on Continental Europe. Put it this way, I’m glad I was only watching last week’s R&A Student Tour Series – Portugal and not playing the Tróia layout. I’d probably have either runout of balls before I hit triple digits or been in a white coat that ties up at the back before I walked off the 15th green.

Tough? The course slapped around the best university players in Europe. They didn’t know what had hit them. All had tales to tell of big numbers despite not always hitting bad shots.

It was carnage.

Only four players broke par over the three days, while just another four matched it. The four who managed to pass the tough Tróia test? St Andrews student Sam Fuller and Maynooth University player David Kitt both shot 70s; Tournament Golf College player Lewis Harris and Stirling University’s Lorna McClymont returned 71s. McClymont was the only player in the women’s field to break par.

University of St Andrews student Ben Fuller began with a 2-under-par 70 in benign conditions to take the first round lead. A breeze off the nearby Atlantic Ocean for round two blew the Alabama resident away, along with the rest of the field.

I walked the first nine holes of the second round with Fuller and his two playing companions. The American started with four pars and then dropped five shots over the next five holes without actually doing much wrong. He was toast after that, posting an 83 to drop out of contention.

“It might be the hardest course I’ve ever played,” said Fuller, a plus 2 handicapper and member of former PGA Championship venue Shoal Creek in Alabama. “You don’t have to do much wrong to shoot a big number around here.”

McClymont showed remarkable character to bounce back from an 84 in round two to post her closing 71.

“I played out of my skin today,” said McClymont, who won the women’s title by four shots. “I’m delighted to have shot under par around this golf course because it’s so tough.
“The conditions were extremely tough yesterday and I had four blow ups without actually doing much wrong. This course just punishes you if you’re not on it. It really gets you and it got me yesterday.”

Tróia is as traditional a links as you’ll find outside Great Britain and Ireland. The narrow Tróia Peninsula just across the water from Setubal is basically one giant sand dune. Jones Snr ran the course amid the pine trees over typical undulating links land. The firm fairways weave among the dunes. Get a bad bounce, as many did during the R&A tournament, and the ball can easily bounce into sandy scrub from where just getting the ball back into play is challenging.

I watched Fuller and Exeter University player Ben Quick get in all sorts of bother at the 401-metre, par-4, 6th hole. Both missed the fairway right and couldn’t get their second shots back on the fairway. Fuller made double bogey, while Quick ran up a nine. They faced a two-club wind in the second round. Third place finisher Max Weaver, who lost in a three-man playoff, is based at Tróia while attending Edge Golf College.

“This is nothing,” Weaver said. “I’ve played this course in a four-club wind and it’s a just brute.”

Throw in small greens often resembling up-turned bowls running at 13 on the stimpmeter and it’s no wonder scores were so high. Jones Snr placed many of those tiny putting greens on raised surfaces, making greens in regulation and almost redundant statistic.

The 486-metre, par-5 finishing hole played havoc with the field, especially the right-hand pin position for the second round. Joint winner Ryan Griffin of Maynooth University found the putting surface in two to set up a 30-foot eagle putt. He was happy just to keep his ball on the green. He had a 15-foot birdie putt back up the slope and walked off with a par.

The problem with the final green and many others – the par-3, 4th is another good example – is there is no good place to miss. There’s no room left or right while anything long risks running over the green and downhill towards the out of bounds line about 20 yards off the back edge.

I obviously haven’t played every course in Continental Europe, but I’m not sure I’ve seen one that plays harder.

Lest you think I’m exaggerating, the course’s reputation was established in 1983 when the European Tour staged the Portuguese Open at Tróia Golf Resort. Winner Sam Torrance was the only player to break par for 72 holes. His 2-under-par 286 (72, 73, 71 and 70) gave him a three-shot victory. There were only 13 sub-par scores all week, and one score under 70: England’s Chris Moody shot a final round 68. That’s the good news. The cut was 12-over. There were 114 scores in the 80s, 10 in the 90s, with Portugal’s Pedro Nunes taking the, er, plaudits for highest score with a 24-over-par 96 in the second round. Maybe he did leave Tróia in one of those white coats.

Obviously this was back in the days of persimmon and steel, before graphite and titanium changed golf forever more. However, I’m guessing even Europe’s current best would not rip Tróia asunder.

Oddly, the Portuguese Open has never been back to Tróia. I think there was a vote and…

The hardest golf course on Continental Europe? It has to be a serious candidate.

#JustSaying: “Critics have said that his (Trent Jones Snr) courses were and are too punishing, and should be toned down.” From The Golf Courses of Robert Trent Jones Jnr

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