Tony Clark interviewed David Shepherd, director of golf at Monte Rei Golf and Country Club, in the eastern Algarve, on golf and life in Portugal.
When golfers arrive at Monte Rei they can be forgiven for drooling as they witness the most spectacular views and properties on the winding drive from the entrance to the wonderfully under-stated and immaculate club house. Shaped through rolling hills with each hole individually sculptured it actually reminded me of Rio Secco in Nevada.
Certainly Monte Rei is like no other course in Portugal and undoubtedly one of the most impressive in Europe. But the experience has only just started. I’m here to meet with David Shepherd, PGA professional and director of golf. Shepherd is another example of a successful PGA export having completed his education at Lincoln University before gaining the PGA degree at Birmingham University whilst working at The Belfry under the tutelage of director of golf Simon Wordsworth.
TC: David, Lancashire lad to Algarve. How did that happen?
DS: My dad Paul Shepherd was a PGA pro at Southport & Ainsdale, Hindley Hall and Hickleton so I’ve been around golf all my life, playing and helping my dad in the shop. My dad was a big influence due in no small part to his exacting standards. I’ve always loved playing but I get a real joy out of the business side of the industry and it wasn’t long before the opportunity to take up a position at The Belfry presented itself. That was in 2004.
I’ve been fortunate to work with some amazing operators and Simon Wordsworth at The Belfry was not only an excellent boss he was a mentor. His rotation system ensured that the team of eight new trainee PGA Pros experienced all aspects of operation and this was of huge educational value. It also encouraged healthy competition as we each wanted to progress. I had three or four promotions at The Belfry and after four years I was the golf operations manager and senior teaching professional.
In July 2008 I joined Iain McInally, director of golf at Monte Rei as the golf operations manager. With Iain’s vast experience I was once again working alongside someone I could learn from and importantly involved in what was effectively a start-up business.
TC: So you’ve left the UK to take up a position in Portugal the very same year that the world economy crashed! Did that worry you?
DS: I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t a concern, especially as I’d also moved over with my wife Sarah-Jane, also a qualified PGA professional. So we’d really put all of our eggs in the Portugal basket but it wasn’t as daunting as it seemed. There’s a large ex-pat community of working British so we soon made friends and we’ve embraced the language and the culture. Plus Iain had tremendous confidence in the owners and they didn’t seem overly fazed by the situation and remained determined to move forward with the business plan and that gave us a great deal of confidence and frankly kept us and the team focused on the jobs we had to do. This wasn’t a time to blink and they didn’t!
TC: And now you’re director of golf.
DS: Yes, my commitment to the business was rewarded when I was appointed director of golf after Iain left to take up a position in the Middle East. So we’re delighted with the way things have turned out.
TC: So what is the overall goal at Monte Rei?
DS: It’s very clear. We are focused on becoming the leading residential multi-course resort in Europe. From the moment a guest arrives to the moment they leave they are afforded every courtesy to make their experience exceptional. As a team we are committed to delivering that goal. Monte Rei is the only Jack Nicklaus Signature course in Portugal and it seems fitting that the policies and standards we adopt should aspire to the level that Mr Nicklaus achieved.
We provide a full valet service so no golfer need touch their clubs from arrival to range, to the new Swing Studio, to the first tee and back to their transportation at the end of their game. We offer grass tees on the range, pure playing surfaces in tournament condition, the pins are changed daily, we hand rake the bunkers and hand cut the greens.
Every hole is a ‘stadium’ hole. Rarely will you see other golfers on another hole as you play your round. There is often the feeling that you have the course to yourself. Notably, unlike so many world-wide premium resorts, we don’t operate pairing. You play with the person or people you booked to play with.
TC: I really like that. I often play in the US and whilst I’m a sociable guy I often think it’s unfair on both parties when incompatible golfers are forcibly paired. Well it’s no surprise therefore that you’re the destination of choice for tour players and their instructors.
DS: Absolutely. The four hours and 15 minutes on the course are the biggest part of the day and it’s why a guest is here so a mismatch on the first tee could ruin the whole experience and for both the golfers and us as service providers that would be a disaster.
Also we have a ‘buggy only’ policy and this helps keep playing time consistent and we offer a ‘cold towel’ service after nine holes when the weather is hot. We operate twelve minute tee times and restrict play to the betterment of the experience of our guests. The whole club house experience is one of quiet under-stated quality; from the locker rooms and members lounge to the bar and restaurants with our casual and fine dining experiences overseen by renowned chef Jaime Perez.
Our fully serviced villas are of the highest standards. We aim to deliver a premium experience in every respect and most importantly in a relaxed and totally non-pretentious way.
TC: So where do your guests come from?
DS: Our key market is northern continental Europe and the UK and Ireland and it’s largely groups, both from the tour operators and increasingly PGA pros bringing parties for tournaments and tuition trips. We support PGA pros with a private coaching area including our new Swing Studio and offer some excellent premium stay and play packages.
TC: I can feel your passion and certainly my experience from the moment I arrived mirrors that which you’ve described, so what next for David Shepherd?
DS: We’ve really only just started at Monte Rei. We have plans for a second course and our policy of maintaining our premium experience has certainly paid off. My wife is working as PGA professional at Quinta do Lago and we have just had our first child, Ben, born here in Portugal.
TC: Ben? Ben Shepherd? Named after the breakfast TV host?
DS: Absolutely not! Named after Wigan Athletic’s FA Cup hero Ben Watson.
On that note we headed to the course for a swift nine holes, preceded by 15 minutes on the range where I dispensed all my good shots! The range and course didn’t disappoint. On the contrary the condition at the end of a day when just over 100 golfers had passed through was immaculate. Standing on each tee you had to think about the club selection whilst at the same time being ‘distracted’ by the breath-taking scenery and stunning design of each remarkably individual hole.
At six o’clock we returned to a bustling Club House with three separate groups hosted by PGA professionals from Holland, Sweden and the UK. My over-riding impression of the day, as I watched David in action, was that I was in the company of an extremely competent, professional and ambitious director of golf. David’s attention to detail was impressive and this undoubtedly contributed significantly to the fact that the entire team was notably ‘on message’. The service I witnessed throughout the day was faultless.
Monte Rei Golf & Country Club is an absolute ‘must play’ for any PGA pro planning a tuition trip or event with clients in the Algarve.
To learn more about some of the PGA Pro packages available David can be contacted directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or check out www.monte-rei.com
Tony Clark is Owner/Managing Director of PlaneSWING Golf and a business consultant with Clark Management Group Ltd. He can be contacted at 01604 830880 or 07870 562777 or by email at email@example.com