On a bright, crisp November morning, a small but ardent group of supporters gathered around the first tee at the Dom Pedro Victoria Golf Course in Vilamoura. They had come to watch the final round of the 2021 Portugal Masters but, more specifically, to cheer on Algarvian professional golfer Ricardo Santos.
At precisely 9.26 pm, the master of ceremonies echoed his deep, yet melodic introduction through a small speaker: “On the tee from Portugal … Ricardo Santos.” It was time for the great Algarve hope to step up and provide some entertainment for the local support. With an accomplished swing of his driver, the ball sailed nicely down the centre of the fairway and was deservedly met with a polite, but enthusiastic response.
Born in Faro, Santos has long since been an iconic golfer in the Algarve. He turned professional in 2006 and, like most budding players, began his career on the Challenge Tour. His first significant milestone was taking victory at The Princess tournament in Sweden in 2011 and, in doing so, he became the first Portugueseborn player to win at this level.
But it was the following year when he achieved his sporting zenith, winning the Madeira Islands Open by four shots on the esteemed European Tour. This led to great acclaim in his home nation as well as on the international scene where he was named ‘rookie of the year’ – still the only Portuguese player to have ever held the acclaim.
In the subsequent years, Santos never quite reached the same heights (despite a Challenge Tour victory in Switzerland in 2019), but he remains a popular figure on tour and, as it transpires, has a keen following whenever he returns to the Algarve to play at one of his local courses.
At the beginning of the tournament, his world ranking had dropped down to world number 779, meaning his loyal entourage had gathered in hope rather than expectation. However, excellent scores on the first three rounds had given them suitable encouragement and, though victory was not in the reckoning, an improvement on 50th place in 2020 was a highly probable scenario.
With clear skies and a gentle breeze, playing conditions were pretty much perfect. However, after two comfortable pars, Santos dropped a shot on the third hole, much to the frustration of his slowly increasing entourage. But Ricardo Santos is a cool customer and didn’t allow this early setback to affect him. He bounced back with two consecutive birdies, the latter of which being a beautifully-judged 20-foot putt that was destined for the hole from the moment he struck the ball.
More birdies followed on the 8th and 10th, but the collective groan from the now 100-strong crowd made clear their disappointment after he bogeyed the 11th hole. At this point, a top ten finish was out of the question, but Santos showed his resilience from fifteen years as a professional by fighting back with two more birdies on the 12th and 14th.
As he strolled down the 18th fairway in the warm Algarve sunshine, the crowd were content with their man’s work. Despite a double-bogey on the last, a roar of approval filled the air as Santos tapped his ball in for the final time. Though a higher position seemed possible for a while, he would ultimately be happy with his performance after finishing 32nd overall, his second highest finish at this event.
Amidst the throng of waiting media, I ask him for his views on the week.
“It is always a pleasure to play here in Vilamoura in front of the crowd and my family and friends. It was a shame at the last hole, but it was a good, positive week.”
I ask whether he felt the presence of the home support during his time at the Dom Pedro Victoria course.
“I always feel the pressure here a bit, but it’s a good pressure. It is always a good feeling.”
He has a calm and pleasant demeanour making it easy to understand why he is a popular figure on the tour. He moves on to meet some of his fans, both young and old. After signing a multitude of autographs and giving away golf balls, jumpers and other memorabilia to some of the children, he finally heads off (somewhat lighter) to sign his scorecard. The only things that remain are his composure and the shirt upon his back.
At the head of the field, Belgian star Thomas Pieters won the event by two shots, taking the trophy and the prize money of 238,000€. It was a welcome result for the former world number 23 after an average season by his own high standards. He, like Santos, will now head to the final tour event of the year in Dubai.
Cover Photo © Warren Little/Getty Images