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Sunny side up - banish those winter blues by finding some sunshine golf
So here's the choice - you can stay at home in the UK in winter and try to play golf while wrapped up in so many layers of clothing that you resemble the Michelin Man, or you can jet off to the Iberian peninsula and stroll about in shirtsleeves while practicing the royal and ancient game.
Tough one isn't it?
Need a bit more time?
Oh, so you've chosen to go abroad; that is a surprise.

Let's face it, golf in the UK, especially Scotland, is not exactly a stroll in the park between November and March - if you can see your golf ball against the backdrop of frost or snow, chances are your hands will be too cold to feel the club or allow you to make a proper swing. And do you remember that sensation of hitting the ball fat or thin when your hands are frozen, and the miss-hit judders all the way up your arm? Or the difficulty of trying to see the flagstick when the arctic wind cuts across the course with such malicious venom that your eyes are permanently watering?

Okay, enough already about the problems of winter golf in Britain. But bearing in mind this scenario, it's hardly surprising that British golfers look to play somewhere else in winter and Spain and Portugal remain the most popular destinations, for a number of reasons, despite nearly pricing themselves out of the market a few years ago.

First, they're conveniently close - about two hours or less flying time from the UK. Second, they have some great courses and new ones are being added all the time. Third, the British are known and, on the whole, liked. Fourth, a continuing strong pound means that your money goes a long way.

Of the regions to visit, Portugal's Algarve is among the best in terms of climate, quality of courses and other attractions - and on the Algarve, Vilamoura is an excellent place to stay and play, being as it is, only 20 minutes from Faro airport. It is a virtually purpose built resort, so has a feeling of light, space and freshness but, unlike so many other holiday destinations it hasn't concentrated on practicality at the expense of aesthetics. Put another way, apart from the freshness of everything, the architectural style and planning means that it does not look like a modern development but rather has the feel of somewhere that has grown organically. Yes, there are a couple of high rise hotels but they fit, and the overall feel and look is of an established community that has grown, rather than a purpose-built resort that has been imposed. It's a tough act to pull off but the brains behind Vilamoura have managed it with considerable success.

But, despite the large and impressive marina - one of the biggest in Europe - and the other attractions Vilamoura offers, such as the glorious long sandy beach, tennis (with several tennis centers), horse-riding, the casino, lawn green bowling and water sports, it is golf that has made the resort's name and which will continue to attract visitors.

The resort has four world-class courses and a fifth, the Victoria, will hopefully be completed by March 2003. The significant investment in this new Arnold Palmer designed layout shows that the business brains behind Vilamoura recognise that it cannot stand still and must continue to work hard in the face of widespread competition for the tourist dollar, pound or euro.

Of the existing courses the Old is, inevitably, the longest established and probably the toughest to play. There are carob, olive, fig and almond trees everywhere and they are, frankly, the devil to play around or through - after a round here you will never again believe the old adage that trees are 90% air. During a week in Vilamoura I must have seen about 40 golf shots head for these trees and to the best of my memory only one made it through but in at least three other instances the golf ball stayed in the tree, never to be seen again, at least, not by the player who hit it.

The Old course is tight and challenging and you need to be on top of your game - and particularly hitting the ball straight - to get the best from the course. It is not advisable to make it the first course you play but rather save it for when your swing has lost a little of its UK-winter rust. There is comparatively little water on the Old but frankly, it doesn't need it; bunkers and a tight layout are its major defence. If you have played Valderrama the Old course will feel familiar but is not as intimidating as that Spanish layout - then again, where is?

Nestling in the hills above Vilamoura is Vila Sol G&CC, which has a similar feel to the Old but which isn't as daunting. The trees are there but they are not as ubiquitous nor as likely to get in the way of what you feel was a well-struck shot. In addition, Vila Sol has three loops of nine holes, offering a variety of options but my favourite combination was 1-9 and 19-27.

The Millenium course has a little more water but is also considerably more open, with a short, welcoming par four to start, bigger, less undulating greens and a wider variety of shot-making options. It was the course I enjoyed the most but a large part of the attraction could simply be that it was also the layout on which I scored the best.

Finally there's the Laguna course, which is midway between the Old and the Millenium; relatively open, water in play on 11 holes (but not too intrusive in most cases) and reasonably sized greens.

But the jewel in the Vilamoura crown will undoubtedly be the Victoria course when it opens. The development is part of an overall refurbishment programme of the resort that has already seen the Old course refurbished and several other improvements - such as the installation of irrigation systems and rebuilding or modernisation of clubhouses. This series of improvements to golf facilities is part of a wider programme of ugrading and revitalisation of Vilamoura. Those of you who knew Vilamoura in former years will quickly see that it is now a completely different place.

For example, all four Vilamoura golf courses have been awarded certification under ISO 14001, the international standard for environmental management, and the resort recently opened the 200-hectare Vilamoura Environmental Park which is a nature conservation initiative especially for bird-life, and which is open to visitors as a leisure area. It has a bird watching post and the Centre of Nature Studies (CENA) where scientific research is carried out.

Rather than go down the route of offering cheaper golf, Vilamoura has taken a conscious decision to maintain or even increase its green fees but offer greater quality and value for money. More than 192,000 rounds were played over the Vilamoura courses during 2001, by at least 50,000 golfers from all over the world. So the decision to build another course meant that a number of factors had to be considered. Namely, the new layout should offer:
A course that would be a challenge to professionals yet suitable for handicap players.
A layout that could become classified as one of the best in Portugal and Europe as a whole
Effective integration between golf and the environment
Be designed by an internationally renowned architect.

The Arnold Palmer company's winning plan involves large, undulating fairways, five tees per hole, a lot of water, large greens and above all, a course that focuses on a risk/reward strategy. On almost every shot and certainly on every hole there will be a choice put into the golfer's mind and he or she will have to make a decision based on their ability and courage.
It is hoped that construction will start in Mid-March 2002 and the course will be ready to play a year later

Interestingly, the developers have already said that the Victoria course will cost considerably more to play than any of the other four courses but they are obviously confident that its quality will be such that golfers will pay a premium.
During the busiest winter months of December through March, average daytime temperatures are in the low to mid 60sF; the sort of climate in which you start a round in a sweater but finish in shirt sleeves. The evenings are cool to chilly and it's advisable to take some cold weather clothing.

Overall, Vilamoura offers excellent golf, good value, a temperate climate but, most importantly perhaps, a friendly welcome, particularly to the British, who make up 80% of the winter golf clientele on the Algarve.
Give it a try, I doubt you'll be disappointed.

Useful sites:

With thanks to:
Vialmoura Promotion Bureau
Apartado 524-8125
(+351) 289 321 137/185

Ampalius Hotel
Alameda da Praia da Marina
8125-408 Vilamoura
(+351) 289 388 008

The Glenlivet Office Putting Challenge
79-91 New Kings Road
London SW6 4SQ
020 7731 8794

Pictures courtesy of Vila Sol GC

©    8 - MARCH 2002

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