The Algarve region of Portugal is one of the world's most highly regarded golfing locations. With glorious weather practically all year round and more world class courses than you can shake a 9 iron at, it is a popular destination for those of us who have gotten tired of the wind and the rain and playing in fleeces and waterproofs.
Oceânico Golf is now one of the major players in this region with 8 championship courses under their management including Vilamoura's famous five – Oceânico Victoria (host to the World Cup of Golf 2005 and the Portugal Masters 2007-2009), Oceânico Old Course, Oceânico Pinhal, Oceânico Laguna, Oceânico Millennium and the newest Oceânico Golf 3 Oceânico Faldo and O´Connor Jnr. Courses at Amendoeira Golf Resort, complemented by a unique flood lit 9 hole Par 3 Academy Course, whilst Severiano Ballesteros has lent his experience to the course at Royal Óbidos on the Silver Coast. On a recent trip to the Algave, Bag Chatter got to play on 3 of the best Oceânico courses.
The Millennium course was, as its name suggests, founded in 2000 and is one of the more accessible courses on the Algarve. Because of this it gets quite busy and waits at the tee boxes are common at busy times. With 9 of its 18 holes originating from the neighboring Laguna course, it mixes short tight holes, especially between the 3rd and the 7th, with longer open ones. It plays a little shorter than its 6793 years but has a lot to offer. Because of the relaxed handicap requirements you might find yourself sharing the course with those who are not quite as familiar with the finer points of golfing etiquette but it obvious that everyone on the course is there to enjoy themselves.
The 15th at Millennium
The experience at the Victoria is 5 star all the way. The club house is stunning and would not look out of place anywhere you choose to mention. The driving range and practice facilities are world class and you could play a game of football on the enormous putting green. The Arnold Palmer designed course is a true test for the modern professional so it's a real examination for club golfers. At 7209 yards playing from the tips you'd better have your driver in full working order if you want to play to your best but the 5 sets of tees prevents it from being too intimidating. Thankfully the course is far more open that you normally find in this region as there are less trees but compensation comes with many more water hazards especially on the back 9. The course does not have any great elevation changes but the fairways are constantly undulating and the contours can sometimes take the ball completely away from where you expect, so you need to pay close attention to the landing areas. The greens are fast and true and when they are dry they are lightning fast.
The 18th at Victoria
There is a real championship finish at the Victoria. The 16th is a 209 yard par 3, demanding in any circumstance. The 17th is a peach of a 593 yard par 5 where you can play safe down the left or if you want to get on the green in 2 you need to take on the 290 yard carry over the water. If you successfully manage that, your ball will shoot forward to a more accessible position where you then have a long iron or more likely a wood in to a green that is only 15 paces deep and protected by water on the front and on the right. The 18th is a 465 yard par 4 with water all the way down the left and penal bunkers right at driving distance on the right hand side. One of the pros explained to me that you hit it towards the left hand edge of the bunkers. If you get lucky and end up on the fairway you can go for the green – if you can unlucky you can still play for your par but either way you keep that big score off your card. With the prevailing winds being into your face on this hole, this is the last thing that any championship leader wants to see at the final hole but everything that the fans (and the clubhouse leader) would be looking for. Given the demands of the course, it was no surprise that it was the huge hitting Spaniard Alvaro Quiros who birdied the last to lift the trophy in 2008.
The Old Course is hidden away in the hills and nestles among a forest of umbrella pines. Opened in 1969 it ranks alongside the Henry Cotton designed Penina as one of the oldest courses in the region. In complete contrast to Victoria this course is a shot-maker's dream. The 'Grand Dame' of the Algarve is simply an absolute gem of a course.
As soon as you stand on the first and see how the umbrella pines encroach on both sides as the fairway swoops down towards the green you are aware that this is a course that will severely punish bomb and gouge style golf and rewards the ability to move the ball in the air. Some of the tee boxes are positioned in such a way that a straight shot can see less than half the fairway but that a gentle fade or draw suddenly opens up the course. The constant change in elevation means that you need to be precise with your irons as you are sometimes taking 3 clubs more or less than you normally take. An example of this is 6th. A 233 yard par 3 would normally be unplayable for mere mortals but with an elevation drop of about 40 yards it plays almost 45 yards shorter but you need to hit it straight to get it close as the steeply sloped green requires a deft touch.
The 6th at the Old Course
Given the closeness of the course it's not to say that errant shots are an automatic penalty. If the ball takes a dive off the fairway you'll find yourself in a world where the ground is made of pine needles and the sky is nothing but green branches. It's easy enough to get clean contact in this sort of lie but the challenge is how to play the recovery shot. You can take the easy option of knocking the ball out sideways or you can take the shot on and hit a low screamer of a punch straight towards the flag. If you do the latter you need to make sure that you can keep it low enough to stay under that branches and straight enough to dodge the trunks. It's tougher than it looks but incredibly satisfying. One of the glories of the course is that there are so many ways to play it and only those with a complete game will be able to take it on and score well. If you do keep it on the short stuff you will be hitting the ball from fairways of carpet-like perfection and greens that roll as smooth as you could wish for but as you wend your way past the semi-hidden luxury villas you'll find that it's the long irons that are most in use. For the longer hitters the driver will only get you into trouble.
It is such a pity that the remorseless march of technology has rendered this course too short for the modern pros as it would be an absolute treat to see them playing this course. The sloped greens hark back to a time where the stimp speed would be closer to 10 than the 12 commonly found on tour now so it would be almost impossible to speed them up more than they are.
These three courses have very different personalities. The Millennium course is a good honest fun course that can be played be any level of handicap and is an enjoyable day out. The Victoria is a true experience of tour standard conditions with a finish that will leave you wrung out and the Old Course is an absolute gem that will have fans coming back year after year to play on one of the great courses in this region, if not the world.
For more information, visit www.oceanicogolf.com