The Algarve is filled with handsome beauty, no matter where you look. From the spectacular coastline with its dramatic rock formations, golden beaches and expansive nature reserves, to the rural beauty of the mountains and countryside, located only a few miles inland, this one of the most attractive corners of Europe. There are elegant towns and picturesque small fishing villages, imposing churches and cathedrals and in this charming region where golf reigns supreme, the golf courses are just as impressive. Nowhere else will you ever find such a consistently high level of handsome layouts, with not a single Plain Jane among them. It's a beauty contest of golf courses.
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Every beauty contest must have its winner and among the Algarve's endless collection of good-looking courses, the two championship layouts at Vale do Lobo, must be among the finalists for first prize. But as the wise old adage says, beauty is only skin deep - good looks need to be backed up by talent, character and substance. Fortunately, both Vale do Lobo's Royal and Ocean Courses have plenty of all three qualities to go along with their good looks. This is a pair of well seasoned, very serious challenges that have been proving the point ever since five-time British Open Champion, Henry Cotton, was inspired to design the first Vale do Lobo layout, some 40 years ago.
A third nine holes was added by Cotton in 1975 and more than 20 years later, the accomplished American architect, Rocky Roquemore, no stranger to course design challenges in Portugal, added the final nine. Some further re-vamping by Roquemore and voila, Vale do Lobo had two championship layouts, sharing the honor of hosting the Portuguese Open in 2002 and 2003.
The challenge of a composite course made up from the best of both layouts -five holes from The Ocean Course and 13 from The Royal -- proved so frighteningly difficult, in the 2003 event, only 8 of Europe's best players broke par in the first two rounds. The cut was made at 5 over par in this, one of The European Tour's most prestigious tournaments. Vale do Lobo's two courses had arrived and were immediately ranked among Europe's toughest.
Seldom do you find a pair of resort courses of a comparable high standard, yet each with a character and style, entirely of their own. Typically, there is a primary course and the other gets tagged with the innocuous label of being "the second course", the inference being that it's inferior. Messrs Cotton and Roquemore have successfully managed to avoid this problem at Vale do Lobo and in The Royal and The Ocean Courses have produced two genuinely complementary championship layouts -- there is no "second course".
While each player's personal preferences will inevitably favor one layout over the other, there will be just as many with the opposite opinion. This is literally a case where both must be played to determine which you prefer. For most this will be a difficult call and the experience, a true test of your game.
The older of the two, The Ocean Course, with a selection of tee positions, is approachable by players of all levels, but there will still be stern challenges to be tackled. For any who may fall short of the challenge, spectacular views of the Atlantic Ocean, which is never far away, offer some compensation.
The opening hole immediately sets the stage and can be more than a little intimidating as it demands an accurate tee shot -- not too fair as the first hole of the day, but this is serious golf and it's best to get into the right frame of mind as quickly as possible. The lake on the right and trees to the left add to the test, which is only compounded further by the elevated green, requiring total accuracy on the approach shot. Congratulations, your test is underway.
Following the contours of the terrain, the next few holes maintain the tempo, holding your attention with cleverly placed hazards; all to be taken into serious consideration as the course gradually increases pressure. With eight holes under your belt and attention focused, you are ready for the tricky ninth, a 360-yard par 4 dogleg with a large lake on the right and out of bounds to the left. Precision and ball control is again called for on the approach to a seriously sloping, elevated green.
The back nine gets no easier as fairways narrow and accuracy becomes even more important, as does strategy and careful thinking. The eleventh and fourteenth are two of the most difficult holes on this masterly designed track, a pair of testing par-4's with greens set against a backdrop of white sand and blue sea, all jealously guarded by shrewdly placed bunkers.
The delightful fifteenth, runs along the beach, a par-3, tempting bravado with an enticingly large green, be wary, this is not an easy tee shot. There's out of bounds to the left, sand everywhere and the distraction of a picture postcard sea-view to make this hole far from being straightforward. And so the challenge continues until the very end, where Cotton's design magic comes through with a closing hole that will provide just one more memory of this unforgettable, Algarve champion.
Val do Lobo's Royal Course is appropriately named. It exudes a regal demeanor that commands immediate respect and just like its older brother, it's best to pay homage and hopefully gain a favor or two from a layout not known for its forgiving ways. This is an even more serious examination of golf and the tougher of Vale do Lobo's two champions.
Unlike The Ocean Course, The Royal takes a more gentlemanly approach for the first few holes, allowing the visitor to gain confidence, even over-confidence and a false sense of security. Not until the fourth hole, does The Royal's real personality begin to come out with an abrupt testiness that takes most by surprise with a confusing, if not deceptive approach to the green. Quickly slipping into top gear, the course seems to take personal delight in bringing every player down to size from here, all the way to the 19th hole.
The ninth brings the first half to a devilishly tricky ending; it's a short par-3 with what appears to be an island green. Fail to stay well right of the flag and a watery grave is all but guaranteed. Things get no easier on the back half where the eleventh, a lengthy par-5, grabs everyone's undivided attention. If you don't get a good, gutsy drive off the tee, bogey will be the best you can hope to achieve. The second shot must come to rest at the very center of a frighteningly narrow fairway to reach the green, heavily protected by water and a steep grass bank
The sixteenth is a special treat and although a handsome eye dazzler, it's also an undeniable knee shaker - you are about to play one of the world's most spectacularly dramatic, signature holes. Running along a cliff-top, with the Ocean and beach far below, for the brave (or foolhardy) the tee shot requires a carry over not one, but two hungry ravines, to the green which sits audaciously, just a shade over 200 yards away. Mere mortals, not up to the test, have an escape route by playing to the right, but with our innate inclination to avoid danger, the tendency for most is to pull to the right anyway. Sorry, this is a hole where there are no guarantees, other than it's one you will be talking about for years to come.
Vale do Lobo is very special and the two courses the resort is so justly proud of, deserve to be on the must play list of every visitor to The Algarve. For a few suggestions on how, click here.
©2009 David Brice / Golf International, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
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