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Nov 11th, 2015

Portugal Mastered

Drum solo's and Tour Pro's in the Algarve

Top knots are banned at nine out of ten golf clubs

GP Dan: How’s Gorgeous George?
George: I’m not bad fella, and how are you?
GP Dan: Can’t complain. Anyway listen mate – do you fancy going on a golf trip to Portugal next month?
George: Ermm… YEAH!

There are certainly worse phone calls to receive on a Friday afternoon after recently coming to terms with the fact that your bank account clearly doesn’t shout ‘late summer holiday’. I was off to the Villamoura, Portugal to play a few of the Oceanico course’s, play in the Portugal Masters Pro-Am, make a few videos, and as it turned out, eat my body weight times ten in seafood. Lovely jubbly.

Having never flown alone in my life before, flying to Portugal, to spend a week with a load of journo’s I had never met before turned out to be a little more nerve racking than I had initially anticipated. Add to that about three hours sleep, after an early morning flight and you have a pretty wooly-headed 21 year old to say the least.

Spectating at a European Tour event had always been on my bucket list, so having the opportunity to actually play a part in one really did have me sweating with excitement. Mind you, the typically British clobber I had chosen to fly in hadn’t helped the sweat levels either. In attempt to look more like a young Caleb Followhill than a naïve golf journalist, I chose to don the double denim and desert boots look. Stepping off the plane into 25 degree mid-morning heat, having forgot my sunglasses proved that maybe for once I should have listened to my old man, and put some shorts on. 

All was going logistically swell, flight number ZB 580 from Manchester to Faro had treated me nicely and I was due to meet my 12:00 check in time at the Tivoli Marina Hotel. There was a unique atmosphere inside the Faro arrivals lounge. A sense of golfing excitement had struck the airport as everyone checked their retrieved clubs, hoping not to find a cracked shaft after the inevitable battering they had received from plane to baggage carousel. From groups of the typical looking golfers, to juniors, to lady golfers, to golf journalists, it seemed the every golfer and his dog had arrived in Portugal – anybody would have thought there was a golf tournament going on. 

Finding an airport transfer should be easy, but in a tiny airport with a flight as busy as mine, it is not. After the first, and thankfully only mini-meltdown of the week, about 40 minutes later after pacing the airport, I found out that I was being taken to the hotel in an official Portugal Masters courtesy car – definitely worth the wait. I’m still not entirely sure whether my driver or the hotel porters who greeted me like royalty knew that I was just a writer coming to play a few games of golf. I certainly don’t look like a golfer, never mind a professional one, so I came to the conclusion that they were just genuinely nice, helpful chaps. 

Due to my unfortunate transfer delay, I was already running extremely late leaving me just 15 minutes to check in, get changed, sort my clubs and get down to the hotel lobby to meet the guys I would be spending the next four days with. This however didn’t stop me taking a necessary time out to look at the staggering view from my bedroom of the Villamoura Marina, what a place. It had travel brochure written all over it. Thanks to the world’s greatest hotel porter – Bruno, who had also greeted me with open arms as I first arrived at the Tivoli Marina Hotel, I had my luggage delivered to my room in record time, with a knuckle-breaking handshake, and a brilliant welcome speech. You know the type, the one’s that say “Sir” every other word. Top marks Bruno, keep up the good work. 

A young Gandalf and his hobbits

After meeting my team of fellow journalists, which included five different nationalities, it was time to finally do what we came here to do. Play some bloody golf. Our first game of the week was on the famous Oceanico Old Course. On arrival, you could see that the Oceanico group meant business. A quick shlurp, and a huge plate of burger and chips later, I found myself stood on an elevated first tee, bearing down on a what looked like a fairly straight forward, down hill, dog-leg par four. 10 minutes later after spending five of those minutes looking for my tee shot that had gone that far right I found it in the rough on the 2nd, I wrote a six on the scorecard. Not the greatest start to any golfing trip by any means. But we were off and running, and as they say, things can only get better.

The Old Course

With the help of my playing partners: chief organiser James, and the Old Course club professional Joaquim Sequeira, (who may I add looked more like a bandit from a spaghetti western than a club pro, smoking a record amount of cigarettes per hole) after a few nervy holes the golf improved, and we had a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon on what can only be described as a great little golf course. The Old Course, had everything you would want from a holiday round of golf. It was tough, don’t get me wrong, but course designer Frank Pennink had laid things out with a sense of ‘every golfer can enjoy this place’. Which when I glanced from fairway to tee, was clearly evident, people from every golfing walk of life were doing just that. Joaquim, who I resorted to calling Joe after many failed attempts of pronunciation, continued to be a true gent throughout our 18 holes in the Portuguese sun, and helped my round over variable golf considerably. 

They say power comes from your lower half. With Olive Oil's legs, George will always be struggling

8pm, and it was time to get a proper look at the Marina from the ground. The same buzz I had experienced earlier in the airport was evident once again. Chief organiser James had booked us into a restaurant just off the Marina, formally know as Ostra d’Ouro, also know as ‘Big Beers’. Famous for it’s... Yep, you guessed it, outrageously large beers, Ostra d’Ouro also turned out to be the same restaurant I had gone for my eigth birthday on a family holiday many moons ago. I vividly remember being looked after royally then, and in 12 years things hadn’t changed. Apart from the fact that now at the age of 21, I could sample some of the world famous beers. “six large beers please”, and when we meant large, they understood. Out came six litres of beer, I ordered crab and avocado to start, and Portuguese steak for main. Delightful. After a round of Irish coffee’s I left feeling as if I would never need to eat again. If you ever find yourself in Villamoura Marina, go to Big Beers, it’s every man’s dream, and they seem to understand the word ‘staunch’.

The rest of the night consisted of more beer and less of the awkward small talk between our group in a ‘Fairway To Heaven’ – esc rock n’ roll bar called the 19th Hole. A few horrendous Beatles covers later from the baldest cover band in Portugal, and day one was over. I proceeded to give meaning to the phrase: “I fell asleep before my head hit the pillow.”

Golf bedlam in action

My second helping of Oceanico Group golfing goodness, came in the form of the Victoria course, and this time the standard of golf on view was much more entertaining, mainly because I wasn’t playing. It was the second practice day of the week for the Portugal Masters and the atmosphere was starting to build. The course looked special to say the least. The set up, from clubhouse to 18th green at the Victoria course really is among the best I have ever seen. Everything to seemed to work, and it seemed a shame that the many tents and put up bars weren’t permanent features of the course. The beautiful weather, and being on ‘holiday’ may have had something to do with this, but for some reason I didn’t feel like I was at prestigious European Tour event. Everything seemed so relaxed, there was a laid back atmosphere about the place that I really did like. Unfortunately, this atmosphere was not captured on the TV, and as a sofa spectacle it fell into the bracket of ‘any other golf tournament’. Sad really, because trust me, on Tuesday morning it really didn’t seem that way. 

More importantly it had been over ten hours since I had eaten any seafood, on this trip – truly not acceptable. The gang met up after a morning of showing my shiny new access all areas media pass many more times than necessary. Rita Santos of the Oceanico Group, an unbelievably good host I must say, then whisked us away to yet another stunning setting – The Millennium Course. Sitting having ordered my pint of Super Bock (and this time the choice of seafood was prawns), I looked out over the course that lay out before me thinking these Oceanico fellas really seem to know what they’re doing. 

Unfortunately, we didn’t get to play the Millennium Course. It looked stunning so maybe if I ever find myself in the Algarve again with a spare four hours, that’s where I will be heading. During lunch I found myself uncharacteristically asking fairly sophisticated questions of Rita regarding everything Oceanico, and how Portuguese golf was fairing as a whole. To my amazement, I found that on average in the peak of summer, these courses shift round 240 golfers a day. Yes you heard me right, and if my mathematics serves me right that’s 1,680 golfers a week. Don’t even bother trying to work out how many, divots, pitch marks and spike marks that is. The Oceanico green keepers had their work cut out. In terms of the Portuguese golf as a whole; darn you Christiano Ronaldo for being stupidly good looking and being able to kick a football very, very hard.  

With the weather still treating us well, taking a little breather from the golf seemed necessary. The beach seemed the obvious alternative, resulting in a burnt nose and a boot full of sand in my boots, but a thoroughly enjoyable Tuesday afternoon in the Algarve.

Once again it was time to head out for some much anticipated food, but what I didn’t know whilst sipping the new found drink of the week (vodka, tonic and fresh lime juice), was that I was about to experience some of the finest food in the land. Moon Restaurante and Cocktail Lounge, give yourselves a pat on the back. The description on their website reads: “Truly innovative space with rigorous vintage strokes, the Moon is an alternative in good taste and welcoming, transforming and disseminating glamour” In English I think that translates to bloody good scran. That night we really did eat and drink like kings. Sat in a highly influential Chris sandwich, between Oceanico chairman Chris Howell and Oceanico CEO Chris Stilwell, whilst being serenaded by a saxophone player, true to form we tucked into seafood to start, and I followed it with some of the finest cooked steak on the planet. A couple of special mentions have to go the chap pouring endless amounts of wine, and to my surprise, chicken liver pate. What a revelation that stuff turned out to be. Helping the travel journalism gravy indeed.

George knew where his place was, ten steps behind everyone else

After a 6am start on Wednesday morning, I found myself stood on the 1st tee at the Victoria Course with Gregory Bourdy, posing for what turned out to be an extremely awkward photo, on my behalf at least. I was playing in the Portugal Masters Pro-Am, 3 opening pars thankfully steadied my initial nerves, but missing a 3 foot par putt on the fourth, wasn’t exactly what I had in mind. 
“Ahhh George! The last time you do that, yes?!” Bourdy did not look happy. Thankfully it was my last moment of putting disarray, but when he missed a 5 footer on the last for birdie, I really did have to hold my tongue from blurting out likewise remarks. 

"George your ball is over there."

Bourdy was a true gent throughout, and if you had told me I would have been discussing my favourite drummers with him and his coach down the 7th fairway, I would have laughed in your face. It’s true then, the French like rock n’ roll too. Olivier Leglise, Bourdy’s coach, met us from the 5th tee and from then on, every time I hit a decent drive, they both broke into an extraordinarily French sounding drum fill: “Yesss George! Good shot! Bap-bap-bap-pshhh!” It was quite
the site, trust me. Leglise left me with a note too, as a drummer he was shocked to hear that I had never seen the drum solo in ‘Get Ready’ by Rare Earth. He proceeding to write me a reminder to watch it as soon as I got of the course on the inside of a box of Pro V1’s, the juxtaposition was bloody marvellous, and had GolfPunk written all over it. Oh, and what a drum solo. 

Treesy does it

It was a morning to remember, the course as you’d imagine was in spectacular condition, and the rough, well that was like something I’d never seen before. You literally could not see what your ball until you were stood directly above it. When it came to playing out of it, you needed a spade. How these guys hit 5 and 4 irons out of the stuff I just could not understand, and seen as though Bourdy was never in it, it’s still a mystery.

The prize giving later that evening at the Tivoli Victoria Hotel, complete with cover band, and a handful of European Tour players, put the final nail in the coffin as to how far off the winning score our team actually came. No worries though, there was more seafood, free wine, I sat next to Eduardo Del Riva (who finished 3rd at the end of the week) at the table. As they say it’s the taking part that counts, and after all I got a free drum lesson of a European Tour coach, can’t be bad.

Amendoeira Faldo Course

Thursday morning had arrived at an alarmingly fast rate. Having had such perfect weather from the moment I arrived, I was surprised when I looked out over the Marina for one last time to find that it was covered in a Yorkshire like, thick fog. Surely there was to be no golf played in these conditions? Chief organiser James drove us across the Algarve to another of the Oceanico group’s multi-million pound set-ups, the newest edition to the Oceanico family, the Amendoeira Faldo Course. Last day blues had struck the group, and not being able to see your hand in front of your face wasn’t helping. As we reached the 5th tee, the fog lifted in a breath and it unveiled what turned out to be my favourite course of the week, no doubt. The sheer expanse of the place took me back, playing off white tees it was long and had some serious variety. It was also in much better nick (no pun intended) than the Old Course, and had the variety of Victoria. It seemed that Nick had done his homework, and despite a couple of mickey mouse par 3’s, had produced a truly quality golf course. 

After finishing with a steady par, we sat down for lunch in the beautiful picture-esc hotel and clubhouse. I sipped my final pint of Super Bock looking out over the huge course that lay out in front of me with a rise smile. The Oceanico Group announced earlier this year that three of their Algarve resorts are up for sale. Now, after experiencing the quality, the food, the level of service, the hospitality, and the courses I had played, if you had the money, you’d be a fool to at least not look into it. 

TAGS: Portugal Masters, Golf Holiday, Villamoura, Algarve, Travel, 2015, Lifestyle, Planet Golf, Europe