The Algarve is a European golfing Mecca and Vilamoura is at its heart, overlooking the wonderful beaches that attract so many holidaymakers. A vibrant town, Vilamoura has embraced golf since the late 1960s when the Vilamoura Old course opened.
Heading east out of the town towards Quarteira is the 27-hole Vila Sol complex. The original course was designed by Donald Steel and opened for play in 1991 and the two main 9-hole loops are now called Prime and Challenge. The Vila Sol course is probably not as well known as the handful that surround Vilamoura itself, but this shouldn't be put down to any lack of quality. Much like the Vilamoura Old course - the other true championship layout in this area - Steel created Vila Sol without the need for excessive contouring or the creation of unnatural hazards. The course fits beautifully into the original undulating landscape and takes full advantage of the umbrella pine, fig and cork trees, which frame every fairway, making the golfer's target seem even narrower.
Players of all abilities will find Vila Sol a wonderful challenge. The fairways are always beautifully maintained and manicured and the many sand and water hazards are expertly placed to catch the ill-thought-out or poorly executed shot. The greens are true and generally very quick.
From the very start, Vila Sol provides a perfect indication of the tests to come as the layout opens with three par fours, all in excess of 380 metres. The third of these is the SI1 and plays uphill to a dogleg left and then on again to a left-to-right sloping green protected by a steep bank and trees all around, including the front left side of the green. A par here will be a very good score.
Other notable holes on Vila Sol's front nine are the 6th, 7th and 8th. The 6th is a long downhill par five with a large lake protecting the left half of the fairway. The uphill approach is to a small, well bunkered green. The 7th is a long, downhill par three back over the lake to a large, sloping green. Over-clubbing here is common, leaving a testing, fast putt back towards the lake. Finally, the 8th is a classic park-like par five, gently doglegging right with a narrow stream running in front of the green and back down the left of the fairway.
The back nine at Vila Sol is slightly shorter but no less tough due to the narrowness of the fairways, the superbly placed hazards and the small, testing greens. The pick of the Vila Sol back nine holes are the 10th, 13th, 14th, 17th and 18th. The 10th is a cracking par four, slightly downhill and playing to a large, well bunkered green. The 13th, on paper an innocuous-sounding par three, is in reality a tough challenge as it plays across a valley to a large, sloping green that makes club selection vital and can still leave a difficult and long first putt.
The 14th is a straight par five, playing uphill from the tee. Only the longest of drives will avoid a blind second shot over the brow of the hill. Check your distances carefully because two lakes protect the green front and left. The 17th is a perfect 'risk and reward' hole. It's a short par four that plays downhill to the narrowest of fairways. The sensible shot will be a mid-iron from the tee leaving a short iron approach, though a good straight drive could well find the putting surface or, at worst, a short chip. As befits a course of this class, the 18th is a wonderful par four finale.
Vila Sol played host to the Portuguese Open in 1992 and 1993 and it's undeniably a solid course that challenges and rewards at every turn. Donald Steel added nine new holes in 2000 and this loop, called the Prestige, is also worth playing.
I played Vila Sol Prime and Challenge the same week I played San Lorenzo several years ago. At the time I had not played many of the world’s top golf courses, and I was not as consistent a player as I am now. I was longer off the tee but did not control the ball as well with the driver down to 5 iron. The short game is about the same. I played both San Lorenzo and Vila Sol with rental clubs, but the rental set I had at Vila Sol was not good, resulting in a high score from the back tees of 6771 yards. Me and those rental clubs decided to bring the many trees on the course into play on several holes. What’s the joke they say when you have a bad day of golf? “at least I got to see more of the golf course.”
I thought San Lorenzo was better than Vila Sol because I liked most of the routing at San Lorenzo and the way it incorporated water as a means of defense on several holes. The views at San Lorenzo of the estuary, beach and ocean as well as a bird habitat were also good, but really do not factor into my rating. Although I criticized San Lorenzo for its lack of bunkers, I thought Vila Sol was missing about 30-40 bunkers that would improve the golf course. The primary defense at Vila Sol are the trees. The other negative I would say about Vila Sol is that it feels too straight. While there are perhaps five holes that dogleg, two of the holes dogleg too much such as five and ten, although perhaps I am blaming poor hole design for my inability to control my rental clubs.
The course is primarily flat with a few areas that are raised. There really is no inspiration provided by views of the surrounding landscape other than the various types of trees, which I thought were too many or the thicker groupings of trees were in the wrong spots. As an example, the third hole, a par 4 of 421/407 has two trees nearer the green that pinch in too much.
The greens are a bit boring partly due to the lack of bunkers or bunkers that do not provide adequate defense such as on the fourth hole, a long par 3 of 208/177 where they are two bunkers left but the first one is well short of the green and the second one is not close enough to the green. Too many of the holes only have a single bunker or none at all at the green site or fairway.
Among the holes I favored were eight, a 546/528 par 5 with trees lining both sides and a creek that goes all the way down the left side and then cuts back in front of the green. I liked nine, a short par 4 of 319/311 that big hitters can try to drive. I liked it because it was the rare green that had three bunkers so perhaps on another course it would not have been favored. The fourteenth, a par 5 of 500/473 had a nice three-tiered green on it. Seventeen and eighteen, back to back par 4’s of similar length 404/383 were above average only because the gentle doglegs on both holes were better conceived.
Obviously, when Donald Steel was awarded the design, I believe it was likely he was given a certain amount of land to build the golf course, reserving other land for housing which has been built that eats into the course in four-five areas. Nine additional holes were later built which makes one wonder whether Mr. Steel could have built a much better course if he had been given all of the land on which to build a single course. Maybe he was and this is still the result, but for me the course is too short, too straight, poorly designed on a few holes and without primary defenses of bunkering to challenge the very good players.
This is a decent resort course and worth playing if you are vacationing in the area or have a home there. It is definitely not one you would go out of your way to play, unless you have a bucket list of playing courses that have hosted an European tour event.
Vila Sol was in reasonable condition last weekend, and an ok venue for a society outing, but a very typical resort course where it's hard to lose a golf ball in a worthy, but ultimately unsuccessful, attempt to keep up pace of play.