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.
February 19, 2010