Four Lads In A Jumbo 2009- The Oceanico Portugal Golf Holiday
Four lads in a jumbo is back. To the uninitiated, “Four lads in a Jumbo” is meant to be a clever golfing version of the BBC’s “Four Men In a Boat” starring Dara (Ahhhh) O’Briain, Rory McGrath (Neanderthal looking guy) and Gryf Rhys Jones (no not your man in the knickers from Notting Hill, the guy from Alas Smith and Jones). In it they squash into a boat and negotiate some waterway of unearthly beauty with hilarious consequences. Our version, “Four Lads In a Jumbo” is based on the premise of a four guys jetting off in a a jumbo for a golfing holiday, uncovering some courses of unimaginable beauty at unbeatable prices, all again with hilarious consequences. Well kind of. When I say “four lads”, I mean myself and my mate Johnny, and when I say “jumbo” I mean a Ryanair sardine tin with the seats welded in the “upright” position.
This year we hit off for Portugal on a mission to discover the Oceancio courses. Ever since I saw the ad with Nick Faldo and Christy O’Connor chipping balls, I have been intrigued. The ad has Christy and Nick, (I mean Sir Nick) in a kind of “duelling banjo’s” scenario, only with wedges. Faldo goes first, pitching 20 or so balls onto a green about 50 yards away, each ball rolling out precisely to create a perfectly straight line of white dots. Then Christy chips his bucket. The camera does a close up of his balls rolling out; on the face of it they seem to be stopping in random order around the green, but then the camera pans out to reveal the words “not bad” spelled out by Christy’s Pro-V1’s. Bloody excellent I would say.
The Set Up
Oceanico itself is not a course. It is the name of the company that owns seven (or is it eight, I cant remember) courses in the Algarve region. We played four of them. The flagship course is Victoria, in Vilamoura, home of the Portugal Masters and for my money the best of them. The other course we played in Vilamoura was the “Old” course. The remaining two courses on our Oceanico adventure, namely the “O’Connor” and “Faldo” courses are situated at the Amendoeira resort about 35 minutes away from Vilamoura.
Ryanair fly direct from Dublin or Shannon to Faro. The experience is not pleasant, jockeying for position in queues, bags being checked for exact weights and then there’s the actual flight. Not to mention those Celtic Tiger buggers who have “priority boarding” sniggering down at you. Sitting in a Ryanair plane is like being David Blaine, bound upright in a strait jacket for two hours, but hey, it gets you there. As soon as you land, you try to put the flight out of your mind, gather up what shreds of dignity remain and walk away. But hand on, there’s one more kick in the arse. Sly Mike has decided golf clubs now cost €60 return and are now limited to 15Kg, over which an extortionate excess will be charged. I suppose the lesson here is to travel light. Maybe leave the fifth pair of beige slacks behind. The marina in Villamoura is like a beige slacks festival every night. It’s not pretty.
When you google “car hire” all the big players come up first. They have the dearest fares and the hidden excesses. We used a company well down the search hits page called “Yor Car”. The price they give is fully inclusive of all charges and you don’t pay until you get there. We booked one of the smallest kinds of car, a Seat Leon. When you exit the baggage reclaim in Faro, just walk left to the Café area where you will find all the reps from the teeny car hire companies sitting around drinking coffee. Our car cost about €120 all inclusive for the week (it’s cheaper to pay by cash) and when we signed a few autographs we were introduced to our charcoal Leon. We christened it “The Cowen-Mobile” because it wasn’t the quickest “going-forward”. And like Mr Cowen, this rental car wasn’t in pristine condition by any means, it had been in more minor scrapes than Steve Collins, but you know what, we loved that. Yor Car aren’t bothered about charging customers exorbitant fees for a scratch here or a bump there. That takes away a whole heap of rental car driving pressure straight away. It may have had the well scuffed up look, and needed a headlamp bulb, which in fairness the rep stuck in after his coffee under a street light, but it went. The deal with the petrol is you get the tank half full and leave it back half full, which again is fair. When you drop the car back you stick the keys under the visor and walk away. There’s no guy in a suit with a clip board marking X’s in a schematic of a car (at the mere notion of a scratch) and rubbing his hands with glee. I would use Yor Car again tomorrow; I might pay a few quid extra for a better class of car though.
The best job is to bring your Sat-Nav with you to Portugal. If you have a sat-nav on your phone and intend using it on your trip remember a couple of things. Firstly you may need to download the mapping of Portugal onto your device from a disk on online store. You need usually need a licence to use the sat-nav in Portugal. Nokia have a 7 day free licence which you can access through their web page or you can pay a €1 daily fee to use the service while abroad. Nokia users should also bear in mind that to search a destination on a Sat Phone, the phone must access the internet. It all adds up. I recommend getting a good old fashioned map of the area. The signage in Portugal is plentiful but utterly confusing. They seem to have an aversion to putting signs on T-junctions. Even though we both had sat-nav on our phones, we ended up getting a map and relying on that.
Getting To The Courses
The majority of the Oceanico courses are dotted around the outskirts of Vilamoura, though the road signage does its level best again to fool you. Okay, the sign may say “Campo do Golfes”, but the only problem is it doesn’t say which bloomin’ Golfes you’re heading for. They might only be five or ten minutes away, but that can easily turn into 25 if you’re not heading in the right direction. My advice here is to do a bit of planning on google maps, and plot the route from your hotel to the desired course.
Getting to the Amendoeira resort is quite simple. It’s 35 kms from Vilamoura and basically from the town you head for the A22 motorway. You get onto the A22 heading for Portimao/Lagoa direction. You then take the number 8 exit, signposted Algoz. When you take this exit, you get a great view of the Oceanico Amendoeira resort, the courses and the fantastic clubhouse. Having taken the exit and seen the courses in the distance, just follow the sign for Silves to bring you to the entrance.
A Good Base and Where To Stay
Most golfers base themselves in Vilamoura. It’s a surprisingly big town, but has one main gathering point, the marina. There are loads of hotels by the marina but they are priced accordingly. We stayed in the Aparthotel do Golfe which is situated away from the Marina, right beside the Old Course. For €20 quid a night, we had our own studio apartment, which was spacious, spotlessly clean and modern.
Pic: The Marina in Vilamoura.
The Aparthotel do Golfes hotel is ranked near the top of the Trip Advisor listing and is the choice of everyone “in the know”. We booked over the internet (use 1800hotels.com or booking.com) having googled the name and looked through the deals. The hotel is ideal for all the Vilamoura courses and a taxi into the Marina is about €5 each way.
Where To Go In Vilamoura
Along the Marina strip, there are loads of restaurants and bars. Food is reasonably priced and menu’s displayed outside by all. For a treat I recommend the Dom Miguel restaurant, it’s not on the main strip, but literally two minutes walk away. Pic: Aparthotel do Golfe, Vilamoura
The food there is a little more expensive than elsewhere, but still far cheaper than Irish prices.
For drinks the main pub is the Irish Cabin, a super pub of sorts, with live music every night. Further down is O’Neills, a small but busy hostelry. The pub I enjoyed most was Rui’s Bar, just behind the Cabin. The resident musician there is a guy called Ciaran Fox from Shannon. During the main season he has his house band and mixes songs with humour.
Pic: Vilamoura Marina at Night. He has that rare talent of engaging instantly with all the people, moulding with ease a homely atmosphere of friends having a drink and a sing-song. Ciaran also has a great gimmick of asking the audience to shout up requests for songs with the sole aim of immediately ridiculing the responses. On one occasion where he asked for requests, one guy shouted up, ”Midnight In Moscow”. Fox turned to him, glanced at his watch and said “I’m not 100% sure, but I’ll take your word for it!” Oh Yes, one last thing on this. In Portugal they like to drink pints of “Super Bock”. If you’re offered any, politely decline. Its Probably the worst lager in the world! We should have figured that out by the silly name, before we drank several units.
A pic of Johnny Lydon, Pelle Edberg and Johan Edfors and me after about a dozen “Boks”, each and every one of which we regretted the following day. As for the boys Edberg and Edfors didn’t break par for weeks after and vowed never to drink with Irish lads again.
Video: Ciaran Fox in Action in Rui’s Bar, Vilamoura
It really bugs me when people go on about “rack rates” in golf courses. They are supposedly the ‘walk in off the street’ green fees for a course. They don’t really apply when you’re travelling abroad to play off- you usually have the golf organized beforehand. And that’s really the way Oceanico operate. If you log onto www.oceanicogolf.com you will find all the packages and special offers on the homepage. I don’t want to go into too much detail with prices, because I want this review to stay relevant over time, but at time of writing there are offers there including four rounds of golf on the best courses, hotel accommodation, transfers from Vilamoura to the courses and airport all for under €600. That’s as cheap as chips. If you did add up the “rack rates” alone for the four golf courses, you wouldn’t have much change without even thinking of accommodation! My advice is to bang off an e-mail to Oceanico and they will send you loads of options all priced and broken down clearly.
The Vilamoura Courses
The Old Course
We played the old course in the middle of our itinerary but I advise you to play it first. The Old Course is literally yards from the Hotel do Golfe and winds its way through a forest of umbrella pines. Opened in 1969 it is one of oldest courses in the region. An avid golfer, who appreciates good course layouts can immediately see how this course, would, in the past, have required all the shots. Unfortunately with today’s ballistic weaponry, a long player can unlock all the defences except for maybe the umbrella pines, the last soldiers of the resistance left to defend the old lady. But that’s not say they don’t claim the odd victory in the war.
The condition of the course is as you would expect from Oceanico, immaculate. The greens are like small little dartboards, reasonably fast, and as Spandau Ballet sang “So True”. The truth is however, the Old Course is now more a warm-up before the big games at Victoria, Faldo and O’Connor. It’s kind of like the Minor game before the All-Ireland Senior final, very enjoyable at the time, but you will look back in a few years and only remember the Seniors. Having said that, I do remember the sixth hole. A 233 yard par-3 with about a 40 yard drop that is just impossible to club. Johnny hit the sweetest hybrid in there, it touched the outer atmosphere before hammering back to Earth about six foot from the pin. Birdie. Though the round ends with a pretty featureless hole, all in all, the Old Course was an enjoyable jaunt, the only pity is that modern drivers are able to smash the Old Course’s locks that guard the score. Now if they took your driver off you going in the gate, it would have been a different story entirely.
The post mortem was carried out in the clubhouse which is small and quaint, with very reasonably priced food. I do however recall that a pint of beer was around €5, way more expensive than anywhere else we went. Did the Old Course give me a warm fuzzy glow? Maybe not, but it’s always warm and the umbrella pines are substitute aplenty for warm fuzz.
The Victoria Course
At the Portugal Masters in 2009, Lee Westwood’s winning score for four rounds was 23 under. However if you think for even a milli-second that this fact makes this course in any way easy, you are sadly mistaken. Unless of course you can drive the ball 320 yards arrow straight and take an average of 26 putts a round. Then it’s easy. If I recall correctly, and I’m cutting and pasting here, Westwood hit every fairway on the final day and 87% of the greens in regulation overall.
Pic: With Lee Westwood after his Portugal Masters win on the Victoria Course
The Victoria course is excellent in so many ways. Though not set in terribly undulating terrain there are subtle rolls on the fairways and hollows and run-offs in front of and around most greens. Not to mention water. If you’re not playing the kind of target golf the pros do, be sure to bring the full compliment of wedges as they will be needed. Also of all four courses we played, the rough was most severe in Victoria. And it is tough to hit out of that raw broccoli they call “rough” in Portugal. Lucky that day, I happened to be blessed by the Greek God of chipping- “Upandoonis”, and I made more saves than Shay Given and Davy Fitzgerald combined. Nice!
The last three holes at Victoria are real TV drama holes, not unlike Sawgrass. The 16th is a 209 yard par 3, which is visually very deceptive. The 17th is a risk reward 593 yard par five. If you want to go for the green in two you need a serious carry off the tee. But that would be too easy so they stuck in a whole pile of water just to make it interesting. If you do manage the drive and decide to go for it in two, remember that the green is a narrow target, protected by water on the front and on the right with trees and even more broccoli and trees behind. Water also plays a huge part in the 18th (pictured) ,a 465 yard par four. It is what the Portuguese might call a “beach” of all hole; water down the left and sand down the right off the tee, before you again have to skirt the water with the approach. If you make par there, it’s more than Padraig Harrington could do, and he is good.
Video: Victoria Course
The Amendoeira Courses
Video: Amendoeira Clubhouse Tour & O’Connor Course
Before I tell you about the courses in Amendoeira, let me mention the facilities that surround them, for these are what make the whole experience unforgettable. The Amendoeira resort is basically a small village under construction. Lots of lovely apartments flank the closing holes of the O’Connor course, with a clubhouse of biblical proportions standing at the highest point on the site. You spin down one little road and it brings you to a beautiful par-3 course, reminiscent of Augusta and fully floodlit. You branch down another road and it brings you to a fitness centre with a gym, various courts, astroturf and grass pitches and training facilities. I don’t think there is any sport that’s not catered for on the site, there is even two international bowls greens adjacent to the clubhouse, one flat and one crowned.
Padraig Harrington representing Ireland at the Opening of The Academy Par-3 Course
On entry to the site you drive up the hill to the clubhouse where you will be greeted by a staff member who will take your clubs from you. The next time you see them they will be snugly attached to a buggy equipped with ice cold water, towels, tees and accessories. With a half hour to go before your tee time, you can spin up to the practice ground, which is the best I have ever seen. The whole layout is fantastic, the bays are elevated, you hit down to defined yardages on mini greens below, the trajectory of the ball crystal clear against the ever blue sky. On the left hand side of the range are half a dozen raised pitching greens with a large chipping green capping it all off. The Callaway fitting centre overlooks the entire range, where those requiring expert fitting and trackman analysis can get well and truly sorted.
The Irish Heavyweights (Ahem) vs Team GB at The Academy Grand Opening.
The O’Connor Course
From the clubhouse you drive past the massive bronze statues of either Christy Junior or Sir Nick, dependant on which course you are playing. It seems there may have been a trade off between the two when it came to deciding who was going to get which area of land to work with. In the end Nick got the more undulating and possibly more interesting golfing terrain whilst Christy got the flat land, but the land that flanks the houses and runs right up to the clubhouse.
If you’ve come to the O’Connor course for the ultimate golfing examination, you’re on the wrong wavelength here. This is holiday golf. Christy wants you to have fun. He has left the fairways as wide as the fields in Mitchelstown and the greens as big as in St. Andrews. There are some deft little touches in bunker placement and tiering on the greens that might add a shot or two but nothing too tricky. If the O’Connor course were a radio ad, it would be bright, short, clean and crisp; there would be some terms and conditions, but no nasty shocks. My favourite hole is the 15th, which measures 404 metres from the back tees and demands a long accurate tee shot as the fairway is flanked on both sides by water. On a course that is otherwise generous off the tee, the tee shot at 15th can give you the hee-bee-gee-bee’s. The second shot will need a solid long iron to carry the scrub and reach the green. If you manage a par there, e-mail me. I will be impressed. The 18th is a nice hole too, demanding a right to left tee shot to leave you in a position to reach the devilishly tiered green which sits below the clubhouse. Every punter in the resort will watch you crash and burn here if you’re not careful. It’s a bit like “Gladiator” on that 18th!
The Faldo Course
Where Christy wanted to give you a gentle examination, Nick is more into interrogation. The Faldo course is definitely the tougher test of the two Amendoeira courses and in my opinion, shades it for quality. Designed with a kind of desert feel, tee shots need greater precision, it plays longer, there are more elevation changes and crucially the first time you play it, it may well get the better of you. That’s a pity for holiday golfers who might only get one shot at it, because this course will have you dying to turn the buggy around and do it all over again straight after you play. Its one of those tracks where course management and strategy are required, so bombers beware. My favourite hole was the 670 yard par five 13th; it wouldn’t be reachable in two if it was on the moon. The back nine is definitely hillier and that little bit harder to score on but overall the Faldo course is another notch on his bedpost of Sir Nick’s jobs well done.
Another nice touch is the way the staff clean your clubs after the round, so that when you collect them out front afterwards, you can actually see the grooves on your irons for the first time since you bought them.
Pic: Left to Right- Doc, Gerry Fagan and Johnny. It was Gerry’s idea to loiter outside the Ladies!
Finally, thanks to our contact Ollie Woods who looked after us during our stay and to Oceanico owner Gerry Fagan who treated us like prodigal sons when we snuck into the clubhouse after the Portugal Masters. Gerry is an authority on all things golf and relating to “hips”. Yes “hips”, and don’t even get me started on that one! Anyway before we left we awarded both Ollie and Gerry the highest distinction Mayo can bestow- the “The Order Of The Reek”.