IntroI’ve always envied those golf writers who jet set around the world and write flowery words about courses with sweeping dunes and rolling hills. To be honest they put me to sleep faster than watching a puddle evaporate.
Imagine my surprise then when I was offered the opportunity to review a golf course in a different country. I accepted because I was curious. Nobody from Ireland had been to the course before and that made me feel like a trail blazer of sorts so I agreed to it. I was heading for Lithuania, in particular to the V Golf Club at Le Meridien Hotel just outside Vilnius. I was tagging on the coattails of the “Shannon Development Golf Society” the first Irish group of its kind to visit the venue.
Getting ThereFrom Ireland there are flights to Vilnius from Cork and Dublin every day with three airlines Ryanair, Aer Lingus and a Hungarian carrier called Wizzair. The Wizzair return flight I took was from Cork and cost around €90, with the golf bag about €150. How cheap is that! And if you’re not exactly inspired by the name “Wizzair” let me assure you, our plane was so new the wrapper was literally still on some of the seats! It’s a three hour flight and the service was excellent. It’s Ryanair, just a lot less manic!
Sport In LithuaniaGolf in Lithuania is in it’s infancy. The biggest sport in the country is basketball and the national hero is Arvydas Sabonis. At seven foot three inches Sabonis has won an Olympic gold medal with Russia back in the day, played in the NBA with Portland Trailblazers and though now retired, remains a legend in Lithuania!
Pic: Sabonis, kindof of like Jonah Lomu with a basketball
The Lithuanians also love their strongmen. The BBC usually show the world strongman around Christmas and Žydrūnas Savickas is a two time champion, winning in 2009 and 2010. Mention either of those two guys and you’ll fit right in!
Pic: Savickas works changing tyres at a garage in Vilnius. He’s fast!
Landing In Vilnius. What Then?Dispelling Myths:
Like a true Irishman I hadn’t a clue what to expect on landing in the city of Vilnius. The few imagines I had in my head were of grey concrete buildings, ladas, a man in a black leather jacket grabbing wallets, and maybe shivering with cold while queuing for a queue!
As usual I was completely wrong.
As you exit Vilnius airport and look back it has all the feel of the outside of a train station in Dublin or London. It’s bustling with people, humming with audis, mercs and Toyota cars and taxis, just really alive and vibrant. The guy in the black leather jacket just isn’t there, and most probably never even existed.
Le Meridien HotelThe Meridien Hotel complex is about 20 kilometres outside the city. I’ll let you check out their facilities and website but as a novice, I’ll point out the things that caught my eye. First and foremost the hotel is huge, it‘s a five star, set on 350 acres including an impressive lake which surrounds the facility.
Everything inside is new modern and clean and all the staff speak perfect English. Apart from the golf facilities, the cool things available are a pool with various types of saunas, a great gym, rowing boats and pedallos for guests to explore the lake, running and hiking tracks, two different surfaces of tennis courts and a volleyball court.
The food in the hotel and in the golf bar is top class. I may have worked as a food safety consultant in another life but I’m no food critic. I do however know my way around a chicken club sandwich and tender steak and all the food I ate at the hotel was top notch and very reasonably priced.
There’s also the Bora Bora restaurant down at the Lake which is pretty nifty at night.
There’s probably many more facilities available but they caught my eye. The nice thing about the hotel is that it’s secluded and away from the City, but runs a complimentary shuttle bus in and out of Vilnius which is invaluable. As a man who has done a lot of walking following nights out, it gives great peace of mind knowing that the hotel has a deal with all the local taxis. When you’re finished your meal or drinks or whatever else in the City, you ring the hotel and the taxi comes to get you. The prices are fixed. A taxi for four costs 65 Litas (there is 4.35 of these to 1euro), that’s about €15 and divided by four people, that’s less than 4 quid each. Le Meridien are soon to announce running a late bus back to the hotel for groups and societies which will also be invaluable. The journey back takes approx. 15 minutes.
The V Golf Club is part of the Le Meridien Hotel complex and the reason for my visit.
The V Club Golf Club CharactersEvery great venue needs characters and the V Golf Club has two!
Folke Nyberg: Folke Nyberg is the Director of Golf at the V Club and is a legend in Sweden, a country that has produced some of the great players in the game. In the golf industry he is to establishing golf courses what Butch Harmon is to teaching. With a big smile and an even bigger cigar, Folke is a cuddly bear with an easy demeanour.
When it comes to standards however, he has a reputation for demanding the best from any project he is involved with.
Folke and his brother Peter built Kungsangen golf course near Stockholm with their own hands and hosted the Scandinavian Masters on the European Tour four times between 1998 and 2005. His address book is a veritable A to Z of every player, coach and character in the golf world. He even has a connection with Graeme McDowell; in 2002 Folke gave gave GMac, then still in college in Alabama, a wild card invite to the Scandinavian Masters. The young McDowell flew over just in time and without a practice or Pro-Am round blitzed the field and won the tournament! When GMac won his US Open at Pebble Beach in 2010 he emailed Folke the very next say to say thanks for the start!
Yiannis Tsioukanis: Born in Greece and with a surname the world spelling champion would mess up, Yiannis is actually more Aussie than Alf Stewart from Home and Away! Yiannis joins Folke as the Golf Operations Manager and the brains behind the smooth running V Golf Club. When he’s not out giving lessons, he’s in the office with his shoulder to the wheel of this burgeoning golf destination.
Yiannis, Doc and Folke: The lads made the pain of watching Ireland get hammered by Spain in Euro 2012 more bearable!
The V Golf ClubAt the outset I have to say that when I rate a golf course it’s not just the course I take into account. Purists will say I’m wrong, but purists don’t spend the amount of time on the practice range that I do!
Pic: This is just one half of the bays, I couldn’t fit the 18 into the picture!
I would say that the practice facilities at the V Golf Club in Vilnius are among the top two I personally have ever seen. I rate the Oceanico driving range in Amendoeira Portugal as the other by the way, but they are both fantastic.
The V Golf Club has 18 spanking new covered bays, a tightly mown hitting area on front and 80% compression practice balls. Behind the range there’s a tidy chipping green and a putting green that matches exactly the speed out on the championship course.
For beginners there’s a little 9 hole pitch and putt course and another driving range down at the lake, equipped with no less than floating balls!
The golfing complex cost in the region of €9 million and was opened in 2009 so when you take account that money goes further in Lithuania, it gives you a pretty good feeling of the quality of track you are dealing with here. I would have no hesitation in advising any national amateur team to base themselves at the V Golf Club for a training week. They demand excellence and they would not be disappointed here.
The Golfing Season
The season in Lithuania is April until October. I visited in mid June where the temperature averaged around 25 celcius. In the four days I spent there we had one rain shower. Shorts and tee shirts and factor 30 sunblock and you are good to go!
The Championship Course
The course at the V Golf Club is the only USGA regulation track in the Baltic States and has the mixed feeling of a Floridian and Swedish layout with trees and water and more dog legs than at the pound! The course is unique in that it was reclaimed from marshland, the holes were dug out and built up with stone and sand, meaning that water was on tap if you’ll excuse the pun. What you get is beautiful firm well drained fairways lined with water on pretty much every hole; it’s amazing if also a little scary for the higher handicapper.
Pic: An overview of the beautiful V Golf Club at Le Meridien, Vilnius.
There’s a choice of three tees, yellow being the easiest, black the toughest, and white the average. Off the forward yellow tees it’s all about course management and straight hitting. Accuracy is more important than power. Dog legs abound and my favourite was the double dog leg 16th hole. Players who work the ball like Bubba will thrive here. On some tees like the 18th, you will need an exacting iron or hybrid to get into position, on other’s it’s a flat out driver!
The second time I played from the forward tees I played to my handicap and so will you. I stayed for four days and played the first two rounds off the forward tees, the next off white pots and the final round off the back blacks. It’s a different course off each but one which you can learn!
Obviously golf is only in its infancy in Lithuania, as I mentioned everybody plays or watches basketball so the only patrons on the golf course are visiting golfers. That means the course is not stressed for time, and the lack of traffic means the fairways and greens are flawless.
For all its difficulty getting onto them, the greens are for the most part flat and true. A good ten footer started on the right line will be rewarded.
So would the V Golf Club for instance have the infrastructure, the facilities and the course to host a European Tour event? Absolutely, it could host one tomorrow and the touring professionals would love it. The winning score after four days off the back tees would be eight under and Lee Westwood would take the title! If the Senior’s Tour came, someone like Bernhard Langer might win, by carefully plotting his way around.
Pic: My fourball, Ger, John versus Connie and Doc! I think my hand is my pocket to check if I have any golf balls left.
If I was to level any criticism at the V Golf Club course it’s that higher handicappers and novices are going to find it tough and lose some balls here. There are ponds galore, loads of trees and marshland hazards line almost every fairway; when your ball goes in, it’s goodnight Irene, you most likely won’t be seeing it again. Because the course demands you have to commit to your shots to get into position, you do tend to lose a few balls. Of course for straight hitters this just adds to the challenge but if you are a higher handicapper who likes to play army golf (left right left right) bring a few extra old balls in your bag, just in case!
The other thing notable by its absence is a golf clubhouse where members and golfers can grow a club with the atmosphere and funds that brings but plans do exist for one and in the meantime a fine golf reception, lockers and bar are located back at the hotel.
It’s a golf buggy course. The first tee is the guts of a kilometre from the golf reception and because the course is so sprawling there are sizeable distances between greens and tee boxes.
Designer Bob Hunt did a super job on this course and with a green fee of between €40 and €45 it’s worth every penny. Compared to parkland courses in Ireland The V Golf Club would easily rate amongst the top 20 in my opinion and would have double the green fee.
So What To Do After The GolfYou Speaka The English??
The City of Vilnius
Of course being Irish, when I say City, I of course mean the bars, restaurants and clubs in Vilnius! I’m not one for looking around big old churches or wrought iron statues (and there’s plenty of that if you are into it); I’m a golfer and when I’m not working I’m looking for food and fun.
Pic: The Kitchen comes highly recommeded
The streets of old Vilnius are, ironically enough, young and buzzing. The first evening I went in there was a concert in the park, people playing beach volleyball and even a hot air balloon taking off!
There was the most amazing eating experience I ever see too when a table with about 20 guests buckled in, was hoisted up a couple of hundred feet into the air for the night!
I hadn’t any of the local currency, Litas, but there are bank machines everywhere that take your laser card or credit card. There’s really no need to get any Litas in the bank before you travel.
Pic: Members of the Shannon Development Golf Society in Vilnius. They all look happy. And wouldn’t you after a steak dinner with wine for 20 euros!
In Vilnius I went with the group to the old quarter and to a restaurant called “Kitchen”. It was brilliant! So good in fact that it was the restaurant they chose to go back to on the final night. For around €20 you can have a three course steak meal including copious amounts of wine or beer.
Pic: Shvit-ree-oos! The casue of, and solution to all life’s problems!
There are loads of restaurants and bars in the City. The beers are great, about €1 for a beer! The first pub I went into was full of student types, one girl sitting at the bar was on a laptop using the free wifi. Yes, this is Lithuania! She actually let me check me my email messages and friended me on facebook which was really cool. The local beer is Sytryus pronounced “Shvit-ree-oos”, it just won some international top beer award!
In ConclusionIn conclusion I must say hand on heart that Lithuania is not at all what I expected and I mean that in a most positive way. I know that I will be back to Le Meridien and the V Golf Club either with a group or with my family in the near future. The facilities are there, the golf is there, the quality is there. All at a fraction of the cost of other destinations. My golf game may only have been good enough to manage a “Pass” on the V Golf Course, but the package as a whole is a memorable A+.
Useful Links:The Le Meridien Hotelwww.lemeridienvilnius.com/
The V Golf Club www.thevgolfclub.com/en/golf
The Kitchen restaurant on tripadvisor http://www.tripadvisor.com/Restaurant_Review-g274951-d2295604-Reviews-Kitchen-Vilnius_Vilnius_County.html
ThanksMy thanks to everyone at the hotel and V Golf Club especially Folke and Yiannis. Thanks to Titotas, Phil and Tom the young guns at the course, Patrick in marketing and nice to meet you Ben, Gary and Violetta and Andrius at the bar! Thanks also to the Shannon Development Golf Society and Kevin O’Loughlin in particular for allowing me to tag on to their trip.
The Shannon gang, back from left to right: Donal, Connie the bandit, Paul, Siobhan, Ger the match organizer, Bruce Almighty, Ina, Paul strong grip, Kevin dont drink with him, Gerry Late Late Lowe, Tom from my village Cong and John. Front Row: Kieran, Pat with the mini Ryder Cup I helped win and Brendan.