Pinhal Vilamoura (Algarve) – Review

There are five courses in the Dom Pedro Golf offering at Vilamoura (Old Course, Pinhal, Laguna, Millennium and Victoria). Pinhal was designed by Frank Pennick and opened in 1976 and refined by RTJ Sr in 1985. After a warmup on its excellent practice facilities, Pinhal starts with one of best holes on the course, a straight par five with a relatively open and inviting tee shot and approach down a valley and back up to an elevated green with the signature Atlantic pines all around, which are a feature of the entire course. The par four 2nd and par five 3rd holes weave through the pines with flat and twisting fairways reminiscent of Harbour Town in that the threat of being blocked out is real if the fairway is missed in the wrong place.

The 4th and 5th are in a little pocket of undulating land across a quaint residential area and are two good holes, the 4th in particular – a downhill dogleg left par four with a pond short right of green, potentially also in play off the tee if downwind, but if into the wind a precise tee shot is required to find the right position on the fairway. The 5th is a slightly downhill par three with three bunkers around the green. Back across the road, the 6th is a flat par four with no bunkers in play off the tee but plays tough into the prevailing wind, favouring a draw to avoid any tree trouble. The 7th is a bit more open and doglegs to the right with a runout affecting drives too straight and with really just one of the two bunkers in play around the green.

The 8th is one of the signature par threes in all of Vilamoura, over a pond and bunker to a large diagonal green, a hole that reminded me of the 11th at Mount Juliet. The 9th is an undulating par four with a bunker cutting in on right side of the fairway forcing you left and three dangerous bunkers at the green.

The 10th and 11th are par fours that dogleg in opposing directions, the 10th a great hole with a blind tee shot up over a hill, which if on the right line will leave just a flick back down the hill to the green, although the approach is not easy as the green is elevated and very narrow, therefore missing it in a bunker or on the slopes around will leave a difficult up and down. The 11th is a very sharp dogleg left with a pot bunker at the corner and a runout to trees in reach on the far side, so the tee shot needs to be well placed for a short iron to the green. The 12th is a solid par three with bunkers all around and a steep drop off to the right that must be avoided.

The great start to Pinhal’s back nine is enhanced further by the next three holes. The 13th is a tough uphill par five that evokes the 8th at Augusta owing to its demanding tee shot into the upslope and second shot played blind up and over the hill before flattening out in the approach to the green. Whilst the 14th is the shortest of the par threes, two tall trees in front of the slightly elevated green provide a bit of intimidation. The par four 15th is not unlike the 4th in that it is a downhill tee shot tightly framed by the pines that does not necessarily ask of the driver, in this case a creek cuts across the fairway and a tree short of the green forces a tee shot laid back to avoid being too close it to complicate the approach shot. By this point you should be sold on the quality of Pinhal and the variety of its holes and shotmaking required.

The 16th is a more straightforward flat and shortish par four with one of the wider fairways on the course. The 17th was the only hole that I would have any element of complaint with. As a par five it is quite inventive use of a tight space of land, doglegging sharply to the right around the 11th, which is out of bounds to prevent anyone taking a short route to the green, but you are forced to leave driver in the bag unless you want to risk cutting the corner and not finishing up O.B. or in the pines. From the fairway it is a solid hole, not too narrow but with plenty of bunker trouble around the green. The 18th is a great finishing hole, a par four curving to the left up and over the same hill that features on the 10th. The approach sweeps downhill to an elevated green complex that is well guarded, in particular by the small traps in the left-centre .

Overall a great mix of opposites, the challenging and inviting, flat and undulating, short and long, left and right, with the Atlantic pines cheering you on the whole way around.

Pick of the holes: Par 3 – 8th; Par 4s – 4th, 18th; Par 5 – 1st.

(Photo – 15th)

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Pine Cliffs (Algarve) – Review

On 26 March 2018 we played the cheeky nine hole par 32 course at Pine Cliffs as a sneaky warm-up for a few days of golf at Villamoura on Portugal’s Algarve coast. I write this from the Vila Gale Hotel, which is basically a construction site at the moment and I cannot hear myself think, but I can at least make the point that this course is perfect to get you into the rhythm if you are on a golf tour in these parts.

Clank Clank Clank Clank, was the noise on the tee of the 295-yard downhill par four 1st hole as we all took out driver and went for it. There is some bunker trouble around and a false fronted green, but really if you don’t leave yourself a birdie putt here you should be at home hammering a nail into something. If the 2nd is a bit more tricky, a 160 yard downhill par three with bunkers everywhere, the 3rd is an absolute brute. Whilst it measures just 350 yards on the card, it is an uphill sharp dogleg left requiring the tee shot to be thread through a narrow avenue of trees and to somehow avoid the bunker on the right. Find the fairway here with a clear line to the green and you have done very well. The work is not done though because the approach is guarded by more bunkers and no-go vegetation zones around the green.

The par three 4th plays about 145 yards slightly uphill with bunkers again the main defence around what is quite a long green. The 435 yard 5th is indexed as harder than the 3rd on the card, but I thought the tee shot on the 3rd was more uncomfortable. Still, it does appear narrow off the tee and anything wide of the fairway runs the risk of being blocked out by trees for the approach or even finding the beach if far enough left. The green is is a very nice setting, tightly packed near the cliff edge and ocean to the left and canopies to the right with a couple of bunkers short. The par three 6th is the signature hole, almost 220 yards over the cliffs from the spectacular back tee, although it seems that this tee is rarely in play. It is worth walking up to the back tee in any case to catch a glimpse of the view (photo below).

The 7th was my favourite hole on the course, a par four of 390 yards with the approach shot played downhill to a wide and receptive green with the umbrella pines all around. The 8th is another short downhill par four, this one requiring a strategic decision – lay up far enough back of the tree on the middle of the fairway to leave a full shot to the tricky green or take out driver and go for it, which could either be very rewarding or leave an awkward chip / bunker shot. The final hole is a par three that can play quite long if the pin is on the back tier of the large bunker surrounded green.

Overall a decent little runaround that we found in reasonable condition, albeit a little rough around the edges.

Pick of the holes: Par four – 7th; Par three – 6th.

(photo – 7th hole)

Connemara Golf Links – Review

Friday 15 September

Connemara is the lowest rated of the four courses we visited this week, ranked 32nd, but is still very highly regarded so we were not expecting much of a comedown. We were not to be disappointed and in fact it was arguably ahead of the other three venues in some aspects, certainly the most impressive clubhouse setting and up there with Carne in terms of the enchanting unspoilt natural beauty of the location and surroundings. The weather enhanced the experience, as we had the best day of the trip – mostly sunny yet still with the solid two-club prevailing wind.

The front nine of the ‘A&B’ course meanders around flatlands with dangerous pot bunkering and varied green countours the main defences on the ground. The 1st and 2nd played into the crosswind, the 1st a dogleg left par four that invites a draw tee shot off the rugged rocky hill terrain to the right and the 2nd a straight par four with pot bunkers on both sides of fairway and green. After the testing opening two holes, the short par three third is index 18, then the par four 4th is a straightish par four, again with pot bunkers on both sides of fairway and green, a comfortable hole when played downwind provided your tee shot can avoid the traps. The 5th hole is the second hardest hole on the front nine card, a dogleg left par four that for us was relatively kind given the helping crosswind on the day. The par three 6th hole, whilst index 14 on the card, played one of the harder holes of the day as it required wood tee shots for us into the wind. The par five 7th offers quite a wide fairway and would be a great birdie opportunity when not affected by a hurting wind, which is probably never the case! After passing the plaque dedicated to Steve Fossett’s 2003 re-enactment of Alcock & Brown’s 1919 first non-stop flight across the Atlantic on a biplane, the index 2 8th takes you in the direction of the clubhouse, with no significant fairway bunkering to consider, but an undulating tiered green complex well protected by bunkers short and to the right. The 9th is not unlike the 8th in terms of direction and has more fairway pot bunkers to contend with, but it is a much shorter par four than the 8th off the white tees.

The first three holes of the back nine are broadly in a similar vein to the front nine, before the epic homeward stretch raises the bar substantially. The 10th is a tough par four that was into the wind and required a 5-wood second shot for me on the day due to the elevated green. The 11th is a lovely slightly downhill par three with two pot bunkers on each flank and one large deceiving bunker in front that is in fact much further back from the front of the green than appears from the tee. Whilst many holes on the day were played into a hurting crosswind, the slight dogleg right par four 12th is one of the few holes that played head-on directly into the wind, which when combined with the elevated green and 445 yardage from tips made it play all all of its index 1.

Leaving the 12th green you find yourself on the high outpost of the course, which signals the beginning of a slightly different stretch of holes until the finish. The par three 13th brings you to a higher altitude than previously experienced thus far and is positioned alongside some of the most rugged rocky lunar terrain amidst the dunes. It is a long par three with a slope in front of the green making it difficult to find the surface, also with three pot bunkers lurking front and back, one of the best holes on the course. Then you ascend higher again to reach the 14th tee and what is an absolutely jaw-dropping view of the entire course and surroundings.  It is a straight par five played in a southwesterly direction towards the ocean with a significant drop from tee to fairway and OB all down the right side. The green was reachable in two for us but our second shots were cruelly diverted left and short rolling back down the steep slope just in front of the green, a tricky feature along with the five bunkers short of the green. Definitely one of my favourite holes of the trip.

The next two holes are tough par fours, the 15th is without bunkers but if it plays in to the wind, as it did for us, finding the relatively small and elevated green in two with hairy dunes on three sides is a difficult task and its index 3 rating is no surprise. The 16th plays back downwind towards the clubhouse but is not an easy fairway to hit as it doglegs slightly to the left at the landing area. There is a burn about 30 yards short of the green, three pot bunkers and the green itself is one of the more undulating on the course.

The finish at Connemara GC is very enjoyable, two par fives in succession routed in opposite directions. The 17th back tee is on elevated ground in front of the clubhouse played to an inviting wide and flattish fairway with no bunkers to contend with from tee to green. Whilst the hole measures 500 yard and might sound easy, the approach to the green is another steep rise in elevation and playing into the wind it actually took us three solid shots to make the green, another with long dune grasses threatening on three sides. The 18th here rivals the 18th at Carne in terms of its combination of stunning views and hole design, both par fives with downhill tee shots with inclines back up towards raised greens, what surely must be two of the best finishing holes in the country. For those laying up, a burn crossing the fairway 100 yards in front of the green must be considered for second shots, and for the longer hitters the green is reachable in two downwind, although the second shot will have to fly all the way to the putting surface and carry the four pot bunkers and the steep slope before the green.

Pick of the holes: Par three – 13th // Par fours – 5th, 16th // Par five – 14th

(Photo: Stunning view of the 18th hole)

Carne Golf Links – Review

Thursday, 14 September 2017

Out on the edge of the earth beyond the town of Belmullet within the spectacular landscape around Carne Golf Links we found ourselves the beneficiaries of a sunny seaside day with only one brief shower to contend with for the entire round. The wind of the day seemed to be a prevailing northwesterly off the ocean and stayed at about a two club factor throughout our round.

Carne is more remote and bare than Enniscrone and Rosses Point and you can immediately feel this on arrival at the clubhouse, imposing amidst an exposed rugged wild Atlantic coastal landscape. The Hackett 18, ranked 10th in Ireland, takes you through outrageously high dunes, such that not only do you feel like you are alone on the course on most holes, but also that it would be a significant physical effort to get anywhere near another fairway, and then brings you along a mesmerising coastal trail equivalent to golfing nirvana.

The course opens with a slight dogleg right par four that played into the teeth of the wind on the day providing for a very tough start. This is followed by what should be a relatively straightforward par three complicated by the right to left crosswind. The par four 3rd is quite exposed and features a false fronted green, followed by the benign par five 4th that played downwind on the day with OB on the left the only major issue. The 5th hole proved a brutish undulating par four into the wind with the dunes creating the classic links amphitheatre effect around the green. The 6th is one of the harder holes on the card, presumably due to the small and dangerous green complex, but it played generously downwind for us allowing for a short iron approach. The 7th is a fiendish uphill par three to an exposed green that required a wood off the tee held against a strong right to left crosswind with a good bit of hurt. The par fours 8th and 9th follow a similar pattern to the 5th and 6th, the 8th into the wind and 9th back downbreeze towards the clubhouse. The 8th stood out due to its undulations and its green, seemingly buried at the foot of the high dunes. The 9th is more favourably downwind with a short iron approach required for most, but it does present a particularly tricky green complex in its defence.

The back nine kicks off in front of the clubhouse with the par five 10th up and over a hill and down towards a towering dunescape behind the green. The 11th hole is a sharp dogleg right par four with the dramatic tee shot played down into a valley between large dunes and the short approach back up the slope to the right towards an exposed green set upon a ledge.

The 11th green marks the beginning of a section of the course until the 14th green that elevates the already sublime Carne experience to mythical proportions. Blacksod Bay becomes more visible with every shot until the seahorses on the waves are almost touchable from the 14th tee. The 12th is a quirky downhill par four with a forgiving landing area that pushes everything to the right to leave a short approach to a very elevated green. The par five 13th must be one of the most enjoyable walks in golf, the ocean and remote seaside landscape out to the right and the approach to the green appearing as if at the edge of the earth. It is a strong hole too and needs three solid shots to find the green in regulation.

Much is spoken about the par three 16th at Carne, but for me the 14th was the standout hole on the course, a majestic par three set alongside the white sandy beach that on this day played downwind to a narrow green. The setting is wild yet serene, remote yet soothing, a hole you would be happy to play repeatedly all day long with nothing but the sound of the waves.

The homeward stretch begins with the difficult uphill par four 15th, featuring a couple of nasty fairway pot bunkers and a steep incline towards the green. The par three 16th is one of the signature holes at Carne and it is not hard to see why given the wide-reaching views from the high dune-top tee and inviting plummet to the green.

The stroke index 1 par four 17th is actually not excessively punishing from the tee but introduces real difficulty for the second shot to a green that is tucked into the corner of a dune and high above a deep grassy ravine that will collect anything missed right and leave a very tough up-and-down.

The 18th is a finishing hole befitting of the quality of Carne, weaving its way down through the dunes with a wide fairway and deep valley before a steep rise back up to the green . The county colours of the Mayo flag blow high on the dune to the right of the tee imploring two solid shots to reach this par five in two, an achievable feat if you manage to clear the valley before the green.

Carne is undoubtedly a golfing paradise at the edge of the earth!

Pick of the holes: Par three – 14th // Par fours – 8th, 15th // Par five – 18th

(Photo: Larging it up on the 14th tee by Blacksod Bay)

Enniscrone Golf Links – Review

Wednesday, 13 September 2017

The weather today was much more pleasant than yesterday. Apart from a twenty minute squall on the front nine, the umbrellas were not required and the sun was out, with a stiff breeze more typical of links golf than we had experienced at Rosses Point.

If the dunes of ‘The Dunes’ course at Enniscrone GC are high, then the challenge of the course itself is monstrous. Ranked 13th in Ireland, it starts with what seems a benign opening tee shot on the dogleg right par four 1st, however, any notions of easing into the round are immediately denounced when you reach the dogleg and realise what is ahead of you – a brutal uphill approach with trouble in the way of wild fescue infested high dunes on both sides of the green. The exposed openness of the 1st tee is quickly forgotten as the approach and the following three holes, two par fives either side of a tight uphill par three, are routed right through the middle of the towering dunes and offer little forgiveness for wide misses on almost every single shot. The dogleg right par five second hole stood out as one of the best holes on the course, one of seven holes (2nd, 3rd, 4th, 11th, 12th, 13th & 14th) that are played completely enclosed by huge dunes, creating a feeling of total detachment from the rest of the course and the outside world. This is followed by the equally stunning and difficult par three 3rd, which required wood off the tee into the wind. After the 4th, another dogleg right par five played through a dune tunnel, we had already decided that Enniscrone’s grand reputation was fully justified.

Holes 5-8 are routed away from the higher dunes and beside the flatland ‘Scurmore’ nine hole course. The 5th, whilst index 2 on the scorecard, played downwind on the day and its generous fairway from the elevated tee rendered it quite manageable, despite the undulations on and around the green. Conversely, the par four 6th played like a par five into the wind, the steep slope in front of the plateaued green adding extra complication. The 7th is the third of the front nine par fives and features a perched green with fall-offs on three sides and a helpful slope on the right feeding back towards the middle of the green.

After the par three 8th, played to the exposed southeast corner of the property, you turn back west and start the long loop that goes all the way around the outside of the course and ultimately leads back to the clubhouse. The 9th and 10th tees are set close to the calmer waterway of the Moy River, which flows to the ocean, and are played in the same direction with trouble in particular on the left side of both. The par three 11th brings you back towards the more mountainous dunescapes of the western centre of the headland and features a very deep grassy ravine on the right side.

The next two holes are memorable par fours set amidst the highest of the dunes. The 12th is a dogleg left with the second shot played (potentially blind depending on position) over a deep grass valley to a rectangular green carved into the massive dune, one of the nicer approach shots on the course. The 13th is a driveable downhill par four that doglegs right to the green hidden behind the dunes, a short hole but treacherous with a lay up strategy not much less dangerous than an attempt at the green. The hole is enhanced by its green/red light signalling technology to rival any rail network the world over!

The 14th hole was my favourite on the course, a par five that brings you from the busy  central area of the course out towards the northern seaside homeward stretch via an undulating fairway with typically monumental dunes overlooking on both sides and an approach around the corner to a green that features a complex arrangement of swales and backstops. One of the nicest walks in golf, that we experienced beneath a seemingly endless blue sky beyond the towering dunes.

The next three holes are played along the northern edge of the promontory with the ocean in view to the left, the par four 15th and par five 16th both with tricky greenside countours and of course dunes all about particularly high on the right and behind the greens on both holes with the coastline away to the left. Wind is always a factor but you are possibly even more exposed to it on this stretch until the 18th tee. The 17th is a classic par three, the tee positioned high up on top of a dune and the green laid out invitingly a few feet below tee level. The final hole runs back inland to the south alongside a holiday caravan park towards the clubhouse and is one of the few holes that I can recall demanding a draw off the tee, due to the three bunkers right side of the fairway. Despite the more urban, exposed and flat setting around the green, the fairway and green countours maintain the links feel.  Some may consider the 18th an ‘ordinary’ setting for a finishing hole, but that is more testament to the supreme quality of rest the course than any detriment to the hole itself.

Overall Enniscrone boasted the best conditioned greens we played all week but also the most punishing long fescue rough, which could make the round a major struggle for wayward players. Another dose of golfing paradise without a doubt.

Pick of the holes: Par three – 3rd // Par fours – 12th, 15th // Par five – 14th

(Photo: View from behind the 13th green)

County Sligo (Rosses Point) – Review

Tuesday, 12 September 2017

Day 1 in Yeats country started off kind weather-wise, overcast yet with barely any breeze. These somewhat unexpectedly benign conditions lasted for the duration of the front nine, until the clouds let loose and persistent heavy rain dominated the bank nine, albeit, oddly, without the wind ever really picking up beyond a slight breeze. The Championship course at Rosses Point is ranked 7th in Ireland.

The first four holes and 5th tee are positioned on and around what more resembles a mountain than a large sand-dune. After the relatively benign par four 1st played to an elevated green, the imposing 2nd hole appears a driveable par four on the scorecard but such is the sharp incline it would take an exceptional drive to find the green protected by three nasty sand traps. One of my favourites was the par five 3rd, the tee-shot a dramatic one back down the mountain to a fairway that has three bunkers on either flank and runs out at a rough covered decline before continuing on a flatter note towards the green, the only drawback (in my view) being the road crossing the fairway before the green. The 4th is the first of a fine set of par threes, the green perched high up on a plateau with anything short or right severely punished. The index 18 5th hole boasts my favourite tee shot on the course, a huge downhill drive to a generous fairway on the flat middle section of the course on what is a very reachable par five with a 45-yard long green, a birdie chance albeit there are eleven bunkers littered along the way to punish any mishaps.

The flat-lands portion of the front nine (5th fairway/green and successive par fours from the 6th-8th) features the sneakily dangerous draw-favouring 6th with a hazard along the right and the very tough 7th, which is complicated by menacing fairway bunkering a treacherous burn running in front and to the right of the green, the hole framed by the dramatic backdrop of the famous Belbulben table top mountain. The approach to the dogleg right 8th was another one of my favourite shots on the course, played over the burn to what is an amphitheatre like setting at the green and a little backstop helping out any slightly over-clubbed shots. The 9th is a lovely par three across the top of the dunes with four bunkers protecting the front half of the green and an absolute no-go fall-off zone on the right side.

The back nine begins with the picturesque par four 10th, again in the direction of Belbulben, featuring particularly lumpy fairway undulations and another huge green. The 11th and 12th run directly back west towards the ocean, the 11th an awkward par four (probably my least favourite hole on the course) with a fairway sloping from left to right and a green guarded by hungry bunkers, one short on the left to catch any bounce-in shots and one short on the right to gobble up any underhit shots veering to the right down the hill. The par five 12th is a decent birdie opportunity before the homeward stretch, played up and over an incline and down the other side of the hill invitingly towards the green and the ocean horizon beyond.

The par three 13th tee is one of the standout scenes on the course, set above and overlooking the beach and the green below, its defences including a burn back right and ‘Lady Captain’s Bunker’ (€1 entrance fee) among the five sand traps. Whilst the final five holes are all played in a southerly direction back towards the clubhouse (13-16 alongside the beach), they offer great variety, starting with Tom Watson’s favourite, the demanding par four 14th that requires a long and accurate tee shot short of the burn that weaves its way across the fairway and an approach to an open, yet sideways sloping putting surface. I could see why Tom likes it, but I myself preferred the par four 15th, framed majestically by dunes on both sides from tee to green and overlooked by the spectacular highland section of the front nine to the left background. The par three 16th is similar to the other short holes in that the tee is above the green level, though slightly less so here, and like the others offers plenty of reward for good tee shots once you find the relatively flat green.

The 17th hole, whilst one of the more memorable holes on the course, may not necessarily be the most enjoyable for some simply because of its difficulty. The landing area from the tee is quite flat and favours the right side to open up the approach to the green, which is a long way up the steep hill and surrounded by dramatic high dunes – bogey here is a not a bad score at all. The 18th is a blind tee shot over the apex of a hill and appears tricky off the tee, but the landing area is forgiving and offers a chance to get close with a short iron for a finishing birdie, although missing the green does leave a difficult up and down.

Rosses Point was excellent and worthy of its top ten rating in the country.

Pick of the holes: Par three – 13th // Par fours – 8th, 15th // Par five – 5th

(Photo: 14th green as viewed from 7th tee)

North West Ireland Golf Tour 2017

Three young men from Cork are about to embark on a four-day golf tour along the wild North West Atlantic coast of Ireland.

Ready to play four of the finest links courses in the country (and therefore world), they will set off on Monday morning September 11 with the first destination being Sligo.

The itinerary is as follows:

Tuesday September 12: Rosses Point, Co Sligo

Wednesday September 13: Enniscrone, Co Sligo

Thursday September 14: Carne,  Co Mayo

Friday September 15: Connemara, Co Galway