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Vale do Lobo is Europe's toughest course

Dave BowersBy Dave Bowers,

VALE DO LOBO, Portugal - There are sounds at golf courses that are the same around the world.

The thwack of metal on ball. The distant cries of "fore!" The chatter ofexcited golfers. The whirr of electric golf buggies.

At the Algarve's premier golf centre, Vale do Lobo, there's another.It's not the cursing of the players - although that would be understandable,considering the course is officially the toughest in Europe.

It's not the slap, slap of sun-tan lotion on to the face - although,again, that would be understandable, considering the Algarve's almostnon-stop sunshine record.

No. It's the sound of jaws dropping. Because, quite simply, the Vale do Lobo is magnificent.

It's easy to go overboard when you write about golf courses - there areso many good ones around. But it's hard to go overboard about Vale do Lobo.It's not just as good as its reputation. It's better than that.

From the moment you turn off the Algarve's main thoroughfare into theestate - around 20 minutes from Faro airport - it just oozes class.

The estate is around 400 hectares - to the uninitiated, that's aroundthree times the size of the principality of Monaco.

It has around 2km of its own beach on the edge of the Atlantic. There arearound 1,000 villas and apartments, with another 1,000 expected to go up inthe next few years. An hotel - a five-star residence, of course - is alsoplanned.

Vale do Lobo isn't just a sports resort. It's a town in its own right.The danger, of course, when a complex is this large is that although golf isthe magnet for visitors, it quickly takes second place to the main aim -making money. Pots of it.

But not at Vale do Lobo. There are two courses already - the Royal andthe Ocean, based on original concepts by the legendary Sir Henry Cotton andre-developed by American architect Rocky Roquemore. They attract 100,000golfers every year.

And now, in the planning stage, is a third 18-hole championship course,this time a more traditional links layout. Golf is still the priority.So what about Vale do Lobo being the toughest course in Europe? What's thatall about?

Quite simply, it was the European Tour's toughest venue last year.

When Europe's best players come calling for the Portuguese Open, the bestholes from the two courses are chosen to make a composite layout. And whilemost weeks players need to shoot well under par to make the cut, that's notthe case in the Algarve.

Only eight players managed to beat par. The cut was at 5-over par. Oneplayer, poor Jorge Rodrigues, shot rounds of 89 and 86 to finish astaggering 31-over par for two rounds. Another player shot a round of91.

Convinced now that the course is something special?

Yet it's not impossible to play. Far from it. Of course, from theprofessionals' Tiger tees, it's awesome. But the other tee positions giveevery handicap player a chance.

So what about the courses?

You can tell how good a course is 30 minutes after you have completedyour round and you're in the spike bar. How many holes can you remember?Do they merge into one or is every hole still fresh in the mind?

I played the Ocean course. And I can remember every tee position. Everyfairway. Every green. Not every shot, mind you - like Jorge, I took too many forthat.

But there are so, so many magnificent holes. The first, downhill from ...well, not the clubhouse, more the town centre ... through a forest of trees.The short 15th that runs alongside the very edge of the Atlantic - tug yourtee shot a little left, and it's in probably the biggest water hazard in theworld.

There's the sixth, when the tee shot has to go over water - the perfectline is an old well right in the middle of the fairway. Then there's thefantastic ninth, uphill to the green with a waterfall running toward you ...

And over on the Royal course, don't forget the 16th, the mostphotographed hole in Europe, a fantastic par-3 beauty over the Atlantic. Whenthe wind blows in the wrong direction, Tour players are forced to lay up -yes, that's right, lay up on a 214-yard hole.

Fascinating, lovely courses. Words cannot do them justice. And there aren't many courses around that you can say that about.

And when you play the 14th on the Ocean course, just take a look at thehouse by the fairway. It's a massive, circular, glass construction thatoverlooks the ocean.

It's said to be worth around £7m and reputed to be owned by a big playerin the jewellery business. It has to be seen to be believed - there goesthat jaw, dropping again.

Where to stay

Crazy question, really, when there are more than 1,000 homes within a fewminutes' walk of the clubhouse.

But they can prove to be expensive. So the best bet is to hop in the carat the airport, and drive to one of the many, many old villages and towns inthe Algarve and stay there.

There are some good deals to be had all through the year, from staying inthe height of luxury - although, frankly, if you've money to burn you may aswell stay on site - to reasonably-priced B&Bs.

Personally, I'd take a 30-minute drive and stay at the delightful villageof Carvoeiro. It's a lovely place on a hill, and there's plenty ofaccommodation, including a couple of big hotels.

Pushed to make a choice, I'd go for the Tivoli Almansor - and no, they'renot paying me anything to recommend them! It's a hotel right on the clifftop with views to die for.

Where to eat

If there's one thing you're never short of in the Algarve, it's places toeat. There are restaurants and bars everywhere.

Before the introduction of the euro, eating out was ridiculously cheap.The new currency, though, has pushed up prices - I suppose it's humannature, or good business, to round everything up rather than down.

Still, choose some of the restaurants off the beaten track and eating outis still far from a wallet-crunching experience.

Albufeira is only a short drive from Vale do Lobo and has to be tried -there are beautiful beachside restaurants with a countrywide reputation for magnificent seafood menus. When you see the locals eating there, you knowthey must be good.

And call me predictable, but Carvoeiro again has to be tried. There are good steakhouses and Happy's restaurant is superb, if you can get in - all through the season, if you haven't booked you're lucky to get a seat.

The Verdict

Conditions: Even at the end of the summer, the course was in great condition - and the greens are fantastic. They're lightning - after the second and third three-putts, you realise what the tour guys have to go through.

Service: You get the feeling that if the staff don't put themselves out for you,they'll get the push - a bit like Disneyworld, without the costumes.

Value: Sure, the whole experience is not cheap. But you're not going to do thisevery day of the year, are you?

Design: Great courses, great greens, fiendish bunkering, trees in all the wrong places if you miss a fairway - does golf get any better than this?

Dave lives on the south coast of England with partner Jackie and their three children. Originally a football writer in his homeland, he even rose to the giddy heights of public relations manager for an English professional Premiership side. But he'd been bitten by the golf bug and returned to his roots in journalism as executive editor for Golf Management Europe magazine and as a sports sub-editor/golf writer on one of the country's largest regional daily papers. Like all of us, he plays golf whenever he can - which isn't as often as he would like - and has even performed stand-up comedy in a top comedy club.

Any opinions expressed above are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the management.

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