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PORTUGAL'S Algarve region has offered a warm welcome to millions of players since establishing itself as a golfing Mecca back in the Seventies.

This month it will widen its embrace to encompass the game's elite exponents, headed by Sergio Garcia of Spain, when the Arnold Palmer-designed Victoria course hosts the World Cup.

Somehow my anticipated invitation to represent England was diverted to the homes of Ryder Cup players Luke Donald and David Howell. No matter. An invitation to represent the Yorkshire Post and play a couple of the area's top courses while staying at the five-star Four Seasons Vilamoura resort did find its way through.

Four Seasons contains more than 100 studio, one-, two- and three-bedroom Moorish-style apartments – many boasting panoramic views across adjoining golf courses – for sale or rent. Ours bordered the 10th fairway of the Pinhal course and after a long journey the spacious accommodation struck us as being both elegant and comfortable.

The spa bath might have had an instant allure but for the need to take a cool beer on one of the sun loungers beside the resort's three large outdoor swimming pools, set amid relaxing landscaped gardens.

This is a welcoming sight to any golfer whose partner worships not the little white orb which we pursue around the course, but the golden one burning bright in the sky. For here I was able to leave Shirley content in the knowledge that if burning to a crisp or sipping cool beers at the poolside bar lost its appeal at any stage, the nearby spa and Jacuzzi offered the potential for an equally soothing afternoon.

Now the lady I was leaving behind shows no indication of being in need of a facelift, but the one to which I hurried, the Old Course - also known as the old lady of Vilamoura - once displayed signs of age and was completely refurbished in 1996, nearly 30 years after renowned architect Frank Pennink laid it out among a forest of umbrella pines. If plastic surgery always achieved such splendid results, no woman - or man, for that matter - would be immune to the sculpturing possibilities of the surgeon's knife.

From the moment you reach the first tee and look down a tree-lined fairway which twists and undulates in the manner of a fun pool's water slide, the Old Course is a visual delight. Three appealing consecutive par-4s are appetisers for the 163-yard par-3 fourth which elicits an immediate 'wow'. The green is guarded by both a pond in which gurgles an ornamental fountain, and an umbrella pine.

Rather than intimidate, these facets inspire, as do so many of the holes on this course.

After playing back towards the new cubhouse, holes both out towards and then through the turn weave their way among land surrounded by impressive, white-walled villas with peach-tiled roofs. At 6,466 yards off the yellow tees the course is certainly not short, but the last hole on the front nine is.

At 286 yards, it offers an opportunity to drive on or close to the green as the fairway dips first downhill and then climbs up, effectively reducing its length but, as on so many holes, encroaching trees and bunkers are strategically placed to catch the slightly wayward shot. Many of the holes are dog-legs, and flat fairways are a rarity, so at no time can you just stand on the tee and blast away.

The cerebral processes needed to negotiate each shot are a sign this is a truly superb course which rewards the well-thought out stroke and punishes the careless. But even if the occasional hole is played badly, the setting is inspiring and occasional glimpses of Vilamoura's varied wildlife - I spotted several bee-eaters, blue tits, grey wagtails and azurewinged magpies - enhance the experience.

The Old Course is some 10 minutes' drive from Four Seasons, but Pinhal borders the resort, affording a few more minutes in bed for those with early tee-off times. This, too, was created by Pennink and then, 20 years ago, was refreshed by Robert Trent Jones. The courses' respective standings within the area's hierarchy are reflected in the green fees - in the summer the flat rate for the Old Course is 120 euros and for Pinhal 80 - but it is no less challenging.

The front nine meanders through an exclusive residential complex and the back nine offers the occasional glimpse of the Atlantic. Umbrella pines are again omni-present, including one right in the centre of the second fairway about 70 to 80 yards short of the green, making for an interesting approach shot.

These are trees not to be messed with as the branches are so tightly woven - one umbrella pine even giving permanent shelter to a ball of mine, hit a little too high when attempting to get underneath it.

But they are aesthetically pleasing and are used both here and on the Old Course in much the same way as might a lake or pond – as a potential hazard.

After a tiring day's work at the 'office’ - and golf can be hard work the way I occasionally play it – the apartment provided a relaxing haven from missed putts and from the headache of balls lost up trees.

All self-catering apartments at Four Seasons have luxury kitchens, and a supermarket within five minutes' walk of the resort provides a cheap means of dining each day. The on-site Cascata restaurant could not be ignored throughout the visit, however, and here reasonable prices are complemented by a varied international menu and excellent service. My rack of lamb cooked in aromatic herbs would probably have been sufficient for two normal appetites, but as I say, I'd had a hard day at the 'office’.

Four Seasons caters for other sports besides golf - available are a gym, squash courts, snooker and table tennis - but if this is your game there are three further courses to be explored: the Laguna, Millennium and the aforementioned Victoria.

To appease any competitive instincts, two weekly golf competitions are available to residents, one a Stableford, the other a Texas Scramble.

Flights are available direct to Faro from Leeds Bradford and Manchester, but you could fly to the Algarve via Lisbon - TAP's 40-minute flight from the Portuguese capital to Faro runs three times a day.

This detour gave me a chance to achieve a boyhood ambition and see the Stadium of Light, Benfica's home ground and the arena where,in 1966, George Best became known overnight as El Beatle after Manchester United blitzed the legendary Eusebio's side 5-1.

Of course, had I headed directly to Vilamoura instead I would have had more time to look for that lost ball in the umbrella pine.

Vilamoura, Portugal

Published: November 12, 2005

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