“The Dom Pedro Group is uniquely positioned; it has three hotels and five golf courses in Vilamoura”.


“The Dom Pedro Group is uniquely positioned; it has three hotels and five golf courses in Vilamoura”.

2007 – The Oceânico Group buys Lusotur Golfes from André Jordan, with its five golf courses, for 125 million euros.

2016 – Oceânico Group sells to Kay CC Portugal (a consortium composed of the Dom Pedro Group and a group of English investors) for €68 million.

Luís Correia da Silva was a manager of Lusotur Golfes and his destiny dictated that he has been again at the forefront of golf in Vilamoura. In between, he was, among other things, Secretary of State for Tourism (2003-2004) and golf consultant.

So what can we expect at this year’s Portugal Masters?

 We had already been given the indication, as it turned out, that we could have a few players from the Ryder Cup, so we prepared to have the course in conditions tending very close to what will be played at Le Golf National – we are talking about speed of greens, cut of roughs, etc.

Well, this is the first year when we will have new rough on the Victoria course, a modification programme which we launched last year and is today virtually completed. We went back to basics: the course was originally built using bermuda grass on the fairways, roughs and semi-roughs. Due to certain circumstances arising from the World Cup, held here in 2005, the rough grass was changed to rye grass – a winter variety which suffered during the hot summer months and was therefore difficult to present in ideal condition at the Masters.

An additional challenge was changing the rough grass variety without closing the course – normally it would have to be closed for at least six months with the consequent loss of revenue. However, with a great team, led by Simão da Cunha, the project was developed step by step and is considered a remarkable feat by the European Tour.

Anyway, unlike in previous years, the rough will now have a decisive impact on scoring. In the past playing from the rough or the fairway was almost the same thing because the rye grass grows much less during the summer. But this time the new bermuda is six centimeters in length and players who find it will not have such an easy time.

Where any other changes made? 

From the point of view of the course, we made two very important changes: the first was the conversion of the roughs and semi-roughs, which I would say is 95% completed; the second was the replacement of all the aprons around the greens – they were irregular and had several grass mixtures – in order to bring them up to the standard required for a tournament of this stature. Moreover, the greens and tees will be 100% and the fairways in very good condition.

So scoring will be higher this year, there won’t be the feast of birdies and eagles that we’ve seen in the past?

That will depend on the height at which the European Tour tells us to cut the rough and semi-rough. We may have a height of six to nine centimeters for the roughs, depending on the level of difficulty the Tour wants to impose on the players. Moreover, from an organizational point of view we’ll have a tented village which will be even better than last year. Every year we’re improving various areas – we’ll have better conditions for spectators and we are hoping for good weather so even more people can watch the golf compared to previous years.

Have you followed the Portugal Masters over the years? 

 Yes, I came many times because normally I was invited to play in the pro-am, I had the privilege to play here with some of the best players in the world. With Retief Goosen twice – he was a remarkable man and very nice, always quick to help us with our game. He and his caddie knew all the holes in detail and, like clockwork, usually hit his ball into the middle of the fairway. I played with Padraig Harrington, a future winner, with a young Martin Kaymer, with Darren Clarke, Sam Torrance and Edoardo Molinari, to name but a few.

Taking into account your past and your work record at Vilamoura during the time that Lusotur Golf was the owner, it seems an obvious choice for them to appoint you as manager of the Consortium Kay CC, which Ocêanico acquired in 2016….

 From a personal point of view, I followed not only the operation of Lusotur golf courses but also, in the context of my later activities as a consultant, several other projects regarding the exploitation of golf courses, as in the construction of new courses some of which failed to materialize due to the economic and financial crisis.

When the opportunity arose for the Dom Pedro Group to acquire the Vilamoura courses from Oceânico, Mr. Stefano Saviotti asked me to look at what was a business opportunity, to see to what extent it would make sense and how it could be strategically important for the Group’s activities in the area.

We took basically a year to negotiate everything, and during that time my involvement and knowledge of the people was very important, because one thing is the content of the sales documents, another is the technical and financial arrangements we needed to make. We had to see in what state the courses were actually in. When the purchase started to go ahead Mr. Saviotti invited me to stay at the helm.

To what extent was your contact with Arnold Palmer, the legendary American golfer that designed the Dom Pedro Victoria Golf Course?

 I have an important detail: I covered the final negotiation with the Palmer Design Group when it was contracted to design the course. Later, during its construction, I no longer had an important role because the project was basically taken over by Fernando Nunes de Pedro and Simão da Cunha, who then worked as head greenkeeper. But I remained the point of contact for the Board with the Arnold Palmer team.

 In fact when people come to my house they’re surprised to see pictures of me with Arnold Palmer. He was a truly extraordinary man, very easy to be with. I had several meetings with his team in the USA, and he always came to say hello and to see how things were progressing.

When he came to Portugal it was in his private plane and he was the pilot. He was a remarkable man from the point of view of professionalism, because we normally had a very full itinerary: technical issues and detailed visits to the course, issues regarding contacts with journalists and the media coverage of the developing project. Regardless of his age and fatigue he always did a thorough job.

Every year while we were building the Victoria course he invited us to the Arnold Palmer Invitational, played on the course he designed in Bay Hill, Florida, and where he had his home and offices. We always had a fairly privileged invitation particularly from the standpoint of contact with him. It’s interesting to note that, despite having several courses under construction around the world, he always said that Victoria was a reference course, not only because it was his first in Europe, but because it represented a major challenge. It was built on an area that was completely flat, and it had to be not only a championship layout but one which was also enjoyable for amateur golfers with different playing handicaps.

Has a degree in agronomy made your job a little easier in the management of the five Dom Pedro Group courses in Vilamoura? 

I worked in the early years of my life in the area of agriculture, but after taking my Masters in economics that didn’t continue. We have agronomists working at our Vilamoura courses, and the only thing I can say is that maybe it’s easier for them to talk to me than with other people who don’t have that background. And it’s easier for me to understand and question certain technical issues than say a person who went to law school or studied economics.

I’ll give you a concrete example: we’re making a significant investment in the reforestation of Victoria. The work was done by Simão da Cunha and we discussed at length what would be the best combination of trees and shrubs and how the course would be appear in the next five to ten years. It’s a lot easier when discussing these issues.

The reforestation of the course is something which is news…

Yes, a study has been undertaken and it will be discussed very closely at Board level. We will make a significant investment in reforestation. What is now the Victoria course was originally an airfield, completely flat and without a tree. And everything you see on the course, including the obstacles and hazards, was built through the movement of earth.

When the course opened, there was an initial reforestation effort, trees that today are more than 15 years old. And at this point we think it’s worth making a backup of that initial effort, because there are many areas of the course that feel a little bare – they don’t have the same plant or tree coverage as we have on our other courses.  And then there are a number of areas where we think it’s important to have delineation, using, wherever possible, hedges of trees and shrubs to delineate holes, as you often find on the Old Course or on Pinhal.

What, in terms of politics, philosophy and management has changed with the arrival of the Dom Pedro Group in Vilamoura?

I would say that everything has changed. This isn’t any criticism of the previous owners, I don’t usually spend a lot of time talking about the past and justifying it. The only thing I will say is that the Oceânico Group, for the reasons we all know, put the courses up for sale because, basically, it went bankrupt with the Bank its funder. And so the courses were for years in a so-called bad bank, which ran them trying to obtain maximum revenue whilst making the least possible investment to have the courses operational – in those circumstances it was a perfectly logical thing to do.

Now, golf courses, hotels and any other buildings require maintenance, and what we found were problems that had been postponed for years. For example, most people don’t have any idea what was the investment we had to make just to prune the trees. If trees are not pruned they cast a shadow on the fairways and greens, affecting their quality. When those areas receive sunlight the condition of the grass is completely different, that’s why today people say that the fairways and greens on our courses are much better.

This year we invested one million euros in machinery. And when I talk about machines, I mean buggies and electric trolleys. On the Millennium course we re-built the buggy paths – another huge investment. Because of trees and roots the buggy paths, which were originally constructed more than 15 years ago [the Millennium course opened in 2000] where destroying the buggies. I could also talk about the problem of cleaning up the lakes and the replacement of their respective linings, or in the works that we’ve done on the Victoria and Old Course clubhouses…

And how is the golf operation going?

Basically, we had a fall in the number of British customers in the first half of this year. There are two large tour operators who work in England, and what we felt was that they were diverting clients coming to our more expensive courses to other destinations more competitively priced, or to cheaper courses.

Today in England people are more careful, shall we say, in their choice of destination – where they will spend their vacation money, in their sports, in their leisure activities. In Turkey, for example, golf is offered for free as part of a hotel package.

In general, there’s been a reduction in the number of British who come to the Algarve. The price of air transport has gone up and we still face the bankruptcy fallout of Monarch and Air Berlin, as well as one or two other small airlines, which provided hundreds of thousands of airplane seats at extremely accessible prices.

Now, we’re going to compete with that, we’re taking steps in that direction. To better manage the synergies that we have between our hotels and our golf courses, to present proposals and packages that are increasingly attractive to players, because the Don Pedro Group offers a unique proposition: We have three hotels in Vilamoura and five golf courses all within a radius of 3 kilometers. There are not many places in Europe where you can join 500, 600 or 700 rooms with five golf courses, allowing thousands of people to play at the same time and managing the situation so articulately.

 

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