Looking for the perfect recipe for a golfing paradise? Take two lateral thinking accountants with capital and an idea; mix with more annual sunshine than California; add the cachet of Nick Faldo and Christy O’Connor Jnr; blend with Darren Clarke and sprinkle with the flair of landscape designer Diarmuid Gavin and hey presto, you’ve got Oceanico Golf.
The western Algarve has been a golfing mecca since three-time Open winner Sir Henry Cotton built Penina, the area’s first grass course, on a former rice paddy in 1966.
More than 40 years on, Portugal’s Atlantic coast boasts in excess of thirty courses and by May next year there will be two more under the umbrella of a burgeoning Anglo-Irish development company that was founded after a meeting of minds between Drogheda-born Gerry Fagan and Englishman Andrew Burgess at Dublin airport in 2000.
Things have moved apace since then and last week, Oceanico acquired all five courses at Vilamoura from Lusotour Golfes, the development company founded by Portuguese property and tourism legend Andre Jordan in a deal worth €125 million.
A razor-sharp septuagenarian, Jordan was working in Buenos Aires in 1963 when he attended his first golf tournament at the famed Jockey Club, where Arnold Palmer and Sam Snead won what was then called the Canada Cup.
Originally from Poland, Jordan’s family fled to Portugal in 1939 where his father set up a small development business.
The doyen of Portuguese golf development left for Brazil in the 60s and returned a decade later to found golf courses at Quinta do Lago and Vale do Lobo before acquiring Vilamoura, which was founded in 1969, through his development company in 1996.
Jordan had big plans for Vilamoura, which spans more than 5,000 acres and includes a 1,000-berth marina. Homeowners were encouraged to paint and plant gardens. Parks and a nature preserve were constructed and the Millennium Course added before the legendary Palmer was called in to construct the Victoria Course, which hosted the WGC - Algarve World Cup in 2005.
Now boasting five golf courses, Vilamoura proved to be irresistible to property developers Fagan and Burgess, who had already made plans to break directly into the golf business by commissioning Christy O’Connor Jnr and Nick Faldo to build the 36-hole, 640-acre Amendoeira Golf and Leisure Resort in the district of Silves, just 35 minutes from Faro airport.
Fagan and Burgess wanted to create a superior, European version of Pinehurst, the world famous golf resort in North Carolina, where a choice of eight courses means that guests never have to wait for a game.
“We started off with our two courses and they were fine in terms of what we had on offer,” Fagan explained. “But we felt that if we wanted to have real substance, then we needed to have five, maybe six courses. We did look at two other courses in the region and did so with the possibility of building a third, but then we said, ‘Hold on, why don’t we go for the real jewel in the crown?’
“We went to America for a three week spell and and looked at a couple of role models. We looked at Pinehurst and then Kiawah Island, but we were so impressed with Pinehurst that we went back there a second time.
“What we particularly liked about Pinehurst was the way they looked after the golfer, from collecting his bag when he arrived until putting him on the bus when he was leaving.
“What impressed us particularly was how they were able to manage their courses. They have eight of them and nobody had to wait very long for a game. Okay, you mightn’t always get onto the famous Number 2 course, but you would always get a game - and get it quickly - on one or other of their courses. That not only impressed us, but it tied in exactly with what we were, and are, trying to achieve.
“When myself and Simon put our minds to something and decide we’re going to go for it, then we really go hard for it. The most difficult part of it was dealing with what I call the phenomenon of Andre Jordan.
“At the end of the day, actually, things were easy enough. The price - €125 million - was a very good one and Andre was happy with it. He’s involved in a very big development just above Lisbon and I think he just felt it was time to concentrate his energies there. He’s just got permission for a development of 400,000 square metres, and Andre is a great man for moving on.
“He’s 73 or 74 now and he’s got two very good sons who keep the business going for him; they really are a very well respected family. They really were the first into tourism and golf resorts.”
Fagan and Manchester native Burgess are obviously well-respected by Jordan, who was presented with a Waterford Crystal decanter and glasses at the official signing of a deal that boosts Oceanico’s golf and property portfolio beyond €2 billion.
“I am pleased to accept this ‘small’ token,” Jordan said, pausing for effect. “I got a much larger token yesterday. In fact, they made me an offer I couldn’t refuse.”
Fagan revealed how a minor accountancy glitch led to an amusing denouement to the negotiations.
“Their figures gave them one euro more than we had calculated but we made out the cheque anyway where their accountant came over and said, we were right and that they were a euro over. But we already had the cheque made out, a guaranteed bank cheque.
“They came down anyway and we eventually handed over the cheque and I said: ‘Andre, where is it?’
‘The euro! We overpaid you by one euro.’
“So he reached into his pocket and fished out a euro. I’m going to frame it now. He’s a great guy, Andre. Reminds me a lot of my father.”
Fagan laughs as he tells the tale. And it is no wonder was laughing. At the age of 54, he should by rights be enjoying a well deserved retirement on the sunny Algarve after a 25-year career at the Campbell Bewley Group.
“I’m 54 years of age and from Mary’s Street in Drogheda,” he explained. “My dad, Dessie, was a timber yard manager - he’s 91 and still going strong. He was a great footballer in his day, he was captain of Drogheda United for 20 years and played with them in three FAI Junior Cup finals, but, unfortunately, didn’t win any of them.
“I was, for 25 years, a shareholder and director of the Campbell Bewley Group - I eventually became managing director. I joined the group when I was 18 and when I finally left I moved my shares.
“My father worked until he was 72 and I got a lot of lessons from him in the sense that it was terribly important for me to see that I would have something at the end of my working life. My father had worked very hard, out in the yard in wet and rough weather and all that, and I decided that it was vital for me to build a retirement plan.
“When I got an opportunity - with selling out my shareholding in the Campbell Bewley Group - and the chance to move on, I remember telling my dad my plans and he said, ‘You’re bloody well right, son, move on.’ He taught me a lot about life.”
Fagan’s father also advised him to give up soccer at the age of 18 and concentrate on rugby, where he played at prop forward for Drogheda Boyne and won junior interprovincial honours.
Rugby internationals put him the path of Ryder Cup hero Clarke, who was unveiled as the touring professional for Oceanico Golf last week in a three year deal that could see the Dungannon man design a golf course on the Algarve in the not too distant future.
“We’ve been trying to find something for Darren to do in terms of a design because our market likes Darren,” Fagan explained. “And you know, all the statistics prove that revenues from a signature golf course exceed revenues from a non-signature golf courses by 27 percent.”
No surprise then that Ryder Cup skipper Faldo and Irish legends Christy O’Connor Junior and Senior are designing the courses at Amendoeira, which has been designated as a Project of National Importance (P.I.N.) by the government and will open for light play in May next year.
“We have two very different sites,” said Junior, whose uncle Christy Snr will be the first captain of the O’Connor Course. “Nick’s being more hilly with a lot of trees and bushes while I am down on what you may call the water plain where in olden times huge storms would come through.
“I have designed 32 golf courses, but this is my first experience on the Algarve and I sincerely thank the guys at Oceanico Developments for giving me the chance to do this, and particularly to build alongside Nick Faldo.
“It is going to be something very special to me. I have a house down here, in the hills outside Loule, so it will be lovely to have a golf course nearby, in my name.”
With Aer Lingus and Ryanair providing four direct flights a day to Faro airport, Oceanico’s Irish client base is set to increase dramatically over the next few years.
“With our interests in the Azores and northern Portugal, we have gotten to know how this market works,” Fagan added. “We have fantastic help from the government with regard to overcoming planning issues.
“When you see what our fellow countryman (Sean Quinn) paid for the Belfry, £186 million sterling, we feel we have done a great deal here. He did that for business reasons and we are doing this for business reasons as well because we will sell a lot of property on the back of people having the right to play on seven golf courses.”
His father Dessie, no doubt , is as proud as punch.