Across the golfing world, golf clubs and courses face a range of different challenges. Naturally, every club has its own unique issues and problems, but for all that it is fair to say that a number of consistent subjects crop up repeatedly.
One of the most persistent of these is the age profile of golf club members. Almost without exception, across the world, golf seems to have become a game dominated by older people, and when one finds a club or a location that has an especially youthful feel, it is an exception.
Sixtysomethings (and older) are thus an important market for golf, and will doubtless remain so, but it is only natural that clubs and federations should be looking at the age profile of their players with a degree of foreboding.
This is a situation that, as I said above, is affecting golf clubs all across the world, and certainly Golfclub Hamburg-Walddörfer in the northern suburbs of Germany’s second-largest city is no exception. The trouble for any club trying to broaden the age range of its members is that the needs of the young and athletic and of the older, less active have never been wider apart than they are now. It has always been the case that to build a course that is playable, challenging and enjoyable for golfers of all ages and standards is the gold standard for a golf architect, but the huge dispersion between weak and strong players today makes it harder now than it has ever been.
Hamburg has always been one of the key centres of German golf; Golfclub Hamburger-Falkenstein, built by Harry Colt and his associate John Morrison in the 1920s remains the consensus pick for the country’s best course. Walddörfer might best be characterised as in the next tier below Falkestein; it’s a long-established and successful club, designed by Germany’s first great golf architect, Dr Bernhard von Limburger (see GCA issue 6 for a profile of Limburger). But the club realised it needed to do something to its course if it wanted to stay relevant in the modern age, so it called in today’s leading German architect, Christoph Städler, to handle a renovation.
The site at Walddörfer is appealing. Before being turned into a golf course, the property, or at least the old part of it, belonged to a successful local architect who built an attractive summerhouse, now the clubhouse, on it in 1925. He also, it seems, had an affection for English-style parkland, employing a British landscape designer to oversee tree planting appropriate for such a park. Now, close to a hundred years later, those trees are mature, meaning that the Walddörfer course is routed through a proper, old-style park, with a remarkable variety of attractive, mature trees. I am not normally the greatest fan of this kind of ornamental planting, but here it works well, presumably because the trees are older, and thus bigger. The estate also has some interesting man made features, including an old bathing pool behind one green; it’s rather more visually interesting than a typical swimming pool, with an attractive little pool house and appealing stonework around the pool itself. Unusual, and nothing directly to do with golf for sure, but I believe that anything that is out of the ordinary and memorable is worth noting.
The topography is fairly gentle, with some interesting undulation, but not masses. The soil is not bad, without being fantastic; there are some significant deposits of sand on site, a topic we shall come back to later. Städler has happy memories of Walddörfer; it was the course on which he won his first significant golf title, the German youth championship of 1969.
One more thing that we should highlight about Walddörfer is the clubhouse. Formerly the estate house, it is a remarkably attractive redbrick building that has been modified just enough to work well for its new purpose, but not so much as to remove any of its character. It’s really lovely, and the club is both lucky to have it, and to be commended for not having wrecked it in a quest to upgrade.
I think the most interesting part of Städler’s project is to be found at the far end of the course. Here are to be found the sand deposits I mentioned earlier; naturally, in order to get material for the course alterations, the architect has extracted a fair amount of sand from these areas. It would have been easy – and in a parkland environment of this kind, entirely normal – to deposit unwanted material in the borrow pits to fill them up, and just regrass, so that, after a time, no-one would even know anyone had been digging there. But Städler has chosen a different, and in my opinion, much better route; he has essentially left the pits as they were, and allowed rough vegetation to colonise them.
This is not really a traditional parkland look – the unkempt nature of these pits is at odds with the carefully manicured aura of the parkland as a whole – but I think it is a very good idea. Not only does it add a great deal of visual interest to some out of play areas – it will, in time, make the holes where the pits have been dug much more naturalistic and attractive. It is perhaps ironic that this kind of man-made landscape feature is making the golf course look more natural. But it’s not the pits themselves that are of especial interest – it is the native vegetation that will, over a period of a few years, colonise them and add to the ecological value of the golf course. Rough, unmaintained vegetation of this kind is important habitat for insects, birds and the like: Städler is to be commended, in my view, for this kind of outside the box thinking, and I’m glad the club has seen fit to go along with him.
Elsewhere, bunkers have been rebuilt, some of von Limburger’s greens altered, and a degree of regrassing (with a traditional fescue/bent sward) has gone on. There has also been tree clearing; I noted above that the parkland at Walddörfer was appealing because of its maturity – the trees are mostly pretty much fully grown (the key reason that the ‘faux dune’ look has become so popular in golf in recent years is, in my opinion, that it looks mature and ‘right’ much more quickly than an old-style tree planting programme). Personally, I think I would like to see a little more clearance of trees; some of the holes are still rather narrow, and I worry about the impact of shade on the turf quality, but most of all, I would like to be able to see some of the big specimen trees a little better. Another irony of golf design is that tree clearance, so often resisted by club members, actually benefits the trees that are left – which is, of course, typically the best ones, which have more room to survive and thrive, and whose beauty is more visible to the golfers.
Nonetheless, I must say that I liked Walddörfer very much. It isn’t the sort of course – or indeed property – that will stun, but it is pretty, and understated, in many senses very ‘British’ in feel. I have not seen that much of Dr von Limburger’s work, but I understand those characteristics are quite typical for him. I commend Christoph Städler, and the club too, for their restraint in modernising the course without destroying its character.
All photography courtesy of Stefan von Stengel
This article first appeared in Issue 46 of Golf Course Architecture