Two new courses on German islands aim to bring links golf to the country. Adam Lawrence is impressed.
I find it very hard to be objective where links golf is concerned. For me at least, no experience the game has to offer can equal being by the shore, walking on firm, springy turf among the dunes, watching seagulls wheel on a good breeze. To experience links golf is to realise what the game was, is and should be about. It connects you to the roots of golf; but at the same time reminds you of what the game should be in future too – a part of the natural environment, wild and untamed.
To walk, drive or fly along a coastline and see mile after mile of sandy terrain fills a golfer with thoughts of what might be. But such sites are, correctly, protected environments in most countries around the world, and getting permission to put golf on them is tough, verging on impossible (although Machrihanish Dunes in Scotland proves it can be done).
Links golf may be synonymous with the British Isles, but linksland can be found in many, many countries. Just across the North Sea from the UK, for example, a large proportion of the coastline of northern France, Belgium, Holland, Germany and Denmark is sandy. Along that coast, courses such as Le Touquet, Royal Zoute, Kennemer and Fanø bear testimony to the wonderful golfing terrain to be found.
Sticking out into the sea to the north of mainland Europe is the peninsula, shared between Germany and Denmark, called Jutland. To its west, clustered around the border between the two countries are a group of islands. One of these, north of the border, is called Fanø, and has its own links, the oldest golf course in Denmark. And on the German side are a number of islands, popular holiday venues all, two of which now also have interesting golf courses.
The small island of Föhr, which requires a ferry journey from the mainland, and the larger Sylt, which is connected by a rail causeway, are the two main German parts of the North Frisian archipelago. Both share a key characteristic from a golf point of view: predominantly sandy soil. And both are seeking to embrace the gospel of links golf, though in rather different ways.
Golf has been played on Föhr since the 1920s. A nine hole course, which involved a number of crossings of public roads, was laid out by German architect Bernhard von Limburger, in 1925. That course was later abandoned by the club, and a new site found next to the island’s airstrip. Over a thirty year period, it has grown; the first nine, dating from the 1960s, and designed by Frank Pennink, was joined around 20 years ago by nine more holes, built by the locals to plans done by Donald Harradine. Most recently, a small tract of land to the north of the existing course became available, and architect Christian Althaus of Germany’s largest design practice, Städler Golf Courses, has extended the club’s remit to 27 holes.
For Althaus, who has a long-standing connection to the island, this was his first newbuild project as lead architect. Few young designers get the chance to build in pure sand at such an early stage of their careers, but despite the great soils, the site presented formidable difficulties. Most pressingly, it was small – barely more than 20 hectares (50 acres) – and connecting any holes built on the new parcel to the existing clubhouse was never going to be easy.
The club’s initial plan was to build a subsidiary clubhouse on the new land, and have a standalone facility there. Althaus convinced them this could not pay its way, and, by dint of extensive routing studies, found a solution that provided three nine hole loops that (almost) returned to the clubhouse, and that meant the club could keep its existing 18 in play throughout construction. Only two current holes would change – the final hole of the Harradine nine, which has a new green, and a par three on the Pennink loop, which has been reversed in order to complete the new routing.
Both the older nines are very low profile, built with little earthmoving and gentle greens. The Pennink holes at least cut their way through mature pine trees; the Harradine holes are becoming tree-lined, but lack visual drama, a function, one assumes, of the miniscule budget on which they were built. Althaus has taken a different tack with the new holes. Faced with the need to achieve safety separations on a tight parcel of land, but blessed with perfect sandy soil, he has built the course in the faux dunes style now so popular around the world.
This style works better in some places than others. The new holes are divided between two of the three nines, interspersed between Pennink’s originals – the Harradine nine now stands alone. As such, the transition from old to new is quite stark, although the routing works its way through a partially treed area, so it’s not as though one emerges straight from forest to dunes. The shaping is generally well done, perhaps not out of the absolute top drawer, but two of the par threes are especially good, and the split fairway short par four that is one’s entrée to the new land is a stunner.
A few miles to the north is a rather different course. GCA has been covering the build of Budersand, designed by local architect Rolf-Stephan Hansen, for over three years now, so I was excited to see it in the flesh. When, at my instigation, veteran golf journalist George Peper visited the course earlier in the year, he pronounced it more truly a links than courses as eminent as Le Touquet, Kennemer and Falsterbo. Hansen, a native of Sylt, was able to build Budersand only because the land, previously a military base, and largely covered with concrete and metal, had already been developed and degraded. He has restored the dune environment amazingly.
Properties like this do not come along too often. Though truly a brownfield site, once the debris of the military base had been removed, the site was left surrounded by perfect natural dunes, so the shaped areas tie in to their environment as if the base had never been there. Perhaps, in a few cases, the constructed dunes are a little linear, but this really is a quibble.
The course opens with a brutal par four, right on the edge of the site, and thus clinging to the natural dunes. Long and accurate driving is necessary right out of the gate at Budersand; this opener, which falls downhill then swings left and up to a green protected on the right by a dune, is among the toughest first holes one will ever play. But the back nine is the star. The twelfth is a relatively short par four, only 343 metres (375 yards) from the back tee, but a series of pot bunkers block the fairway around where a good three wood might finish. To carry them is conceivable for a long hitter, especially given a strong wind behind, such as was blowing when I visited, but whether it is worthwhile is debateable. The hole then doglegs sharply to the left to a green set high on a gigantic dune. A well placed tee shot should leave no more than a short iron, but what a short iron!
The par three thirteenth, which has only a tiny frontal opening between sandhills, creates a hole that is almost akin to Lahinch’s famous Dell. From its highly elevated tee, a crosswind is a fearsome prospect, as any ball that is taken outside the surrounding dunes will leave very little prospect of recovery. And the fifteenth, a tiny par three with its green set hard against the sea, could earn comparisons to holes such as Troon’s Postage Stamp, or Pebble Beach’s seventh. The green is larger than either of those famous holes, but, even with a wedge, it is a tricky target, given the firm and bouncy nature of the ground. For many, with the prevailing wind from behind, a cunning knockdown shot might be the best way of getting close: who could not love a hole of only 100 metres that demands such precision of thought and execution?
A burn winds its way across the last three holes, creating images of Carnoustie in the player’s mind. At the home hole at least, it ought not to be in play: a solid drive avoiding the deep bunker at the corner of the dogleg left will give the golfer a reasonably comfortable second. But put the tee shot in trouble, and that burn will sneak its way into the subconscious!
That Budersand is Hansen’s debut design beggars belief. Like Mike Nuzzo at Wolf Point, he was able to give the project his full attention over an extended period of time, and the benefits shine through. George Peper, who has seen a few links courses in his time is right: this is a real links, and a very, very fine one.
This article appeared in issue 17 of Golf Course Architecture, published July 2009.