Continental Europe is not an easy place to build golf these days. Even where economies are strong and demand for golf is high, architects and constructors in Europe face very severe challenges imposed by government that, in all honesty, lack both knowledge of, and sympathy for the game.
In France, for example, American superstar designer Tom Doak was only able to complete the new course at Saint-Emilion, near Bordeaux, by creating a drainage system that would funnel all the rainwater that falls on the property into a large reservoir. Why? Because French law bans the extraction of ground water from such sites, and therefore the only source of water to irrigate the course through the hot days of a southern summer was the water that could be captured from runoff in this way.
Elsewhere on the continent, in Scandinavia in particular, course managers face increasingly tight restrictions on the chemicals they can use to help them maintain golf, to the extent that this is giving birth to a movement of practically chemical-free greenkeeping (we’ll return to this later).
Water was a huge issue for the team that built the recently opened golf course at the Hofgut Georgenthal hotel and resort, around 40km west of Frankfurt. Ironically, perhaps, Georgenthal is powered by water in a sense; hotel owner Brita Hankammer’s father invented the popular Brita water filter (which he named after his daughter). But German regulations too prevented the team from extracting water from wells on site, so, in order to get water, architect Christian Althaus, along with contractor Josef Pötter Golf and irrigation supplier Perrot Regnerbau, were forced to build an 8km pipeline to bring water to the site. Not only that, but all the ponds on the site are connected together to ensure maximum storage, and the pump station which drives this system is buried in a concrete bunker near the seventeenth tee, like something out of a James Bond movie. It is, frankly, a pretty remarkable setup.
Water wasn’t the only issue the team faced in getting Georgenthal built. A previous contractor had gone bust before Pötter was brought in, causing a major delay to the project.
German laws are also very strict on what chemicals can and cannot be used on golf courses; fortunately for the project, Scottish consultant Ian Macmillan MG, a well-known advocate of natural golf management, oversaw the grow-in, which was pesticide and fungicide free.
Archaeology was also a problem, as the site is crossed by the remains of the Limes Germanicus, the ancient line of fortifications that divided the Roman empire from the barbarian Germanic tribes, so Althaus’s design had to leave certain areas, where the remnants of the Limes were to be found, untouched.
To make matters more difficult still, the severely sloping property is extremely small, at little more than 50 hectares (125 acres) for a modern eighteen hole design, and the owners wanted to include a full-scale driving range, a three hole par three course and a Himalayas-style practice putting green.
It’s to Althaus’s credit, then, that he has designed a fun golf course that is a (fairly) comfortable walk with a good selection of holes demanding a variety of shots at Georgenthal. His bunkering is particularly attractive; since the architect’s first project as a lead designer, when he built the third nine at Golfclub Föhr, off the northern coast of Germany for Städler Golf about six or seven years ago, Althaus seems to have been getting braver and braver with bunker styling, and here at Georgenthal, his style has reached maturity.
It’s also notable that perhaps the best hole on the golf course is the third, a steeply uphill par four. In truth, golfers rarely take to uphill holes – it’s not only Jack Nicklaus who thinks that golf is a better game played downhill – but what comes down must go up, and while building severe climbs in between holes to get the ascent out of play might be OK when all the golfers will be riding in carts, that same arrangement is a huge pain to the walker. Germans, like most of their northern European counterparts, like to walk, so it is appropriate that Althaus has designed the course with them in mind.
The fourth is an appealing short par four, drivable for big hitters, with a green tucked into the top corner of the property, and protected in front by bunkers. But Althaus does not force the player to take on those bunkers; he has left much fairway to the right side of the green, and a tee shot hit to that side will leave a nice open chip shot with a good chance of a three.
The architect himself says his favourite hole is the par five twelfth, which runs in the opposite direction to the fourth, and right on the other side of the property. It’s a pretty hole for sure, but his judgement must be influenced by his arrow-straight hitting; the gap between the out of bounds on the right and the rough on the left is not wide, and wilder players will find the hole intimidating in the extreme. On the other hand, most everyone will fall for the fifteenth, a classic short drop shot par three to a well contoured green.
What appealed to me most about Georgenthal was Althaus’s commitment to building strategic holes in an environment where that was difficult to do. Strategy generally requires width; and width is obviously harder to provide on a very tight site. Yet, through clever design, and without a large amount of earthmoving, the architect has built a number of good holes where there is very clearly strategy in play. That short fourth is a good example, but there are plenty of others. The eighteenth hole is very smart indeed, with the green set at a slightly oblique angle to the line of play, thus favouring one side of the fairway over the other. The figure-eight green is pretty bold: the narrow part of the green is very skinny indeed, perhaps no more than ten paces. Certainly back pins will take a brave shot to get close to.
There must have been many times during the development of the Georgenthal course when it looked as if it would never be finished; it is to owner Brita Hankammer’s credit that she stayed the course when others might have faltered. But credit is also due to the team that built the course. It seems, from meeting that team, to have been a very successful partnership between architect, contractor and irrigation supplier. Would that there were more such projects!
This article first appeared in issue 45 of Golf Course Architecture.