Marnoch looks to restore heath and add strategy to Dutch course. Adam Lawrence paid a visit to learn more.
When debates about the environmental impact of golf get going, a popular argument among those in favour of the game is that it does less harm to the landscape than does agriculture. But, properly designed and managed, golf can be a huge positive for its environment. You might struggle to find a better example of this than the project currently underway at Heelsum in the east of the Netherlands. Here a golf course is being used as a means of restoring an important landscape that had, over a century, been essentially destroyed by intensive farming.
The course at Heelsum, which is located close to the city of Arnhem in the east of the Netherlands, was built in 2002 by the veteran Dutch architect Hans Hertzberger. The name of Arnhem, of course, is famous the world over because of the Operation Market Garden airborne assault during the Allies’ advance across the Low Countries in 1944, and a number of the paratroopers actually landed on the terrain that would become the golf course. The land, close to the Rhine River, is one of the furthest extensions of the glacial advance across the Netherlands in the last Ice Age, and is thus pure sand to a depth of 30m. As such, for much of history it had been useless for agriculture, and evolved into heath. Only during the last century did agricultural technology develop to the extent that sites as infertile as Heelsum could be made productive by the mass addition of organic matter. As a result, across the site, the sand is covered by a thin layer of dark, rich topsoil, derived from heavy manuring.
Hertzberger’s 2002 design created 27 holes of golf, but was fairly basic. Budgetary constraints and environmental restrictions precluded large-scale earthmoving or any real attempt to return the land to its preagricultural state. Nevertheless, the club has been a commercial success, has succeeded in building bridges with the environmental authorities, and, with the arrival of a visionary manager in Gert Mulder, has embarked on a major upgrading programme.
The purposes of the project, being led by British architect Steve Marnoch, are twofold: to increase the level of golfing interest at Heelsum, but also to return the site, as much as is possible, to the heathland it would have been before agriculture changed it. Actually, the two are intrinsically linked: a more natural look and feel to the property will add immeasurably to the enjoyment of playing golf. Who would not prefer to play across a beautiful heath than on a farmer’s field?
Budgetary and practical constraints don’t allow Marnoch to rip up large parts of the property and recreate the kind of undulations that would have existed before it went under the plough. But, within these restrictions, the pure sand that exists under the thin layer of topsoil is allowing the architect to build features that hark back to an older age of golf.
Two ‘dry dales’, eroded drainage channels, run through the course. Previously covered in grass, these are being returned to a more natural state, with lots of exposed sand and ragged, unkempt edges. On a number of holes, the dry dales act as interesting hazards, notably on the sixth of the Sandr nine, a splendid par five, where the dale creates a split fairway giving bold golfers a chance to get home in two.
Another fine par five, and one of the few places where Marnoch has been able to move a bit more sand to create interesting fairway contours, is the fourth on the Helsum nine. On this hole, humps and hollows cross the fairway in the second shot landing area, posing some interesting strategic questions. In the hollows, the pitch to the green is blind, so players must think carefully about the positioning of their shots to give the best chance of a good approach.
Contractors Heijmans Sport en Groen – who also maintain the course under a contract with the club – are doing a fine job with the works. Accurate work with an excavator’s bucket is central to building features of this kind and making them look natural – especially when much of the property will remain relatively flat. A good example of this is to the left of the sixth fairway on the Airborne nine, where a large complex of hollows and rolls had been built and returfed only a short time before my visit. The shaping work here is of very high quality, and will really enhance what would previously have been a bland hole.
Heather, so essential to heathland, is being planted around the course, on bunker banks and humps. As well as producing aesthetic benefits, using heather to cover the edge of sandy areas will reduce the day-to-day maintenance requirement (local golfers, though, will doubtless soon realise what a fearsome hazard it can be). The other plant key to this type of property, juniper, is apparently harder to reintroduce, though some have been successfully.
One need only talk to Steve Marnoch, to his client Gert Mulder, or to club chairman and resident botanist Adrie van der Werf, to realise how excited all concerned with the Heelsum project are. And they are right to be excited. What’s going on at Heelsum is a shining example for the way golf ought to be positioning itself in both commercial and environmental terms. A club, successful despite its youth, is investing in its facilities, recognising that constantly improving the quality of golf is the only way to cope with fierce competition for players. But it is doing so in a way that will dramatically enhance its environment, for golfers, for locals and for wildlife. Heelsum is a five year project at least: it will take that long for Marnoch’s new features to blend into their surroundings and for the improved biodiversity to really show itself. But I am confident it will be recognised before then as a case study in how golf should be built and played.
This article was initially featured in the January 2010 issue of Golf Course Architecture.