One of Europe’s hidden gems is just in need of a sympathetic touch-up, says Adam Lawrence.
The pretty lakeside resort of Bled in Slovenia has a slight aura of faded grandeur to it. Money, it is clear, has been spent here in the distant past, and is now beginning to be spent again, but much of the town gives the impression it has seen better days. And in some ways, the same is true of the golf course that shares the town’s name.
Golf came to Bled a surprisingly long time ago. The King’s course, now the major attraction of Golf Resort Bled, was created back in the 1930s, when the area was a successful spa town.
Identifying the architect is not a straightforward process, but extensive research by the German golf historian Christoph Meister has revealed that a previously little-known Austrian, Rudolf von Gelmini-Kreutzhof, routed the golf course around a superb piece of land five kilometres out of the town, surrounded by Slovenia’s highest mountains, including the 2,700 metre high Triglav.
During the Second World War and the communist era that followed, golf was not a high priority in the then Yugoslavia. Local enthusiasts kept nine holes in play, but it was not until 1973 that the course was properly recreated, when Swiss-British architect Donald Harradine rebuilt it to the original routing.
We may not know much about the mysterious Herr von Gelmini-Kreutzhof, but he was clearly a man of some talent. The course's routing is first-rate; greens are beautifully placed, the wonderful undulating property is explored to its full benefit, and natural features such as a small valley that runs across three holes of the front nine are very well used.
Harradine’s work too is good: his greens, though rarely radically contoured, are wonderfully subtle – the small rise in front of the green at the otherwise rather bland ninth being a typical example.
Although the soil is heavy, the property has a real feel of heath to it, and indeed there is much heather to be found in the areas surrounding the course.
The long par five second hole features a terrific dogleg to the left on the tee shot. With the fairway built up slightly to the right, it invites an aggressive draw down the short side. But once the golfer has found the fairway, the challenge rather evaporates: a large hollow in front of the green will inevitably collect most decent second shots.
Similarly on the third hole, architect Harradine set up a tempting choice of options for the player. With the green angled away from the direction of play, and a bunker fronting the left half of the green, the stage is set for a classic Redan-style par three. The green lacks the true Redan's front to back tilt and kickboard to the right, but the real problem is another bunker that sits five yards in front of the otherwise open right half.
Bunkering is in general a problem at Bled. Don Harradine’s budget must have been miniscule to start with, and thirty-odd years of relative neglect hasn't done the golf course any favours. The bunkers frankly, hardly deserve the name: in many cases, it appears as though the turf has simply been removed from an area and a layer of sand added. Most often, a ball found in a bunker is best played with a putter! But the spine of the golf course is first class. The holes sit beautifully on the land, and the routing explores the wonderful property with great variety. There are strategic challenges aplenty, even if they are often negated by the current condition of the course, especially its hazards.
The other part of Golf Resort Bled is the nine hole Lake course, routed by Harradine (he in fact routed another full 18) but built by the club’s then general manager. Perhaps the land is not as outstanding as that occupied by the King’s, but it is still excellent property for golf. Sadly, though, the course was not constructed to adequate standards, and it badly needs renovating.
However, the future may just be bright for the resort as a whole. Slovenian conglomerate Sava bought the complex – which also features an excellent restaurant and two small hotels – to be part of its expanding hospitality division, which also owns most of the top hotels in Bled. And Sava has engaged British architect Howard Swan to prepare a fullscale renovation plan for the site.
Touring Bled with Swan, it is clear that he is very excited by its potential. He and his team have prepared a masterplan for the upgrading of the King's course, and another schema to fix the problems on the Lake, while also building the other nine holes originally planned by Harradine. But what excites the architect most is the possibility of building another new course, on adjacent land. It is easy to share this enthusiasm. Again featuring wonderful natural undulations, a fine golf course could be created here with little or no major earthmoving. Walk around the property and terrific natural greensites abound.
But Swan's ambitious plans have not yet borne fruit. Land ownership is a complicated matter in Slovenia, and securing the property for further golf is far from certain. The renovation of the King's course should, though, get under way shortly. If the architect can resist the temptation to do too much – Gelmini-Kreutzhof and Harradine’s work needs enhancing, not obliterating – a truly outstanding golf course could be the result.
As recently as 2005, Bled was rated the 74th best course in continental Europe by the UK’s Golf World magazine. In one sense, there is no way such an exalted opinion can be justified. But no fan of old-style golf could fail to be excited by the massive potential present in the King’s Course. It is to be hoped that Howard Swan and his team can persuade the golf course’s owners to spend the money needed to recreate one of the continent's real hidden gems.
This article first appeared in GCA issue 9, published July 2007.