Building a golf course as part of a larger housing development is a well understood business model in many parts of the world. Indeed, in the United States, a substantial majority of the courses opened in recent years have been developed on this model. But it's important to realise that the rest of the world doesn't necessarily do things the same way.
In much of Europe, for example, because of stringent planning controls, it has proved extremely difficult to gain permission to create integrated golf and housing projects. Early integrated developments in the UK, like St George's Hill, generally accepted as the first use of the model, and Wentworth have not been followed by many more, as planners have exerted a tight grip over the use of land for new housing.
The same is true in Scandinavia – until now. Thirty kilometres north of Århus, Denmark's second city, developer Poul Anker Lübker and the design firm of Robert Trent Jones II have created the country's first such resort. And, although having housing around a golf course inevitably demands compromises from the architect, RTJII president Bruce Charlton, the lead designer on the project, has built what may well be the country's finest course.
Charlton started with some top-drawer raw materials: the 200 hectare (500 acre) site Lübker gave him offers pure sand underfoot, along with attractive topography and fine vistas. But there were some constraints also. Most notably, environmental regulations forced a 50m unmaintained zone on either side of a natural watercourse: this is designed to filter runoff from the turfgrass areas and prevent chemicals leaching into the water, but it had an effect on both the opening and finishing holes on the course's Sky nine.
The 27 holes at Lübker are divided into three nines, Sky, Sand and Forest, with the first two comprising the 'championship' eighteen. The Forest nine, though, isn't exactly a pushover – it measures close to 3,000 metres (3,300 yards) from the back tees, and features the complex's longest hole in its 585 metre (640 yard) opener. Architect Charlton told GCA that the sandy, scrubby nature of the property put him in mind of Pine Valley, the perpetual top course in the world, and that he tried to reflect some of its virtues in his design.
Pine Valley, of course, is famous for its difficulty. Lübker is tough too, but perhaps not as difficult as it might at first seem. Look at the bottom line of the scorecard and you will see what appears to be a long golf course: the Sky and Sand nines together measure 6,476 metres (7,082 yards). But the course does not play this long. There are three very, very lengthy par fives, one of which, the ninth on the Sky course, is among the toughest most golfers will have seen, especially into the prevailing wind. This is one of the holes affected by the environmental area around the natural stream: the unmaintained area creates a fearsome cross-hazard threatening the second shot.
Fail to hit a good, solid drive into the fairway and a layup second will be your only option – and that will make the green unreachable in the regulation three shots.
This may sound penal – and it is – but is also precisely the challenge thrown down by Pine Valley's seventh hole, which features perhaps the most famous hazard in golf, the monstrous Hell's Half Acre.
Charlton – who admits he had that hole in mind – thinks the ninth is perhaps a little too tough, and hopes to be able to narrow the environmental area in the future. But it's a fascinating hole, because it plays on the golfer's mind. Every half decent golfer expects to score well on par five holes, and generally one slightly skew-whiff shot won't ruin your chances of making a five. Here, though, you don't have much chance of a par unless your first two shots are straight and solid.
Lübker's par fours are, mostly, a less terrifying bunch. Except, that is, the seventh hole on the Sand nine, a brute at 455 metres (498 yards). It comes as part of the course's most difficult stretch: the fourth is a massive par three with a wildly undulating green, the fifth a 579 metre (633 yard) par five, and the sixth another one shotter, not this time so long but with a green that is angled away from the player and highly elusive. Then one reaches the seventh. There is plenty of fairway width – for which the golfer should be thankful, as rarely will he have been so keen to hit a long drive – but challenging a big bunker on the right of the fairway will offer a better angle into the green. Only the very best will really worry about angles though: anything on or around the green in two will be a tremendous result. A marsh on the left and trees on the right could turn a mishit second into a disaster, and – just to add insult to injury – a steep bank protects the front and right sides of the green.
This hole is a perfect example of an oldstyle bogey five: it may well be classified as a par five before long, too. Five would rarely be a bad score here.
Another fine par four is the 400 metre eighth on Sky. Waste bunkers bite into the fairway on the left side, pretty much where a good drive would finish, and the hole turns quite sharply to the right. A drive close to the trees on that side is ideal, so long as the golfer is accurate enough or long enough to be confident his view of the green won't be blocked out. The front of the green is, again, open – but humps and hollows mean any approach that isn't confidently struck will be rejected. And chips from below these greens are not easy, even though there is little or no rough on the golf course.
Lübker is not without its flaws. The par four second on the Sky nine is squeezed in between tall trees, and only the straightest tee shot will give a clear view of the green – I suspect the architect would have liked to clear more extensively. And the third on the same nine is a potentially entertaining short par four tucked into a corner of the property next to an access road and with housing lots down the other side. In theory it should be driveable, but the target is tiny and the carry long – only very confident or very foolhardy golfers will take on the challenge.
The course's five par threes are a mixed bunch too. Sand's second hole is a picturesque little thing, played over a pond and a waste bunker to a wide but shallow green – only a short iron, but a testing examination of distance control, especially if one has started on this loop.
The previously-mentioned fourth on the same nine is just a brute – 222 metres, slightly uphill and with a big green with severe fall-offs to the front and the left. In two days at the resort I never saw the green hit. The best, though, is the tiny seventh on Sky. Carved out of the trees, it is only 128 downhill metres even from the championship tee, and the green is big, albeit surrounded by a sea of waste bunkers. But the severe contouring of the putting surface offer a range of interesting pin positions – notably, the back part of the green falls away from the line of play, meaning that accessing a rear pin requires careful thought and precise execution. Like a number of fallaway par three greens, an approach that lands well short of the flag and takes the slope may well be a better option than a high, spinning wedge.
As well as the housing, Lübker is seeking to break new ground for Denmark in terms of conditioning and service. For a new course, the quality of turf on opening day was little short of astounding: in particular, course manager Derek Grendovicz had Charlton's undulating greens running speedily – plenty quick enough to make putting a real challenge. The resort's design is typically Scandinavian with a clean, modern aesthetic. This aesthetic is carried through on the golf course, where the course equipment and signage has been specially created by British firm Eagle Promotions. Working along with the RTJII team and Grendovicz, Eagle designed signage that uses a modern sans serif typeface and the resort's black and white brand colours etched into zinc plates on Iroko hardwood posts. There are a few areas of the development that spoil this perception of top quality modern design, though: notably, two large Canadian log cabins being built behind the fifth green of the Sky nine.
They look like sets from a Scandinavian Flintstones remake: I cannot comprehend how the fastidious developers came to give their consent. Nonetheless, it's a small black mark on an otherwise fine project.
This article first appeared in issue 15 of Golf Course Architecture, published in January 2009.