Golf in Scandinavia is on the up.
There is significant investment, both from within the region and from outside, going into developing new golfing facilities, and upgrading some of those that already exist.
Sweden led the way for golf in Scandinavia, and the market remains strong with big name US architects working there, as well as European players. Finland, though, is coming up on the rails, and, with half as many golf courses per thousand of population as Sweden, there is clearly capacity for growth.
Most golf course development in Finland, though, has been relatively lowkey.
Certainly there is little reason for golf tourists to consider the country as a destination, unless they are particularly fond of saunas! Linna Golf, though, could change all that. Set alongside Finland's only country house hotel, built early in the 20th century as a hunting lodge by a local industrialist and later a training camp for the Finnish Communist Party, the golf course, which opened at the end of the 2005 season, is a high-spec development aimed possibly at attracting a European Tour event in the future.
Co-owners Mika Walkamo and Harri-Pekka Vihma are keen golfers and have operated the Vanajanlinna property as a hotel for close to ten years. Building a golf course was a key part of their plans for the development of the resort, and they therefore engaged Australian architect Tim Lobb, now a partner in the firm of Thomson, Perrett and Lobb, but at the time working for European Golf Design (EGD), to lead the design work.
Constructing a golf course at these latitudes presents its own challenges.
Winters in Finland are long and cold, with temperatures often dropping to minus 25°C. The golf season is correspondingly short – only five months on average, although the 24-hour daylight of midsummer does mean that a lot of golf can be played in those months! One issue, therefore, is getting the course into play as quickly as possible after the snow melts. Lobb therefore avoided locating greens on north facing slopes, to maximise the amount of light and warmth that would reach the grass. Earthmoving during prolonged periods of freezing temperatures is also problematic, as the ground is prone to shifting during this time. Greens and subbase material were therefore selected to be free of rocks, and allowed to settle over a winter. Rootzones were constructed and greens seeded the following year.
Environmental constraints played their part in the design and construction of the course. Melt water from the abundant winter snowfalls moves in large quantity across the course during the spring, so the drainage channels that cross the golf course, and the holding pond system that collects the water needed careful consideration. Simply allowing the water to flow straight into the large lake on which the hotel sits was not an option.
Laid out mostly in pine and birch forest, the 122ha Linna site has excellent elevation changes. The feel of the course is modern, with water hazards featuring on a number of holes. But there are plenty of options for the golfer at Linna: Lobb has created relatively wide corridors on most of the holes. And, although so many modern golf courses abhor blindness in any fashion, Lobb has used the terrain effectively to mask the golfer's view in some places. Take the tenth hole, a fine par five playing to an elevated green. Bunkers down the left side between 80-100 yards from the green obscure the target from that part of the fairway. But the approach from the right side is no picnic either, as the land tilts away from the golfer. Either way, a precise shot is required.
Linna's fourteenth hole doglegs to the left around a lake. The green, though perhaps nothing out of the ordinary in classical golf design terms, is much more interesting than most to be found on similar modern courses.With three tiers, the middle of which is the lowest, it challenges the player to find a way of getting his approach close to the flag. "I was thinking of a rollercoaster when we shaped that green," says architect Lobb.
The fifteenth is a tremendous par five, the creation of Golf World competition winner David Sampson.With water to the right of the fairway, the golfer who wants to try for the green in two must play close to the lake, challenging the bunkers on that side. Even if a perfect tee shot is hit, the green is elusive, and, with severe slopes, deep bunkers and a rock outcrop – which was unearthed during construction, forcing a change of design – the hole remains difficult.
Linna's seventeenth is a tremendous uphill par four, turning slightly around the forest on the left hand side. From the championship tee, the hole measures 417 metres (over 460 yards), so will require a long second shot. But the green's severe tilt towards the player makes the approach a little more amenable. So much so that EGD boss Jeremy Slessor, who had struggled with his game throughout our visit to Linna, improved his mood with a tremendous birdie three.
Linna's home hole is an interesting midlength par four from most of the tees. A good drive will leave only a short iron to the green, but the shot had better be precise, as a lake wraps around the front and left of the green. The player can reduce the impact of the water on his approach by hitting his drive to the right side of the fairway, but a large bunker makes that path risky. This writer, having hit a rare perfect tee shot to the middle of the fairway, followed it with a pleasing wedge to about ten feet above the hole. Unfortunately, the putt refused to drop!
From the championship tee, though, the hole will be transformed. Still not overly long, at 376 metres (around 420 yards), the back tee is perched precariously on a high rock outcrop. The spectacular view is one thing, but the tee also changes the angle of the hole, creating a slight dogleg to the right. From here, the tee shot will be noticeably more challenging (as befits the closing hole on a would-be championship course), because the increased angle of dogleg will tend to push the ball out to the left side, from where the water plays an increased role.
Green shaping at Linna is interesting without being outstanding. The sixth hole, for example, has a large green with noticeable swales, as well as significant tilt – and thus provides the opportunity to find difficult pin positions when the big boys come to town. But it remains playable for mere mortals.
The road to the castle hotel divides the ninth hole from the rest of the golf course. Set in what was originally a field, the hole represents the most substantial piece of landscaping on the golf course, because, rather than the pristine forest of the rest of the course, the ninth was constructed from a flat field. This does show: a man-made stream winds across the fairway, and the green shaping is worthwhile, but the hole is perhaps less interesting than much of the rest of the course.
Given the sheer scale of the Linna site, Lobb was able to incorporate a large and comprehensive practice facility in the plan. Finnish former European Tour professional Anssi Kankonnen is based at Linna, and runs golf schools there.
Current tour pro Mikka Ilonen also uses the facility to practice. The practice putting facility covers an area equivalent to three normal sized greens, and substantial chipping and bunker practices areas are included too.
Operated by PGA European Tour Courses, it's likely that major professional events will come to Linna in the not-too-distant future.Will the course be suited? Certainly it has the length, scale and scope to pose real questions to top golfers. Conditioning will be the challenge, as ever: Finland's climate is relatively wet, and, although the course has been constructed to high standards, it will never be easy to achieve the kind of firm turf that makes professionals stop and think. Respected Finnish commentators have suggested that Linna will probably be considered the country's best, and it is a fine example of a modern championshipscale golf course that does not overwhelm its landscape or give the impression of having been built with no thought to its surroundings.Will it see a boom in golfers travelling to Finland to play by the midnight sun? Perhaps not, but those that do go should enjoy the experience.
This article originally appeared in issue 6 of GCA, published October 2006.