Five years elapsed between GCA’s visits to the Lofoten Links in the north of Norway. In 2012, owner Frode Hov and architect Jeremy Turner, with the assistance of management company Troon Golf, were just nicely under way on the expansion of the golf course from nine holes to eighteen. By the summer 2017, when we returned, the eighteen hole course had been open for a couple of years, and was reasonably well established.
The Links has had a fair amount of ink in those five years, and photographs of some of the holes – most notably, the spectacular par three second – have circulated quite widely. So, although surely one of the most isolated potential ‘destination’ courses on earth – it isn’t exactly unknown.
It’s hard to overestimate the remoteness though. You can get to Gimsøya, the island in the Lofoten archipelago on which the course is located, in many ways – by air to the Harstad/Narvik airport on the mainland, a spectacular three hour drive away, or to the small airport at Svolvaer, the capital of the archipelago, about forty minutes away, though this airport can only take prop planes and usually requires two hops to get there from Oslo (there is a nonstop service on some days, taking two and a half hours). The islands are a very popular tourist destination in the summer, when a quite remarkable number of people make the long drive up – mostly in camper vans with German plates, it seemed to me – almost 2,400 km and requiring more than thirty hours driving.
In short, then, getting to Hov, the little settlement where the golf course is located (the settlement has the same name as course owner Frode Hov, reflecting the fact that his family has owned this land for 400 years) will be something of an odyssey for a travelling golfer. In truth, this isn’t who the course is aimed at; the goal is to get play from a proportion of those already travelling to the islands (as well as the surprisingly large and dedicated coterie of local members). But for those who do make the long journey, is the golf experience worth it?
First and foremost, we must acknowledge that the setting, on the northern edge of Gimsøya and therefore facing directly towards the North Pole, is unmatched. Nothing else like this exists anywhere else. The climate of the Lofoten islands, because of the effects of the Gulf Stream, is quite remarkably mild – it is the most northerly place on earth where average temperatures are above freezing every month of the year. Winters are tough for sure, but mostly for lack of daylight rather than brutal cold – the sun does not rise over Svolvaer from 4 December until 7 January.
I travelled to Lofoten with Chris Bertram of the British Golf World magazine, and, during our stay, we shared our thoughts about the course often. What was surprising was how our views changed. After the first time round, we both took the view that the attraction was mostly about the setting, and that the golf was not, in itself, special. A few days – and several rounds – later, and we had spun almost 180 degrees. The course had revealed itself to us; we had learned some of its quirks and figured out where to go and where not to. First time out, apart from the setting, your main thought is likely to be ‘This is narrow’ and your principal concern trying to keep your ball in play, out of the ocean, the ever-present rocks and the numerous pools and lagoons that dot the property. But, before I left, I did a little exercise, and concluded there were ten holes on the course that I would consider to be very good or excellent. This is a high number, plenty enough for the course to be seen as an equal to many serious venues.
The strong golf – and the drama – starts on the first hole, a short par four, only around 280 metres from the tees that everyone will play at the moment (there is a back tee at 301 metres, and the view is spectacular, but to reach it requires a climb up a rock stack with no proper path; it’s there to be brought into play when the planned hotel is built). One drives across the ocean to a fairway that, as well as swinging to the left, narrows as it nears the green. There is sea on one side and rocks on the other, a common experience at Lofoten, and to hit a big club off the tee demands a committed swing.
The second is the hole that has got most attention, a par three of 138 metres across the beach to a green surrounded on three sides by the sea. It is truly one of the most remarkable one-shot holes anywhere on earth; but what is most exciting is the existence of an alternative tee, right next to the water to the left of the first green, from which the hole is even better! The back tee of the third hole is on the rock stack to the side of this green; sadly it won’t be played by many people, as it requires a carry of well over 200 metres over the ocean to reach the fairway.
The fourth and fifth move inland and take players to the excellent bunkerless par three sixth, whose green is nestled in a rock amphitheatre. There is truly nowhere to miss on this hole, but it is a beauty. The par five seventh doglegs for its whole distance around a lake called Arvikvannet (it’s the kind of place where the lakes have names), while the eighth, also a par five, is probably the only place on the course where earthmoving – in this case the creation of dunes flanking the fairway – is obviously visible. Nine is another shortish par four, with an approach over a little valley – with another pond to the right – and three fronting bunkers to the course’s most undulating green.
The journey home starts at the furthest inland the course goes. The tenth is a par four, only 343 metres but playing much longer as it is uphill; a stream threatens on the right, while the tabletop green is hard to hit. Number eleven, a long dogleg par four, brings us to the twelfth, at 222 metres a huge par three. It’s a great hole, with a perfectly placed pot bunker to the front left of the green catching any drive (and it will be a drive for almost everyone) that isn’t quite strong enough to get home. There is a large expanse of fairway short of the green, and only the ocean can be seen behind it – for many the smart shot will be to layup and try to chip and putt for a three.
The thirteenth, another par five, brings us right back to the water’s edge and sets us up for the best hole on the golf course. At 381 metres, the fourteenth is the third longest par four on the course, and its S-shaped fairway, bordered all the way up the right side by the rocky foreshore, offers a wide range of strategic options. The fairway opens out to the right at a good driving distance, and a brave tee shot towards the water will reap dividends in terms of giving the best angle of approach, although it will require another shot across the sea to get home. The green is banked into a substantial upslope, with a pot bunker behind it; it is a great golf hole.
The fifteenth, an uphill par four playing directly away from the ocean to a very good shelf green, brings us to another highlight, the longest two-shotter on the golf course, with the green set right beside the water. It’s as though the last hundred metres of the hole is on a spit out in the sea. Seventeen and eighteen, a tiny par three and another mid-length par four bring us back to the clubhouse. The Lofoten Links may be narrow, and with the abundant rock it may be quite penal too, but it has enough great golf to justify anyone making the long journey to the shores of the Arctic.
This article first appeared in issue 50 of Golf Course Architecture