Not too many golfers are aware of the clump of classic courses built by the architects of the early twentieth century in the Low Countries of Holland and Belgium. Not far from Britain and with, in selected areas, quite similar soils and topography to the links and heath courses of southern England, northern Europe was a fruitful hunting ground for the likes of Harry Colt, Willie Park and Tom Simpson. Courses such as De Pan, Kennemer and Royal Hague in the Netherlands and Royal Zoute in Belgium were created for affluent locals and became regular haunts for the golf wanderers of the age.
Golf first came to the Belgian city of Antwerp in 1888. The club abandoned its original site, close to the city centre, fairly early in its history, and the legendary Scottish designer Willie Park Jr created a new eighteen hole course on a patch of perfect sandy heathland to the east of Antwerp in 1912. And, in 1930, the eccentric Englishman Tom Simpson, already one of the most successful designers on the Continent after his creation of Morfontaine and Chantilly, remodelled Park's course and added an extra nine holes. To this day, Royal Antwerp remains among Belgium's best regarded clubs.
Over time, Simpson and Park's work withered away. After two severe clubhouse fires, little evidence remains of what the course looked like in its early years. As with so many of the English heathland courses, a lack of active maintenance of heather areas resulted in dense tree cover across most of the property, and the character of the course was lost. Alterations led by greens committees eliminated much of the course's Golden Age architecture.
Belgian golf architect Dimitri van Hauwaert is a third generation member of Royal Antwerp. Twice a club champion and a former national team player, van Hauwaert and his sometime collaborator, British designer Steve Marnoch, are leading an extensive renovation of the historic course. And the results, even relatively early in the project, are worth seeing.
Royal Antwerp sits on perfect sandy soil.
The land lacks really dramatic movement: it is essentially flat, with small-scale undulations providing playing interest around the property. What van Hauwaert has tried to do, on a small budget, is to add more interest to the green complexes through a revised bunkering scheme and subtle shaping changes.
In some cases, this has worked triumphantly. In general the greens at Royal Antwerp contain only subtle contours, especially for anyone familiar with Simpson's work at the likes of Cruden Bay; and it is hard to assess, without detailed historical evidence, how they reflect his original designs. But in some cases, such as the wonderful seventeenth green, the genius of the original designer is clear to see, and has been respectfully enhanced by van Hauwaert and Marnoch's work.
A par four of some 350 metres, the seventeenth hole generally plays into the prevailing wind. The fairway is wide up to the 150 metre indicator but narrows significantly beyond it, making any attempt to hit driver and leave a short approach fraught with danger, so most players are likely to be hitting at least six or seven iron for their second shot. The hole, though, is made by the slopes around the green. Twenty metres short of the putting surface, a diagonal ridge crosses the fairway, with a vicious pot bunker (newly created by van Hauwaert) cut into the middle of it. The bunker neatly separates the higher ground to the right and the lower level to the left; the latter is cut as rough, although I see no particular reason why it should not be fairway. The ground continues to rise up to the green, creating a rampart over which the approach must travel; from the front of the putting surface, though, it falls away severely. This might be seen as a severe green, but as both sides are higher than the middle, anything rolling on to the putting surface will be funnelled down towards the flag. Behind the green, a previously wet hollow has been raised by van Hauwaert, making recovery from an overhit shot more achievable.
On the par five tenth, another brilliant Simpson green has been judiciously enhanced by van Hauwaert and Marnoch. Again the player faces the challenge of a green that drops away from him; here though, it is only in part. A rebuilt bunker with a high ridge behind it cuts into the right side, and beyond the ridge the green plunges away from the golfer. Van Hauwaert has extended the green further to the right, creating (or perhaps recovering?) fascinating new pin positions behind the bunker.
Strategically, much of the work at Royal Antwerp is excellent. Aesthetically, I have a few more questions. Van Hauwaert says his brief was to recreate a classical look – before the renovation the bunkers had become very flat and plain – while making maintenance as easy as possible. I am not sure he has achieved this first aim, as the bunker shapes are more complex than I would expect on a Golden Age course, and their generally flat bottoms do not have the visual impact of typical heathland hazards. The idea is to have bunker banks covered in tall, wispy fescue grass; at the moment the right maintenance solution eludes the club, as the faces are thick and penal.
When a golfer would rather be in the bunker itself than the face, something is out of kilter. But I have confidence that staff will find a balance given a little time.
Significant numbers of trees have already been removed from the Royal Antwerp property, and van Hauwaert would dearly love to run wild with the chainsaw. Regulatory concerns make extensive tree surgery difficult, but the long vistas from the clubhouse that tree removal has created are wonderful, and will hopefully encourage further action.
What the tree removal does enable, though, is a serious attempt to regenerate the heathland characteristics of the property. Some work has already been carried out in this regard, and a number of areas of heather, in different stages of growth, are to be found around the course. Heather seed exists in abundance in the soil; where turf has been stripped and weeds controlled, the heather is returning quickly, and already looks splendid. And, as lowland heath is a habitat far more threatened that forest, it is to be hoped that van Hauwaert can persuade his club – and its regulators – to take a more aggressive approach in this regard.
This article first appeared in issue 13 of Golf Course Architecture, published in July 2008.