Every golf architect dreams of getting that perfect project where a great piece of ground and an ideal client combine to enable him to build the course he has been planning in his head since he was small. But such projects are rare indeed, because of the number of different factors that all have be lined up to produce the green light that says go.
Let’s list those factors. The site is the most obvious; you want an interesting, rolling piece of ground with lots of small-scale land movement. Nothing too enormous or steep; anyone who has studied the Old course at St Andrews knows that the soul of golf resides in elevation changes that are pretty tiny by most standards. But as well as the landforms on your site, what’s under the surface is critically important too. Sand, as any long-time reader of GCA knows only too well, is the golf architect’s best friend. Sandy soil basically ensures perfect permeability, meaning there’s no need to invest a ton of money in drainage pipes. It’s easy to move and shape, so that, even where the natural contours of the ground don’t match up to what the golf designer wants, it can easily be moulded into new forms. And it is the perfect medium for growing the sort of fine-bladed grass species that are the best and most sustainable surface for golf.
The third key factor is the client. The absolute perfect client, I guess, is a billionaire who wants to build the best golf course in the world, but who accepts that he knows nothing about golf design and therefore leaves it entirely to his architect. But perfection basically doesn’t exist; billionaires tend to be the kind of people who like being involved in things, are good at making decisions, and know it. Good luck trying to persuade one of those to keep his big nose out of your business, Mr Architect. So let us try to be a little more realistic; a very good client is one that can provide an adequate budget to do the job, is supportive of the architect’s work, and, broadly speaking, knows not to second guess the professionals.
So, we have ground, soil and client. There are plenty of other factors too, but it’s not unreasonable to suggest that those three are the most important. With none of those three factors in his favour, any architect is going to struggle to do a decent job – and frankly, most successful ones would probably turn down the project. One, maybe. Two is good, three is a dream.
Well, Swedish architect Christian Lundin can reasonably say he had two of the three key factors in his favour for his rebuild of the Skövde club in central Sweden. Skövde is a town of 70,000 people, fairly isolated in that it’s 150km from Gothenburg, the nearest large city (but this is, to be fair, not especially isolated by Swedish standards!), with a huge Volvo plant as the backbone of its economy. Originally founded in 1934, the club was recreated in the late 1980s, and Swedish architect Peter Nordwall built its new course. Nordwall is a bold designer – he was the only architect who said he would be prepared to build a blind par three when GCA wrote about such holes back in 2009 – with a definite style that typically incorporates extremely large greens. But, almost thirty years after its construction, the club was having issues with the course, and commissioned architect Christian Lundin of reGOLF to redesign it with a view to easier maintenance and better playability for golfers of all levels.
“The old course had a bunch of problems connected to maintenance,” says Lundin. “The greens were so big that they were very expensive to maintain, and there was a lot of winter damage caused by bird baths and pockets. And the course was not very playable for weak golfers. So our brief was to create a course that was fun and exciting for everyone, using the ‘tee it forward’ concept where needed. We were all agreed in advance that the course would be grassed with fescue, and that the ground game would be encouraged wherever possible.”
The Skövde property is quite beautiful, gently rolling hills with the sort of contour a golf architect dreams of. The club is extremely successful; when GCA visited, despite the fact that the course was closed for the rebuild, the clubhouse was packed with members and guests having lunch – and general manager Clas Christensson told me that was the case most days. Judging by the extremely detailed ‘new course’ page on its website, the club is highly engaged and enthused by the rebuilding project, and Christensson himself is clearly a strong supporter of Lundin’s work. So that’s two of our three criteria; unfortunately, the soil does not complete the trifecta, as it is very heavy clay.
“The soil is terrible but the site itself, with the backdrops, is superb – the canvas is perfect,” says Lundin. “The site is so good so I was never that worried about the design itself. The key to the project was finding a contractor that would work well on a tight budget and have the right people to work with the club.”
The contractor that Lundin eventually chose was David Nelson of Scottish-based firm Nelson & Vecchio. With a project budget of €2 million, both architect and contractor knew they would have to manage the construction very carefully to bring the work in on time and on cost. Construction started in the middle of September 2016, and the new-look course will open next spring. “David is very easy to work with, because he really is a boutique contractor,” says Lundin. “He is passionate about the golf courses and suits perfectly these quirky little courses. His attention to detail is superb.”
“The site had its challenges due to the bedrock and some adjustments had to be made to the design to keep the earthworks costs in line. But with Christian on site each week making decisions on the problems we encountered, it allowed us to keep a good momentum during construction,” says Nelson.
With a strong relationship between client, contractor and architect, Lundin has been able to push the envelope a little on his design. The far end of the course (it is essentially an out and back routing) occupies the best terrain, and probably also has the most interesting holes. Examples include the excellent par five seventh, where the architect has used the classical trick of the ‘lion’s mouth’ bunker in the centre of the front of the green to create great strategy, depending on where the flagstick is located. The short par four eighth is also a fun hole; the tee shot looks extremely intimidating, with bunkers appearing to block off any sensible possibility of driving the green, but in fact the bunkers are well away from the putting surface, and a range of options exist for the golfer. But possibly my favourite hole is the ninth, a par four that doglegs to the left around a threatening bunker, and has a really attractive feature at the greenside, a bunker that protects that flank of the putting surface, but also blocks the way to the next tee – normally a no-no. But Lundin has fixed that problem by building a path through the bunker. It’s extremely pretty and old school, and it gives the hole an appealing vintage look.
Coming home, the most dramatic hole is the seventeenth, an extremely long (230m from the back tee) par three. It looks terrifying, and anyone determined to make par will have to figure out whether to bash a big club in an attempt to get home, or to accept being short and try to chip and putt for a three. The home hole is another strong par five, and it completes a course that I’m sure will be regarded among Sweden’s best.
This article first appeared in issue 51 of Golf Course Architecture