The story of how golf has grown into one of the most popular sports in Sweden is an example for other countries trying to expand the game. And now, as Adam Lawrence reports, top quality golf courses are springing up across the country.
Playing golf in Sweden is an exhilarating experience for anyone who loves the game but is concerned about its future. In golf’s traditional heartlands, the UK and the United States, the game is dominated by middle-aged men, and golf clubs are frantically trying to figure out how to attract younger members. Go to a Swedish club, on the other hand, and you’ll see a much broader spectrum of people enjoying the game – it is, for one thing, the only place I have ever been where I have seen a significant number of teenage girls playing golf.
Research from KPMG proves the point. Swedish clubs average over 1,100 members, among the highest in Europe. Over a quarter of those members are typically female, again among the highest proportion in the continent. A total of six per cent of Swedes play golf: only in a few countries around the world is the proportion of players higher.
This boom came about from the early 1980s and accelerated in the 1990s. It’s logical to suggest that Swedish girls were attracted to the game in larger numbers because of the success of Annika Sorenstam at the top of the women’s game; but the country’s strong focus on junior development means that access to sports for young Swedes is rarely a problem.
KPMG’s figures show that the overwhelming majority of courses in Sweden are member-owned and operate on a not-for-profit basis. They also generally operate with very few staff – typically between ten and 15. What these figures show is a game that has developed to serve a growing grassroots demand for golf, but which has not moved into the realms of the ‘golf business’ in any great way. Golf as a commercial activity is not strong in Sweden. And this is both a strength and a weakness for the country.
In too many countries, golf has developed from the top down. Across the world, developers have seen golf as an opportunity to attract tourists, improve visitor profiles, and sell real estate. This is all well and good for those developers whose resorts and courses succeed, but it is only of limited benefit for the sport as a whole. A massive new golf resort in a country where next to nobody plays golf might be a good business proposition if it can attract enough big spending tourists, but it won’t do anything for the growth of golf. Perhaps more to the point, there are many regions and countries that would like to get a piece of the golf tourism cake: if the overall number of golfers doesn’t increase, sooner or later these new resorts will only be swiping players from each other.
In Sweden, on the other hand, the game has developed from the bottom up: new golfers needing places to play have resulted in simple new courses being created. And golf has, in the last few years, reached a point at which commercial developers have concluded that investing money in new, high-end golf facilities in Sweden is a good proposition.
That’s not to say that there aren’t older golf courses of a high standard in the country. Most obviously, Falsterbo, long recognised as Sweden’s best, celebrates its centenary this year. Among the very few genuine links outside the British Isles, Falsterbo has a setting matched by very few courses in the world: it sits at the junction of two seas. Largely the creation of local doctor Gunnar Bauer in the 1930s, Falsterbo has been renovated by Swedish golf architect Peter Chamberlain in recent years. Chamberlain, formerly the club’s head professional, rebuilt all the greens in the early part of this decade. His work is subtle, but holes such as the long par three fourteenth show its merit. The hole is 210 yards long from the back tee, but its challenge is about depth perception as much as it is distance. Two deep pot bunkers some 35 yards short of the putting surface create dead ground, and a tiny false front accentuates the challenge of the green. This is an outstanding hole.
Golfers accustomed to British links golf may get a shock when they visit Falsterbo. The first five holes, although they boast classic links turf, have a more inland feel because of the profusion of water hazards – the fine fourth, for example, is almost entirely defined by the wetland that runs its entire length on the right, and surrounds the green on three sides. This is not links golf as one might expect it!
The course changes character on the seventh hole. This short par four sees players driving out of a chute of small trees, and emerging onto the links in all its glory. The green, framed by the large dunes of the seawall, and surrounded by bunkers, is a sign that the challenge is changing, and from then on, the feel is entirely different. There can be few more glorious spots in golf than Falsterbo’s seventeenth tee, situated at the point where the Öresund joins the Baltic.
For all Falsterbo’s eminence, it is an outlier in Sweden. Modern high-end golf started to arrive in the country with the opening of Hills Golf Club outside Gothenburg in 2005. The course marked the first collaboration for a team that has made a significant impact on the country’s courses, construction and consulting firm MS Golf (now Sternberg Golf Services), led by longtime Swedish pro and now course developer Martin Sternberg, and the American design practice Hills/Forrest.
Hills is a big, brawny golf course – over 6,800 metres (7,400 yards) – on a rocky, undulating piece of property quite close to the city. Housing – a rarity on Swedish golf courses – has been in the mind of the developers from the start, and building on a site alongside the course, though not in among the holes, should start shortly. Elevated greens are a recurring feature of the course, and with some quite severe slopes to be found on and around the putting surfaces, golfers will need a precise short game to score well.
There are some terrific holes on the Hills course. The third is an interesting alternate route par five, demanding that players should decide on the tee which route to take. The left side requires a 200 metre plus carry for the second shot, though, so it is an option only for golfers who have great trust in their fairway woods. Consecutive par three holes at the fifth and sixth are interesting, with the former being a pretty pond hole and the latter a fine example of visual deception, with a bunker only slightly in front of the ladies’ tee creating a vast area of dead ground and casting doubts on club selection. The green, which has a steep, rocky bank behind it is fun too.
Hills really gets going on the back nine. The tenth is a steeply down and up par four, not long from most tees, though the climb to the green is lung-busting. Below the green is one of the most unusual hazards I have ever seen: a bunker with a rock face for a bank. Now I am a vigorous proponent of the theory that nothing natural is ever wrong; but I confess paying a visit to this bunker tested my faith! The back nine fun continues on the twelfth, which has an echelon of three bunkers in the middle of the fairway, with big rewards for the golfer who can get beyond them. And then there is a thirteenth, a pretty par three set in its own verdant glade. Oh yes: it’s 262 metres (286 yards) from the back tees.
This rather illustrates the main problem with Hills. It is a very attractive site, with lots of natural features, and the architect can hardly be blamed for trying to make maximum use of them. But the course, as a result, is very spread out. There are substantial walks between a number of holes, and the extreme length of the back tees means that golfers of more modest ambition will be walking much further forward before they reach the right pad. It’s the kind of course on which a golf cart makes sense, and, of course, they are available. Swedish golfers, as a rule, though, prefer a walk, and Hills is a tough one.
That said, architect Steve Forrest found a large number of very good holes at Hills. The fourteenth is perhaps the best of all, a big, sweeping par four (452 metres at its longest) with a wonderfully inviting drive, asking the golfer to challenge two bunkers cut into the inside of the dogleg. The approach is then slightly uphill (switchbacks are common at hilly Hills, which could equally be named for its site or its designer) to a long, narrow green: a fine, fine hole.
Sternberg and Hills/Forrest have since collaborated on two more courses in the country. The rather eccentric Sand GC, outside the central Swedish city of Jönköping, is a faux links course on a heroic scale, with massive ‘dune’ formations flanking the fairways and, in many cases, coming well into play. It has some splendid holes, especially among the more subtle ones near the property boundary – the fifth is a textbook example of how a small swale in front of the green can dominate play – but a number are less successful. The downhill sixth and uphill seventh, for example, both feature greens that are so severe as to be almost unplayable – anyone hitting his approach past the flag at the seventh could easily find his putt or chip running fifty metres back down the fairway. Sand needs to be seen, but it is tough going for the golfer not on his game.
A more sympathetic experience – although still an authentic championship test – is to be found on the new Tournament Course, or TC, at the well-known Vasatorp club near the southern city of Helsingborg. Here, architect Forrest has taken the faux links style, with substantial mounds and large waste bunkers, and created a fine golfing experience by a mix of renovation and new build (Vasatorp, which hosted the Scandinavian Enterprise Open several times during the 1970s, previously had two 18 hole courses and another nine; these nine holes have been incorporated into the new track).
The start is tough. A 422 metre (460 yard) par four, with a 41 metre long green at its end would be a stiff opener in any case. Add a deep Biarritz swale to the middle of the green and it becomes harder still! And there are plenty more long, tough holes to be found. Yet the course has a much more human feel to it than Hills, or especially Sand. The excellent par five third hole is a case in point: there is plenty of room, but hazards including an old stone wall that crosses the fairway, a deep central bunker 25 metres short of the green, and some fabulous contours on and around the putting surface itself, add plenty of challenge. And the short par four eleventh is a brilliant example of the drive and pitch hole, with two deep bunkers cut into a dune blocking the green from view if the tee shot is hit to the right of the fairway. The bunkerless green complex is first rate too.
A common goal for everyone in Swedish golf is to bring more top level tournament play to the country. And in particular, the event that has many eyes fixed on it is the 2016 Ryder Cup, for which the country is among the favourites. Hills and Vasatorp would both like major tournaments, as, doubtless, would the impressive-looking PGA National resort, currently being built by American Kyle Phillips not far from Malmö and Falsterbo (and also close to Copenhagen via the Öresund bridge). But the leader of the pack, and surely the course most likely to bring the Ryder Cup to Sweden, is the quite astonishing Bro Hof Slott course outside Stockholm.
Everything at Bro Hof Slott is big and finished to the highest possible standard. Founder Björn Örås, whose other business interests include a couple of huge recruitment consultancies, told me his objective on starting the project was to create the best course in Sweden, but that during development, he changed plans – instead, setting his target as the best course in Europe! The property is certainly stunning, with frontage right onto the bank of Mälaren, Sweden’s third largest lake. Despite the stringent Swedish environmental regulations, Bruce Charlton has been able to build a number of holes right down the water’s edge, including the par five fifteenth, the last hundred yards of which are on a promontory right out in the water.
Bro Hof has been designed from the start as a stadium course. Charlton has routed holes to create a number of ‘stadium points’ where greens and tees converge, and vast banks of grandstands can be erected. And the two final holes sit in ‘Victory Valley’, whose steep sides can apparently accommodate up to 75,000 spectators. Örås reckons the course could cope with 200,000 fans a day. The club believes it is the longest course in Europe, at 7,365 metres, almost 8,000 yards.
So is Bro Hof the best course in Europe? Not for my money, although I could see why some people might feel otherwise. It’s perfect in every way, too perfect for me. It is entirely free of flaws, even the kind of flaws that make a place or a person more individual and beautiful. Örås says he told the designers he wanted no blind landing areas or greens sloping away from the line of play – but both these features are common (the latter, I would say essential) on the best courses. The fifteenth is epic, and the par three sixteenth is also a magnificent hole. The bunkerless eighth is a tremendous par four with a clever green complex, and the home hole, which can be stretched to 432 yards or played as a driveable par four, is good too. But the memory of Bro Hof is more about the sheer perfection of its build quality and conditioning. It will be a fantastic tournament venue, and I sincerely hope Björn Örås gets the Ryder Cup he covets above all. It is a wonderful place to visit and play golf. But I don’t think I could cope with it on a regular basis: it is too long, too relentless, and too in your face.
This article first appeared in issue 15 of Golf Course Architecture, published in January 2009.