Lightning never strikes twice. Unless you are Belgian architect Bruno Steensels, it seems.
“I couldn’t believe it,” says Steensels, recounting the moment when developer Frank Monstrey shared his plans to name his new club in Brussels ‘The National’. Having just completed ‘The International’ in Amsterdam, the architect was finding the similarities between the two projects – for completely different clients – remarkable.
Both sites are located very close to the airports of their respective European capital cities. Both, as is to be expected in Belgium and the Netherlands, began with a flat landscape. They would require the excavation of lakes to create fill for contour. And both would be furnished with a contemporary, low-lying minimalist clubhouse.
Unlike its Dutch counterpart though, The National is located on the site of a former horse racing track – the Sterrebeek Hippodrome. Steensels recounts his first visit: “The property was an entirely flat oval of land, as close to a blank canvas as you could want. But there wasn’t quite enough space to provide all the facilities that would be needed for a top-class golf offering.”
Steensels identified an area to the southeast of the horse racing track, a gentle hillside, that would provide some interesting elevation change and, crucially, the extra space needed to fulfil his client’s vision.
As a result, he has been able to create a spacious 18-hole golf course, a large driving range and practice area, and a six-hole short course. It provides the developer with a unique proposition for Brussels, which will help sell the high-end apartments that are being built in clusters close to the clubhouse and overlooking the tenth fairway.
To provide fill that would give the golf course some contour, Steensels’ plan called for the excavation of four large lakes. They come into play on four of the first five holes, as well as the tenth, where the lake separates the fairway from the apartments, and eighteenth, a par five that requires an approach over water to a near-island green.
GPS-controlled bulldozers were used to shift 860,000 cubic metres of earth in the most efficient way possible. “It was fascinating to watch the construction. Initially, I couldn’t work out what was going on,” says Steensels. “Why are they digging here, moving earth there? But as the days and weeks progressed, it all started to make sense and the course I had designed began to emerge from the earth.”
When the large lakes are full, there are a number of smaller, naturalised ‘buffer’ areas that can gradually fill up, to prevent water from overflowing into surrounding neighbourhoods. “This was essential,” explains Steensels. “We were subject to very stringent regulations from local environmental agencies to minimise the amount of water that could escape from the property. The local town of Sterrebeek is quite flood prone, so the golf course now helps to mitigate this risk.”
The course is described by Steensels as American in style: the man-made lakes, wide fairways and large undulating greens are certainly a contrast to the more traditional intimate feel of many of Belgium’s best-known courses.
With width comes strategic options, and this is apparent from the very first hole. A 560-yard par five, the lake that separates it from the closing hole should be easy to avoid from the tee shot, but will probably lead most golfers to aim more towards the three bunkers that line the left of the hole. The furthest of these is, in fact, in the centre of the fairway, and would need to be successfully negotiated for a chance to get close to the large, inviting green in two. It’s a great start to the round and sets the expectation that golfers will need to plot their way around the course.
While it is generally wide, The National is no pushover. “If you play a course and it’s easy the first time, then after five rounds it is boring,” says Steensels, formerly a scratch player and member of the Belgian golf team. The width provides choice and means that returning golfers can experiment with alternative paths on most holes.
The fifth is the standout par three on the course. It is framed by a curve of trees that remain from the perimeter of the horse racing track. It’s deceptively short, at just 160 yards from the back tees, but the imposing lake and front bunker might be enough to convince you to err towards the safer right side of the hole.
The curve of trees on the fifth is not the only nod to the site’s past. Alongside the seventh tee is the entrance to a tunnel, through which trainers previously walked their horses to the track. It’s now been preserved as a bat cave, with a footpath running through it that connects hikers and joggers to a trail that continues through the centre of the golf course. Halfway along the trail, alongside the second green, the club has built a tower that can be scaled for a view over the golf course and its surrounds. It’s a great way of bringing the community into the golf course and sharing some of the pleasures of golf to a wider audience.
The National is over 7,200 yards from the back tees, and 5,500 from the front, providing a good range of distances to suit players of varying ability. The par threes and fives are spread nicely throughout the round, as might be expected when an architect is given a blank canvas to work with. It’s also a very comfortable walk – another tick in the box for the design process.
Steensels says that the contouring at The National isn’t quite as extreme as it is at The International, but it is plenty to give the holes character and challenge. It works best when it blends with what is naturally there. The fourteenth is a great example. Ranging between 280 and 380 yards, depending on tee selection, a string of bunkers separates two sections of fairway, so the hole demands a choice between lay-up or a more aggressive drive over the hazards. The approach is to a green that is perched above a large, deep bunker, and falls steeply away at the sides. A par will be a good score on the shortest par four on the course.
The International has been selected to host the KLM Dutch open on the European Tour in 2019. The National has already seen visits from leading Belgian professional golfers Thomas Pieters, Nicolas Colsaerts and Thomas Detry. While Steensels admitted to being slightly astounded at the points to which they were launching their tee shots, the course proved quite resistant to low scoring.
It would not be a surprise if The National were to some day share another attribute with its Dutch cousin, and also find its way onto the Tour circuit.
This article first appeared in the July 2018 issue of Golf Course Architecture.