This article first appeared in the October 2019 issue of Golf Course Architecture. For a printed subscription or free digital edition, please visit our subscriptions page.
The most important component in a top-class golf course is usually the quality of the underlying land. Give the best architect in the world a flat farmer’s field on poor soil with no natural features of note and, despite all the earthmoving techniques at his disposal, he’ll struggle to produce anything better than good. Cypress Point is a global star because it was Dr MacKenzie who got to build it, but in truth even a less distinguished designer would have expected to do something pretty grand on that piece of land.
The fundamental reason for this is that as humans we know what to expect in a particular location, and if something is too radically changed it is hard for us, emotionally, to accept it. Harry Colt famously told would-be designers to enhance and work up natural feature, but not too much. If we step on to a golf course and it is obvious to us that it bears no resemblance whatsoever to what surrounds it, it’s hard for us to get over this lack of authenticity: it can be done, as courses like Shadow Creek or Calusa Pines prove, but they are the exception that proves the rule.
So, the best way for an ambitious golf architect to build something stunning is to get his hands on a great piece of ground. In these days when most architectural work is focused on renovations of existing courses; this is harder to do. If another architect has had chance to work on a site before you, it’s likely that he will have found most of what makes it great, and you are restricted to tweaking holes for incremental improvements – still important work, but not the kind of thing on which a global reputation is made.
Which is what makes the project currently going on at the Ålands golf club in Finland so unusual. The Ålands are an archipelago of over six thousand islands sitting in the Baltic Sea between Sweden and Finland. They belong to the latter, though they have a great deal of autonomy, but are culturally linked with the former – the islanders speak Swedish as a native language. The golf club has two courses, Slottsbanan (the Castle course) and Kungsbanan (the King’s course), both designed by the late Swedish architect Jan Sederholm from the 1970s.
As one might expect in a group of small islands, the sea plays a large role in the site of the Ålands club, though one might be forgiven for not knowing this if one had only seen the club in its pre-project state. The Castle course, named after the medieval royal castle that sits atop the property, guarding the shore, occupied land that flowed along the banks of the fjord, but really did not interact with the sea in any meaningful way. When the club hired Danish architect Philip Christian Spogárd to upgrade the Castle course, the architect, on walking the site, naturally concluded that the sea needed to play a much larger role in the strategy and ambience of the golf course.
“The existing course did not optimise the close relation to the sea, with more or less no holes feeling closely connected with the shoreline,” says Spogárd. “The new layout will push the golf holes right onto the shore, with several holes giving the golfer the chance to bite of as much of the sea as he or she dares.”
Read more: Kai Hulkkonen, director of construction firm Nelson & Vecchio, reflects on the Ålands build.
The new course is radically different from the old, though it mostly uses existing hole corridors, at least in part to reduce the cost of grassing. Several of the corridors have been reversed, while other turf areas have been cleverly incorporated into new holes. It is a really smart piece of work, that will result in members getting an almost entirely new experience without the cost of regrading the entire property.
The first and most dramatic interaction with the sea comes at the new par three ninth. Spogárd recalls clambering through dense vegetation and realising that he was on a small, rocky point of land that poked out into the fjord. It was not quite large enough for a green, but a judicious piece of blasting – despite the rocky site the only use of dynamite on the project – fixed that and created a quite remarkable short hole, where the further right the pin is located, the more golfers will need to take on the sea. Shaper Shane Ringwood, in grooming the hillside behind the putting surface so that balls will run back onto the green, used stone mined from the location to build a circular stone structure, which could be part of a halfway house complex, or could just be sold to golfers as a historical remnant (a Viking pissoir?). For sure on a nice day, this hillside – between the green of the ninth and the tee of the par four tenth – will be a glorious place to sit with a cold beer, watching friends take on the challenge of the ninth.
Ten too plays along the fjord, in the style of a classic Cape par four. When I visited, American architect Tony Ristola, creator of the Sand Valley course in Poland, was helping out the construction crew by finish shaping the green – which sits on fill in an area that was previously sea. Eleven to fourteen then leave the sea and pass by the clubhouse, while the fifteenth, a downhill par three to a green with Redan-like characteristics, returns the course to the water, as well as being the closest point to the castle from which the course gets its name. The sixteenth is an excellent par four along the water to another green created using fill in an area that used to be sea. Hit the tee shot left, close to the water, and the approach will be basically all carry over sea; further right is less terrifying, though players on this side of the fairway will be firing towards the water. Seventeen is another fine par three playing along the fjord. The well-guarded green features the first bunkers to be built on the course using the Durabunker method. One of contractor Nelson & Vecchio’s shapers built them, and they are very pretty, a good example of more complex edges that can be created with revet; the artistic Spogárd would be less than satisfied with round pots.
“We want to give the golfer the feeling of success – and we try to achieve this by putting them in front of some incredible looking holes, which are actually very playable when you discover how to unlock their secrets,” says Spogárd.
All in all, the new Castle course is clearly destined to be a very fine piece of work indeed, one of the best in Scandinavia, perhaps even among the best in Europe. The club, which already gets a lot of holiday golfers, is going to have to gear itself up to cope with more and more demanding visitors. For architect Spogárd and his partner Michiel van der Vaart, already recognised as one of Europe’s most exciting up and coming design teams, it is another triumph. Golfers from around the world should be figuring out how to get to the Ålands, where they’ll see something genuinely new and good.