This article first appeared in the July 2019 issue of Golf Course Architecture. For a printed subscription or free digital edition, please visit our subscriptions page.
Sweden is frequently cited as that rare example of a country where golf was established from the ground up. The sport’s rapid growth in popularity during the 1980s and 90s was built on a foundation of affordable facilities for locals, rather than resort and real estate developments for the wealthy.
Green fees are typically around £40 for eighteen holes, and annual membership fees at all but the very top clubs are usually less than £1,000.
It’s a model that has seen golf become very well established in the country. Almost five per cent of its 10 million population are registered golfers, according to the latest figures from the KPMG Golf Advisory Practice. In Europe, only Iceland has higher participation (17,000 of its 338,000 population).
But as the popularity of golf rises, so does the demand for different types of facilities – including ‘premium’ offerings. The market becomes more complex and some clubs are left grappling with their identity.
Österåker Golfklubb is a prime example. Located alongside the main road into the well-heeled commuter town of Åkersberga in the Stockholm archipelago, its two original eighteen-hole courses were designed in the late 1980s by former ice hockey star Sven Tumba. In 2006 it opened another nine holes, accessible to non-members as the pay-and-play Hagby club.
At its peak, Österåker attracted almost 2,000 members. It hosted prestigious tournaments including, on three occasions at the turn of the millennium, the Compaq Open on the Ladies European Tour.
But its courses are rarely mentioned in the conversation of Sweden’s best and they were increasingly showing their age. With more than 20 other clubs within 30 minutes’ reach – including close neighbour Ullna, which was recently renovated by Nicklaus Design, and the swanky 36-hole Bro Hof Slott club – Österåker was feeling the pressure of competition.
“By 2011, the value of members’ shares had fallen to zero,” says general manager Andreas Ljunggren. “The facility was tired and needed a lift.”
The club’s management team began to explore its options. Initially, it identified a parcel on the perimeter of the property for 40 buildings, which would provide the club with a return of £2 million. “This would have enabled us to update the irrigation and address drainage on our 45 holes,” says course manager Magnus Ljungman.
But with Stockholm one of Europe’s fastest growing cities, there was scope for a grand plan that could be a win-win scenario for both the club and community. By meeting targets for increased housing stock, the town of Åkersberga would benefit from government infrastructure investment – including the improvement of its rail link with Stockholm. And by making more land available for development, the club could raise the funds required for a more radical transformation.
The initial plan for 40 buildings was scrapped, and a new masterplan was created, with phase one alone seeing permission granted for 600 new properties, in a core residential zone, plus another area earmarked for commercial use, both on the site of the Hagby nine. Ultimately, more areas could be zoned for development, with ample space remaining for golf.
The resulting windfall meant Österåker could essentially put together a ‘wish list’ for its transformation. After evaluating proposals from several firms, the management team selected the newly-formed Henrik Stenson Golf Design for a project to recreate the two eighteen-hole courses, design extensive practice facilities and a new nine-hole par-three course.
While it will be the firm’s debut project, Stenson’s partner is experienced Swedish golf course architect Christian Lundin, who began his career with Jeff Howes in Ireland before setting up his own design business in Gothenburg in 2008.
Lundin completed a pilot project for the club in 2015 – dubbed by the team ‘Österåker version 1.5’ – which reduced the overall bunkered area of the club’s Västerled course to just 10 per cent of its previous total. His revetted hazards were well-received by members and the project was something of a testing ground for its long-term plan, which will see the Västerled course taking on the character of a “weather-beaten Scottish links.” Before that though, the club has focused on the Österled course being transformed into a stadium-like layout.
For the past two-and-a-half years, construction firm SOL Golf has been on site working on phase one: new practice facilities and the creation of the par-three and stadium courses.
Over 600,000 cubic metres of landfill – approximately 25 per cent of the total generated by construction in and around Stockholm during the project – has been imported to the site by 70,000 trucks. As well as helping cover some costs, this fill has enabled Stenson and Lundin to create a rolling landscape on the previously flat area where most of the stadium course is routed.
That area now features four large lakes, lined with wooden bulkheads, giving a similar aesthetic as stadium designs like Le Golf National or TPC Sawgrass (which Stenson listed among his favourites when interviewed for our January 2019 issue). Österåker’s spectator mounding isn’t as huge though, so the course doesn’t feel stark and empty when there are no crowds.
Hazards have been designed to be visible – imposing, even – so golfers can plot their hole strategy from the outset. A desire for fairness means greens are intentionally not crowned to fall away into the surrounds – “if you hit the green, your ball has a good chance of staying on it,” says Lundin.
This doesn’t mean greens are devoid of interest; there is plenty of contour – most memorably on the par-five thirteenth, where the shallow but wide green has three tumbling tiers. Many who reach the green in two will still walk away with a par.
White sand bunkers, although fairly restrained in number, are deep and punishing. As with the lakes, golfers are dared to flirt with danger to achieve the best line to the green.
The designers have created a relatively gentle opening to prepare golfers for the test ahead. But the warm-up is soon over as holes three to six all have water in play, as do seven more on the round. Individual holes are dramatic and memorable. And incredibly difficult, you might think. But choose appropriate tees and it is great fun and very playable. The fairways are wide and provide multiple options of attack – you don’t have to take on risk if your game is not up to it. The average member will feel like they have had all the thrills of this style of course, while being able to sometimes record a score they can be proud of.
The course builds to a dramatic finish. The fifteenth is a long par three with an elevated back tee set into a wooded hillside. The green juts into one of the lakes, and there’s a stream to the right. The target feels very small and the smart shot for most golfers is probably to bounce it onto the green, rather than trying to fly it directly at the pin.
The sixteenth is the first of the course’s two consecutive woodland holes, where the design team has used previous corridors but reversed the direction of play. A short uphill par four, the green is reachable but high risk, thanks to the stream that runs in front of the green on its way down the hillside. A high and pure drive will be required to hold the putting surface.
Lundin was a bit concerned that the placement of a storage lake on the highest point of the course – the par-four seventeenth – would seem unnatural. But the lake here has soft edges rather than bulkheads and, with large amounts of exposed rock and lined by trees, the hole has a pleasant alpine character. Most players will try to lay up short of a stream that cuts across the fairway about 100 yards from a perched green, where anything missed right will fall a good ten feet below the putting surface.
On the hillside to the left of that green, the back tees for the eighteenth provide a dramatic elevated setting for the final tee shot. The middle set of tees, also high above the fairway, provides a similarly special view and challenge, with bunkers and lake to negotiate. The closing hole wraps round the left of the lake, the opposite side to the ninth, with both greens hard against the far edge of the lake, so that each nine closes with the option of a heroic approach. If Österåker decides to relocate its clubhouse, the hilltop beyond the eighteenth green would be an ideal spot to enjoy watching the carnage unfold.
The new course will open in August, and will be the result of a fine team effort: SOL Golf’s Oliver Sutton led construction, Irish firm Turfgrass provided agronomic services and Giles Wardle of Irriplan designed a new irrigation system, supplied by Hunter. At the time of GCA’s visit, construction was still in progress on the nine-hole par-three course – a scaled down version of the full eighteen – in the triangle of land between the eighth, ninth and tenth holes. And in 2020, attention will turn to the renovation of the Västerled course.
The club’s management team are being cautious to ensure that the funds raised from the land sale are being used wisely – and that their grand plans deliver a facility that is sustainable long into the future, even with fees at the modest rates Swedish golfers are accustomed to. With the new practice facility already drawing a significant income stream and a cross-country skiing circuit planned to bring people to the club when the golf course is under snow, Österåker is well placed to tick off every item on its wish list. Members must feel like they’ve hit the jackpot.