Dr Bernhard von Limburger

Christoph Meister
By Christoph Meister

Christoph Meister profiles Germany's master architect, the first designer of significance to emerge from continental Europe.

Born in 1901, Bernhard von Limburger learned the game of golf as a young boy in Scotland.

Back in Germany he became a member at the local Gaschwitz Golf Club near his hometown of Leipzig. Von Limburger – known as 'Limmy' – became an excellent amateur player, winning the German Amateur Closed Championships in 1921, 1922 and 1925. He represented Germany 35 times between 1921 and 1938.

Limmy trained to become a lawyer, though he never practiced, instead starting Germany's first golf publishing house in 1925. His magazine Golf was the official voice of the German Golf Association until 1943, when the journal was discontinued due to war-related printing paper shortages.

After the war Limmy felt it did not make sense to continue to publish a golf journal, as most people in Germany had other worries. Nevertheless Limmy later continued to write articles and essays for the newly founded German magazine Golf and the Swiss magazine Golf-Revue.

Limmy did not restrict his writing to journals – he also published golf books. His brochure Was ist Golf was first published in 1925. 44,000 copies and 45 years later the booklet still introduced beginners to the game. Das Große Golf 1x1, which Limmy called the basic grammar of golf, was published in 1943, including a unique thumbnail of a golf swing with two sets of 24 pictures.

After 1945, von Limburger lost most of his property in Leipzig, now part of the Soviet zone. He had to start all over again and set up a new publishing house, Münstertor-Verlag, continuing to publish his own golf books as well as the German language edition of books such as Ben Hogan's The Modern Fundamentals of Golf.

By this time, Bernhard had already found his true vocation: golf course architecture. During the 1920s, demand for new golf courses increased in Germany.Most, at that time, were designed by British teaching professionals.

From 1927, Colt, Alison and Morrison became very active in Germany, designing around a dozen courses, the two most famous being Frankfurt-Niederrad and Hamburg-Falkenstein.

In Limmy's Unser Golf (1979) he described his ambition to try to work as a golf architect, not knowing how difficult this might be. In 1926, he was asked by the committee of the newly founded Chemnitzer Golf Club to design one of Germany's first 18-hole courses.When asked which qualification he had Limburger simply replied: "I have won three German championships." Obviously the client knew so little about golf and so he thought the answer was sufficient! Without any reference, von Limburger decided not to ask for a fee and both parties felt a contract was not necessary.

Nor were there any plans or ground surveys. Limmy started his first 18-hole design by putting pickets into the ground, changing them here and there, and after two days the work was completed, including two crossing fairways. The course at Plaue-Floeha in Saxony was relatively short, playing only 5,268m. The course had miniature teeing areas, the rear walls of the bunkers looked like coffin-lids and the greens were flat like an ice-rink.

But German golfers thought that Bernhard really knew his job and shortly afterwards paid orders were coming in to design new courses inside the Breslau (Silesia) racecourse and in Garmisch- Partenkirchen, home of the 1936 Winter Olympics. By 1939, von Limburger had designed a dozen golf courses, many of them in Eastern Germany. Many years later Limmy expressed his relief that, due to the influx of communism in Eastern Germany, meadows and potato fields now covered his juvenile sins.

Soon it became clear to him that golf architecture is not only an amusing pastime, but a serious science. He believed that Alister MacKenzie, Tom Simpson, CB Macdonald and Harry Colt were the classical masters. Also he felt that in Germany the still predominant penal design, with its compulsory carries, was punishing high handicappers who already had enough troubles on the golf course.

During the late 1930s Bernhard von Limburger started a successful partnership with Karl Hoffmann, a trained building architect from Berlin, who first came into contact with golf course design around 1924 while building an impressive clubhouse and finishing CS Butchart's pre-war 18-hole golf course at Berlin-Wannsee.

In 1938 both men started drawing up the championship courses at Krefeld and Cologne-Refrath. After the war, designs were made for the US troops in Germany (such as Kornwestheim, 1955). And between 1952 and 1980, von Limburger designed around 60 golf courses – mainly in Germany, Switzerland and Austria. Nearly all German Open and German Amateur Championships between 1950 and 1990 were played on courses designed or redesigned by Limmy.

Typical venues for these championships were Krefeld, Cologne-Refrath, Frankfurt-Niederrad and Hamburg- Falkenstein. At Frankfurt, members today are still talking about von Limburger removing more than 30 bunkers. Later championships were hosted on Limmy's more recent designs at Duesseldorf- Hubbelrath, Stuttgart-Moensheim and Bremen-Garlstedter Heide.

During the late 1960s von Limburger started a partnership with Dave Thomas and Peter Alliss. One very interesting project saw Limmy travel to Persia to design a course for the Shah on the coast of the Caspian Sea. The only completed project of this partnership was the redesign of the Dufferin course at Clandeboye in Northern Ireland – but this at least fulfilled von Limburger's lifetime dream to design a course on the British Isles.

In the end it is Garlstedt that was von Limburger's masterpiece of strategic design. On almost every par four and par five hole it is very important to place the ball on the correct side of the fairway to have a significant advantage for the second stroke. Christoph Städler, one of today's leading architects in Germany and a former national amateur champion, goes as far as to say that he knows of no other course in Germany with a strategic design implemented so effectively. No single hole resembles any other, even though most are closely treelined. The green-fee player will remember many holes, even after a single visit.

When the course first opened in 1963 it had just one fairway bunker. After more than 40 years in use Garlstedt has recently conducted a renovation. Interestingly, the architect, Christoph Städler, did not redesign the layout, but mainly restricted himself to rebuilding greens and teeing areas according to modern construction techniques. Small and uneven teeing areas at Garlstedt and relatively contourless bunkers and greens no longer stood up to modern standards of a leading European championship course. The size of most greens had to be enlarged in order to cope with the ever increasing numbers of golf players on a modern course.

Interestingly, von Limburger's early US Army golf course designs from the 1950s already had larger greens in order to cope with the greater number of players there. Also in 1955 he had proudly announced that the teeing area at Refrath's tenth hole was 50m long, something Europe hadn't seen before.

One of Garlstedt's greatest flaws was that even modest rainfall could lead to some very wet fairways, causing interruptions such as at the 1985 German Open. Additional ponds – not to punish the golfer, but to help the water to drain – were introduced and the relevant fairways were rebuilt according to drainage techniques not known in Europe during the early 1960s.

Städler tried to modernise Garlstedter Heide in the way von Limburger would have done, bearing in mind today's building techniques and big hitting players. The same can be said about Howard Swan's renovation work at Refrath, Hubbelrath and Bergisch Land.

It was very important for Städler to keep one of Garlstedt's unique features, the alternative fairways on holes six and seven. A pond was added between the two fairways on the seventh hole to speed up the play in the event of a ball getting between both fairways. Also there are now a modest four or five fairway bunkers on the course, mainly serving as a visual aid for tee shot direction.

It was always von Limburger's aim to build courses which, after a couple of years, looked as if they had always been there. Many of von Limburger's courses fit well into their natural environment, and courses like Refrath or Garlstedt do indeed look as if they have always been there. Only Limmy himself would remember the volume of earth moved during the time of construction.

Limmy always thought about the prospective strength of the average golf playing on a course. It was also known for him to deny commissions for golf courses if the territory or the area was not properly suited for a course.

During his later years Limburger became a strong advocate of strategic design and a strong opponent of overbunkering. For him, a good golf course, European style, would not have more than fifty bunkers, and he thought Augusta National to be an excellent example of strategic golf. No other course in America is more feared and more liked at the same time. Water hazards, according to von Limburger, should only be used where they challenge the scratch player without punishing the hacker.

Bernhard von Limburger dedicated almost sixty years of his life to the game of golf and during his lifetime (1901-1981) he was clearly the most important golf course architect in Germany. Modern architects like Städler and Swan have been successful in modernising Limmy's courses, keeping his spirit and style but adapting to today's standards and requirements.

Christoph Meister researches the history of golf in Germany and Central Europe. He is also the international vice president of the European Association of Golf Historians and Collectors. This article first appeared in issue six of GCA, published October 2006.