Developing dunes

Developing dunes
Toby Ingleton
By Toby Ingleton

With the wind howling at 40 miles per hour, and the exposed sand shifting in front of our very eyes, it’s particularly easy to see how links golf courses are shaped by nature rather than hand. In this case, the dunes have been man made, but nature is having its say.

The location is the small island of Texel, which is the first of five that extend from the north coast of Holland. Golfbaan de Texelse is the only club on the island, and has nine holes that were designed in the early nineties by Dutch golf architect Alan Rijks, a senior member of the EIGCA. Twenty years on, the club has changed ownership but has obtained the required permissions and land to extend the course to eighteen holes, with Rijks again providing the design and working alongside landscape architects van Empelen van Aladeren.

Albeit originally flat, the site is close to the island’s primary dune and is topped with a layer of pure sand, with more close at hand thanks to the excavation of lakes for a neighbouring nature reserve. This has provided Rijks with the dream project of creating a new dunescape that will host the second nine holes.

At the time of GCA’s visit, shaping was almost complete, and seeding was scheduled to take place within weeks. Some of the larger dunes had been sprigged with marram grass for stability, and already the course is becoming something of a haven for wildlife, attracted by the opportunities for shelter and the site’s network of meandering streams and small lakes. A visiting ornithologist reported confirmed sightings of over 70 different species of bird, some of which have taken to creating nesting hollows in the side of the dunes.

One danger with creating a dunescape is that it can appear quite incongruous with the surrounding landscape, particularly when much of that is completely flat. Fortunately, the northwestern edge of the site touches the large primary dune system that stretches up most of the west coast of Texel. Rijks has been careful to blend the dunes on the golf site so that they sit naturally in the surrounding landscape. He has created larger, more dramatic dunes in the areas closest to the existing system, with the shaping gradually mellowing towards the borders that are surrounded by flat agricultural land.

His vision has been brilliantly executed by shapers Fokke de Haan and Louie Bussemakers, and site manager Roel Pelgrim from contractor J de Ridder, who spent time exploring the shapes of the natural dunes before setting about work on this project.

The holes in the larger dunes look particularly exciting, particularly the seventeenth, a dogleg par four. A weak slice won’t be harshly punished, but it will mean the green is obscured by a large dune. Straighter hitters will be rewarded with visibility, but will have had to take a longer route. It’s a clever design that seems fair to all levels of player.

The eighteenth will be memorable for most golfers, as it includes a towering, sleeper-lined bunker that is inspired by the one on the fourth hole at Royal St George’s. And like that, its intimidation is mainly visual, as a half decent drive should easily clear it, and there is an option to play left for those who daren’t take the direct route. It’s a nice opportunity for a memorable, heroic close to the round and its photogenic nature will help attract attention to the club.

Rijks has paid weekly visits to the site during construction and this close attention shows. Individual holes are largely hidden from the rest of the course, with occasional glimpses providing a taste of what is to come. He’s also been careful to ensure that forward tees are not an afterthought – in some places they have more elevation than the back tees, and provide an alternative view of the hole that would encourage all players to want to try them at least once.

It’s not just the detailing of the course where this attention shows, but also in the out of play areas. On the walks between holes Rijks has found space to create moments where the player is simply on a journey through untouched dunes, eagerly anticipating what is beyond the next rise in the land.

The nature of the water hazards means the completed course will feel more like a hybrid of marsh and links, rather than pure links, but it works really well. There will be very few hard edges between the grassed areas and water, with plenty of places where exposed sand is littered with the tiny shells that highlight its proximity to the sea. Small beaches, like that behind the twelfth green, will be with popular with birds and other wildlife, and a nice backdrop for the golfer, only requiring closer inspection if a shot is particularly errant.

Once the new nine is complete, owners De Krim – who operate the adjacent holiday park and the majority of rental properties on the island –intend to retain Rijks to work on improving the original nine holes, using more of the local sand that is available so it is more in keeping with the newly created holes.

Rijks’ client, Iwan Groothuis from De Krim, is a keen golfer– his son is one of Holland’s leading players in his age group – and their shared passion for the game shows in creating something that is far more ambitious than might be expected from holiday park golf.

If the current work is anything to go by, Texel will have a golf course capable of attracting golfers from much further afield than the island itself. The ferry journey from the mainland is just 20 minutes, with the terminal only about 50 miles from Amsterdam. This makes what feels like a remote destination very reasonably accessible from large population areas.

It will be fascinating to see the golf emerging from the dunes once the shaping is complete and the grass has taken hold. The course will open in 2014 and we look forward to reporting on the finished product. 

This article first appeared in Golf Course Architecture - Issue 33.