Playability and sustainability central to Lundin’s Hirsala masterplan

  • Hirsala
    Hirsala Golf

    Golf course architect Christian Lundin and course manager Janne Lehto have developed a renovation master plan for Hirsala Golf in southern Finland

  • Hirsala
    Hirsala Golf

    One focus of the plan is to better integrate the course with its natural environment

  • Hirsala
    Hirsala Golf

    Lundin is proposing to introduce creeping bent aprons to greens as a strategic factor, and to better protect them from damage in the winter

Richard Humphreys
By Richard Humphreys

Christian Lundin of (re)GOLF has developed a renovation masterplan for Hirsala Golf in southern Finland.

The golf course at Hirsala, about 30 minutes west of Helsinki, was originally designed by Northern Irish architect David Jones and opened in 2007.

Lundin presented his renovation plan to the club in early April and is proposing work to be completed over several years, with the aim of improving the course’s playability and sustainability. Hirsala’s course manager, Janne Lehto, who Lundin met several years ago at a meeting of the Finnish Greenkeepers Association (FGA), has been instrumental in the development of the plan. Lehto has been chairman of the FGA since March 2018, and was recently appointed as a master greenkeeper by British and International Golf Greenkeepers Association (BIGGA) and has provided agronomic advice to other golf clubs in Finland.

“It is an extremely difficult golf course for most golfers” Lundin told GCA. “It is absolutely one of the hardest layouts I have seen, and I have played the Blue Monster [at Trump National Doral Miami]! It is brutally tough. The difficulty comes from the perception of people about what makes good golf. These developers built hard golf courses because they thought that it would be great golf.”

Lundin’s design associate Pontus Leijon, a former touring pro who played Hirsala in the 2011 Finnish Open, agrees, telling Lundin that the course was one the hardest he had ever played on. “When a pro says that, we knew we had to make it more playable,” said Lundin. “That was one of the key aspects when we started developing a plan.”

Another key focus is sustainability, and how to make better use of Hirsala’s natural environmental.

“Our plan aims to better integrate the golf course and landscape to enhance the playing experience,” said Lundin. “We’ll blend greens with the heather and native areas, there will be less bunkers, less hazards and more room for play, more room for landing balls off the tee, and more room around the greens.”

“We are trying to encourage more heather, pine woodland and rocky outcrops, which also lends itself to creating a more classic look,” said Lehto. “We feel we’re using the land pretty well at the moment, but what we need to do is inject more fun into the game. It’s a really hard golf course, but we want to make better use of its natural environment. The existing holes are carved into the landscape; we want to bring the holes and the landscape together in a more harmonious way.

“We want to be leaders in environmental sustainability. It is a theme that we carry through all our work, whether it be greenkeeping management or construction, we want to be as sustainable as we can.”

The plan will see the number of bunkers reduced from 45 to 38, with some relocated and many to be smaller. Managing the volume of maintained turf is also part of the project scope.

“For me, sustainability is about creating ecological improvements to the site where we can enhance the habitats, the faunas, and the flora,” said Lundin. “What we’ll try to do here is enhance those native habitats and make sure that they grow better, and they become stronger, have a long-term sustainable impact, and are allowed to grow and flourish.”

Lehto also plans to increase the club’s use of auto mowers from Husqvarna, which help to reduce resources such as fuel and manpower. “We’re monitoring how much carbon emissions we produce each year,” he said. “We’re really sufficient on energy, the facility is solar powered, and we have reduced fuels with the introduction of the Husqvarna mowers. The rough was previously maintained by heavy machinery that ran on petrol and diesel, but the club has moved to these more efficient machines.”

Although there will be no routing tweaks, the design team has identified some areas of the property they wanted to make better use of. “We’re in such a beautiful landscape, we can relocate tees in some really nice spots,” said Lundin. “For example, the second tee can move up onto a rocky outcrop, which offers a beautiful view and creates a better playing angle from the tee and brings more strategy into the shot.”

The plan also includes relocating or redesigning six greens, including the sixth. “That hole’s second shot is a bit like the second shot on Augusta’s eighteenth hole in terms of how much of the green that the golfer can see,” said Lundin. “So, we’re bringing the green down, and eliminating the blind nature. The green will be located more on a flatter area.

“Some greens won’t move or alter too much, but there’s definitely going to be quite a lot of changes that the members will notice – it will feel like a very new experience for them.”

While the greens are one focus of the project, Lundin says one of the biggest changes he has proposed is in relation to Hirsala’s green approaches. “Around two weeks prior to visiting Hirsala for my first time, I went to Adare Manor, and I came away really impressed with what Tom Marzolf did with the aprons,” he said. “The short-grass areas around the greens were very funky and will, for sure, suit the American team for the 2024 Ryder Cup! So, I discussed them with Janne and decided that Hirsala, which has some of the best creeping bent greens I have ever seen in Scandinavia, would benefit from having creeping bent aprons around the putting surfaces, not only as a strategic factor, but also as a protective zone against winter damage. I think that is a key aspect that will make this course stand out from anywhere else in the region – it will have a wow factor.”

The renovation also coincides with a shift in mindset at Hirsala. Originally, the club’s business model was focused on corporate golfers but in 2018, the approach pivoted to the pay-and-play model. The club, which is owned by 650 members, has already seen a surge in play following this change and various work Lehto and his greenkeeping staff have undertaken. Rounds have increased from around 15,000 per year to 30,000.

“Finland, and Scandinavia for that matter, is not the biggest golf destination,” said Lehto. There are 150,000 registered golfers in the country playing on 140 courses, with around 40 layouts in southern Finland where Hirsala is located. “However, I think there is a lot of potential to attract overseas players because the nature in Finland is so different to other countries. Currently, Hirsala attracts around 500 to 1,000 rounds from overseas visitors.

“We’re doing well, but I think on the business side, the goal is to – in 10 years’ time say – double the fees that we’re getting. We have a feeling we have a good chance in our location… we just have to get the course and whole experience right.”

The first step was developing a long-term plan, something that isn’t too common among Scandinavian clubs. “They need to start looking long term,” said Lundin. “For their business models, the clubs need to look forward because they have such a short season, and the course needs to be taken care of.”

Traditionally for these clubs, the playing and renovation window is April to October. Between November and March, generally, the courses are under snow with only construction projects related to rough shaping and ponds possible. However, this can fluctuate depending on the weather.

Given the unpredictable nature of the weather, having a plan in place is important for forward-thinking clubs like Hirsala. “It is good to be prepared so the club can be fast moving and make quick decisions,” said Lundin. “This will give them an advantage over other clubs who are not ready for that.”

Lehto said: “Everyone at the club has bought into this idea and is looking forward to the changes and a more playable course.”

An in-house team has already started work on bunkers and tees, with the larger aspects of the project being completed over the next five years or so.