When I told a few of my golf buddies last summer that I was going to tour Belgium and the Netherlands with my sticks and some good mates from the Outpost Club, they regarded me with a mix of curiosity and concern. “Are the courses there any good?” one asked. “Wouldn’t it be better to check out the clubs around London?” inquired another. “It’s not that far away.”
One good pal suggested that I leave my clubs behind and concentrate instead on the things he knew were really world class in that part of the world.
“There are great microbreweries in Belgium,” he said. “And the hash bars in Amsterdam cannot be beat.”
I concurred, having visited both those countries in my reckless youth. But I was also confident that what I was about to discover as a golfer was as good if not better than anything else found there. That is because I was set to play a handful of heathland-style courses designed by the great English architect Harry S. Colt, among them Royal Zoute in Belgium and a foursome of great repute in the Netherlands that included Utrechtse Golf Club and Kennemer, as well as Eindhovensche and Royal Hague. Each is routed on well-contoured, sand-based soil near the North Sea, and they are regularly ranked among the top 100 courses in Continental Europe.
That those tracks should be so highly regarded is not surprising when you consider the man who created them. One of the architects who made the Golden Age of golf course architecture a century ago golden, Colt contributed to the design of more than 300 courses in his lifetime.
Among his best-known works in England are the New Course at Sunningdale, the Old Course at the Rye Golf Club and Swinley Forest (which he famously described as his “least bad” layout). He also built or revamped several superb tracks in other parts of the British Isles, including the Dunluce Links at Royal Portrush – the site of this year’s Open Championship – Muirfield, Sunningdale Old, Royal Liverpool, Royal Lytham & St. Annes and the Eden Course in St. Andrews. In addition, Colt made major contributions in North America, most notably at Pine Valley, where he helped George Crump design what is regarded by many as the finest course in the U.S., as well as other excellent tracks, such as Old Elm in Chicago, Burning Tree in the Washington, D.C., area and Hamilton Golf & Country Club in Canada. His course at the Plum Hollow Country Club near Detroit hosted the 1943 Ryder Cup and the 1947 PGA Championship.
Along the way, Colt found time to cross the English Channel several times in the 1920s and ’30s for work, which is when he fashioned the five courses in Belgium and Holland I was checking out.
Born Henry Shapland Colt in Highgate, England, in the summer of 1869 (but always known after that as Harry), Colt took up the game as a young boy and became good enough to serve as captain of the golf team at Cambridge while he was also earning a degree in law.
He worked for a spell as a barrister but gravitated more and more to golf, initially as a course designer (with the marvelous links track at Rye in East Sussex on the south England coast being his first effort) and then in club management (as the honorary secretary at Rye for several years and then the secretary at the Sunningdale Golf Club). While at Rye, Colt became a founding member of the Royal and Ancient Rules of Golf Committee. And during his employ at Sunningdale, he studied the architectural attributes of the Old Course there that Willie Park Jr. had so brilliantly designed.
Eventually, Colt left Sunningdale to set up his own design firm, in partnership first with Hugh Alison and Alister MacKenzie. When MacKenzie decided to go out on his own – he went on to produce such designs as Cypress Point and Augusta National – John Morrison took his place, and the new firm grew to become what many consider to be the first global golf design operation, accumulating architecture credits on six continents.
The sixth and eight holes at Royal Hague Golf Club. (Move slider to see panorama)
As a rule, Colt was a minimalist when it came to course design. He believed his layouts should be as natural as possible. So, he strove to produce routings that fit in their environs as they also tested a golfer and provided plenty of variety. Design critics have lauded Colt for how he took pains to ensure that successive par-4s did not play in the same direction. Ditto his par-3s, which are invariably interesting and fun to play. He enjoyed employing cross bunkers and other features to provide proper risk-reward opportunities while also giving more conservative or less capable golfers easier ways to get to the greens. And while his greens were often well-bunkered, Colt also liked leaving runoff areas with mounds and hollows to test that part of a player’s short game as well as his ability to get up and down from the sand.
The courses I visited on my trip to the Low Countries were spectacular. Colt’s first effort across the channel was Royal Zoute in Belgium, and though this flattish, well-bunkered layout was badly damaged during World War II, it was restored after the fighting, more or less to its former splendor.
Royal Zoute has more of a parkland feel than it initially did, but due to the sand-based soil, it still plays like a links, especially when the wind that blows off the nearby North Sea, as it so often does. Another thing to recommend Royal Zoute, aside from its marvelous moniker, is that it offers one of the best post-round lunches in golf, with seafood from nearby waters being the highlight of a very strong menu.
Next, I made my way to the Netherlands to tour four of Colt’s creations there. The best of that bunch was the Utrechtse Golf Club, also known as De Pan. I was especially taken by its collection of par-3s, their adroitly bunkered greens set atop dunes and tucked into dells.
Close behind was Kennemer, an inland links with ample fairways, wonderfully wild contours and holes both long and short that compel golfers to use most every club in their bags. The thatched-roof clubhouse endows the place with a decidedly Old World feel, and I enjoyed learning before my round that Seve Ballesteros had won his first professional golf tournament at Kennemer, the Dutch Open in 1976, when he was 19.
The heathland-style Eindhovensche (pictured at top) deserves a shout-out as well. Colt routed this classic on wooded, sand-based land, crafting two clockwise loops around a lake and returning the golfer each time to another thatched-roof clubhouse. His patron in this project was Anton Philips, the son of the founder of the Dutch electronics giant of that same name, and the track gets off to a brilliant start thanks to the deft and deceptive mounding Colt fashioned on the short par-4 second and then the par-3 third.
The last course I played in the Netherlands was Royal Hague, and that place is as much an aerobic workout as it is a game of golf, with heart-thumping hills and hefty changes in elevation. It is also an architectural gem. The downhill par-3 fourth is among my favorite holes on the Continent, and tee shots to that well-bunkered green seem to hang in the air forever. If there are better stretches of holes in Europe than those from Nos. 11 to 13 at Royal Hague, or the finishers from 16 to 18, I have yet to see them.
It was only a small sample of Colt’s work that I was able to see on my trip to Belgium and Holland. But what an impressive representation it was.
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