When six nineteenth-century Englishmen living in Flanders grew tired of life without their ancient game, they got together to do something about it. Today, in the entryway of the clubhouse at Royal Antwerp Golf Club, the handwritten minutes of their initial meeting occupy a place of honor. Established in 1888, Royal Antwerp was the first golf club to open in Belgium and one of the first in continental Europe. Its history is entwined with that of the nation: During World War II, the clubhouse was taken over by the Germans, who planted corn on the fourteenth fairway; the right-hand greenside bunker on number four was initially carved out by an artillery shell during the fighting to liberate Antwerp in September 1944; and in gratitude to its liberators, the club granted free access to Allied troops for the following year.
Originally built on a military training ground, Royal Antwerp moved in 1912 to its current location in Kapellen, twenty minutes north of the culturally and architecturally rich river port. From Antwerp, the club is best reached by car or taxi. Although the course hosted the 2006 Belgian National Stroke Play amateur championship, it is no longer used for international events, because, among other things, the par fives are too short for the modern game (they range from 466 to 523 yards). Most golfers, though, will find no lack of challenge or enchantment. Tom Simpson, who in 1930 redesigned Willie Park Jr.'s 1912 layout, was a strong proponent of the dogleg, and he created an impressive collection of holes that elbow through corridors of pine and silver birch. Many of the par fours demand well-placed tee shots and precise irons into the small, often strategically bunkered greens. All of which creates intrigue on what is an almost entirely flat parcel of land (this is the Low Country, after all). And depending on the time of year, the grounds are resplendent with flowering rhododendron and the heady scent of pine. Purple heather that lined the fairways was removed several years ago but is now being brought back. The result of all this is a time-out-of-time charm.
Although located in Belgium's Dutch-speaking north, Royal Antwerp remains a French-speaking club, maintaining a tradition that dates to the early 1900s and reflects the aristocratic status of the original membership. Conversing in French is considered politically incorrect in Flanders today, which only adds to the rarefied air of the club.