In Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum, not far from Rembrandt's The Night Watch, one can find hand-painted Delftware bearing images of ruffle-collared Dutchmen of the late Middle Ages engaged in a pastime bearing more than a passing resemblance to golf. To this day, a minority opinion holds that the Dutch invented the game, but despite this intriguing speculation, it cannot be said that golf is a consuming passion of modern Dutch society. Soccer reigns supreme here, while golf is played primarily on marshy polder courses, which tend to be flat, treeless, weirdly geometric and generally dull.
There are, however, a handful of notable exceptions, and they are every bit as brilliant as they are obscure. On the North Sea coast, one can find linksland practically identical to the eastern shores of Scotland; inland and farther south lie pockets of forested heathland reminiscent of Surrey, England. Best of all, these unheralded Dutch courses quietly take pride in an architectural pedigree second to none—they were designed by the great Harry Shapland Colt.
After laying out Rye, Swinley Forest and Wentworth in England and Royal Portrush in Northern Ireland, as well as routing (with George Crump) America's incomparable Pine Valley, the Englishman made several trips across the North Sea in the 1920s and '30s with his associates C.H. Alison and J.S.F. Morrison, designing courses for a number of wealthy patrons. On links and heathland sites alike, Colt employed a coherent set of strategic ideals to achieve a consistent body of work; variations in natural settings and routings, however, make each of his courses unique. (Although Colt was a fine player—captain of the Cambridge team, two-time winner of the Royal & Ancient's Jubilee Vase and a semifinalist in the 1906 British Amateur—it is interesting to note that he was the first architect who was not a professional golfer.)
With the help of Frank Pont, a Dutch golf course architect who has steeped himself in Colt's design principles, I recently had the chance to play several Colt classics in the Netherlands. Pont, who has worked with David McLay Kidd, is building his portfolio through the restoration of his country's best courses, including all but one of those described below (Noordwijk). There is much work to be done. Over time, many of Colt's distinctive sand-faced bunkers have flattened into amorphous blobs or acquired grass faces, while green committees have fought the modern power game by adding back tees that significantly alter the original playing strategies, not to mention the aesthetics, of the holes. Pont has tackled this job with enthusiasm and expertise, and as wonderful as these courses were when I saw them, there's no question they will become even better as he continues their rejuvenation.
Travelers have plenty of options in planning a golf excursion to the Netherlands. Amsterdam, as the country's cultural and geographical hub, is the natural place to stay. Within ninety minutes (and often less), you can access a host of top-notch courses located west of the city along the North Sea coast—notably, Kennemer, Royal Hague and Noordwijk—as well as some to the south, including Eindhoven. Renting a car is a possibility, though parking in the city center can be a nightmare. You can just as easily use the rail system to access regional cities such as Eindhoven and The Hague.
When booking a round, there are a few things to keep in mind. First, each of these clubs is private, and a good portion of the week is reserved for members. So don't try to book a large outing—you'll most likely be turned away. But setting up a four-ball shouldn't be a problem if you keep your schedule flexible. Second, avoid slow play. While the Dutch don't whip around the course at quite the breakneck pace of the Scots, they move quickly, and the last thing members want at their home club is to get stuck behind a gaggle of poky Yanks.
WHERE TO PLAY
Kennemer Golf & Country Club
Kennemerweg 78, Zandvoort; 011-31/235-718-456, kennemergolf.nl. Yardage: 6,581. Par: 72. Architect: H.S. Colt, 1929. Greens Fee: $140. T+L Golf Rating: ****1/2
This is a first-rate links capable of standing with all but the very best of the British Isles. The surroundings aren't especially beautiful—views of the sea are spoiled by a cluster of concrete apartment complexes—yet the course brims with character. History, too. A teenage Seve Ballesteros won his first pro event here; the scorecard from his course-record sixty-five hangs in the grill room. A series of sandhills, many of which serve as elevated tees, have a history of their own. During the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands, the German army built a network of concrete bunkers throughout the course as a means of tank defense. After the war, the club was faced with a demolition effort of such expense that certain sections were left intact, grassed over and blended into the natural dunes.
Koninklijke Haagsche Golf & Country Club (Royal Hague)
Groot Haesebroekseweg 22, Wassenaar; 011-31/705-179-607, khgcc.nl. Yardage: 6,717. Par: 73. Architect: H.S. Colt, 1939. Greens Fee: $125. T+L Golf Rating: ****1/2
The dunesy terrain at Royal Hague, as the club is known, is severe, but the uphill scrambles are rewarded with excellent views of the sea on a clear day. The pleasingly anachronistic design presents a full complement of blind shots, tiny greens and rumpled fairways that play Pachinko with the golf ball. Given that Haagsche may be the most exclusive club in the Netherlands, a visitor might expect to find a cute and quirky member's course. But make no mistake: This is a stern test. Vast colonies of buckthorn—Holland's answer to gorse—lie in wait for errant drives. And a number of greens are situated on such high ground that upon reaching them, foursomes feel ready to plant a flag of their own.
Noordwijkse Golfclub (Noordwijk)
Randweg 25, Noordwijk; 011-31/252-373-764, noordwijksegolfclub.nl. Yardage: 6,843. Par: 72. Architect: Frank Pennink, 1972. Greens Fee: $120. T+L Golf Rating: ****
This is considered by many to be the finest course in the Netherlands. I'm not sure I agree. The Frank Pennink design occupies some of the country's purest linksland, a stark dune-scape that offers clear views in every direction. The layout, however, lacks Colt's subtle sophistication—most notably in its green complexes. And not one but two of the par threes are in serious need of tree removal. Noordwijk is certainly exacting—on the second shot of the par-five second, just the right blend of ambition and restraint is required to reach a narrow ridge between the dunes, the only place to avoid a blind approach or a tricky downhill lie.
Eindhovensche Golf (Eindhoven)
Eindhovenseweg 300, Valkenswaard; 011-31/402-014-816, eindhovenschegolf.nl. Yardage: 6,477. Par: 72. Architect: H.S. Colt, 1930. Greens Fee: $100. T+L Golf Rating: ***1/2
A thatched-roof clubhouse—reminiscent of a plump forest mushroom—greets visitors to Eindhoven's colorful, manicured grounds. The heathland course embodies one of Colt's foremost tenets: transparency, or showing all the features of a hole from the tee whenever possible. Golfers, of course, are more than capable of creating their own trouble, as Eindhoven proves on many holes. The 301-yard second is a wonderfully strategic short par four. With the center of the fairway broken up by two grassy knobs, choices await on the tee. While disaster is unlikely, it's just the type of sneaky little hole not seen enough in modern design.
BEST OF THE REST
Utrechtse Golf Club de Pan (ugcdepan.nl) is the other major Colt heathland course in Holland. Set in a nature preserve, it's quiet, shady and full of character. The same can be said of Golfclub Toxandria (toxandria.nl), a private course near Breda. While the conditioning isn't as great, the foundation is in place for Pont's renovations to have a huge impact. Finally, Amsterdam Old Course is a nine-hole layout in the shadow of the city's major soccer stadium, fine for a quick loop.