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Sweden: The Best Kept Secret of Golf in the World

Golfers collect the evocative names of glorious courses.

They float into our minds at odd moments like reveries--Pebble Beach, Muirfield, Royal Melbourne, Casa de Campo, Princeville, Valderrama. Like the faraway places their names elicit, they are part of our golf fantasy life. Someday we'll get there--to Carmel, Scotland, Australia, Dominican Republic, Hawaii or Spain. Båstad, Halmstad, Falsterbo, Barsèbäck and Ullna evoke nothing. Yet those five courses--all public, all fabulous, all within a half day's drive of one another in one of the world's most beautiful and sophisticated countries--are among the best in the world. In the next century, they will be part of our world golf mythology. Tourists will rave not only about the golf, but also about the salmon and aquavit, the stunning castles, the civilized citizenry, the bed-and-breakfasts on cliffs overlooking the sea, the luxe European shopping, the museums and galleries. But now, and perhaps for a little longer, both the unsurpassed golf courses and the tourist cornucopia surrounding them still seem to be a secret outside Sweden, which has become the best golf destination in Europe after Scotland and probably the best golf-plus-European-vacation destination including Scotland.

There must be a catch, you say. And there is. But just one, and it is this: If you seek adventure, don't go to Sweden. The Vikings may have loved risk, but modern Swedes prefer Ikea. You're not going to wander into a rebel uprising. Nobody's going to whisper in your ear in an Ystad café, "Wanna buy an AK-47 real cheap?" All the adventures are going to be on the golf course. Off it, everything is easier, cleaner, cheaper and calmer than any golf vacation you've probably had anywhere in the U.S. The scariest thing in Sweden is that after you leave the major cities, there's quite a bit of moose art.

For an American, Sweden may be the most congenial, least foreign-feeling country anywhere except Canada. Almost everybody speaks adequate English. More important, they like to speak it. Language barrier?There's barely an accent barrier. You might as well be in Minneapolis. In Sweden, I played with anyone the starter paired me with. All Swedes. All delighted to chat. All a pleasure as partners. You will never touch a flagstick in Sweden. After a week, I found myself muttering, "I'm going to beat one of these bastards to the stick just once."

That's all the bad news there is. What follows should go down very smoothly.

So just how good are the best courses in Sweden?I've covered golf for twenty-five years for the Washington Post and played most of the top one hundred courses in America. The five Swedish courses listed earlier--all with greens fees less than $75--are, as a group, more spectacular, more scenic, more fun and more various than the last five courses to hold the U.S. Open. Now don't go ballistic. The Swedish courses are not better tests of golf than Shinnecock Hills, Oakland Hills, Congressional, Oakmont and Olympic. Though tough and fair, the top courses in Sweden are not as brutal as USGA tracks. Which is another reason that you may like them even more.

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