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Sweden: The Best Kept Secret of Golf in the World

Malmö is the size of Seattle, but much of its downtown has an atmospheric, old-Europe feeling. Think of the oldest handsome parts of Boston or Philadelphia. At its heart, Malmö has two large, safe central parks of gardens, bridges, waterways, lawns and statues--Pildammsparken and Slottsparken. Beware: Just as walking in downtown Stockholm can be addictive, these parks near the intricate cobbled streets of Gamla Staden can seduce you away from your golf. If you stayed at the Grand Hotel in Stockholm, then you must stop at the Mäster Johan in Malmö. The Grand is an Old World palace with plenty of royal blue and gold, but the Mäster Johan is a contemporary adventure--half classic modern, half antique. Wander around the ancient, narrow streets near the Mäster Johan and ask the concierge to send you to that restaurant off Stortorget Park that feels like you're inside a brick oven.

Nonetheless, save every possible minute for golf. Start with the Old course at Barsèbäck. Often the first Swedish course that gets mentioned, it passes every great-test-of-golf measurement. Sufficient length, a proper balance of holes that favor a fade or a draw, slick true greens. To the average golfer, however, Barsèbäck's variety may be its most memorable aspect. A dozen top-tier parkland holes run between major trees, yet the course also offers fresh sea air, gorse, wildflowers and holly berry, particularly along its seaside holes. It's doubtful you've ever seen a track like it. In true, stubborn, we-do-it-our-way Swedish form, the 148-yard second hole is played directly over an alarmingly large old tree. Not around. The tree got there first. Over or else.

While Barsèbäck is famous in Europe, Falsterbo may be Sweden's best kept secret. It'll knock your soft spikes off. An hour's drive from Malmö, the entire country comes to a point, a tip, a peninsula off a peninsula off a peninsula; and that's Falsterbo Golfklubb. There's actually a spot--called the End of Sweden--where the sixteenth green and the seventeenth tee meet. If nobody's pushing you, you'll just sit there and stare. You'll have company. Even on the wind- and rain-swept day when I played, a dozen world-class bird watchers with telescopes and zoom lenses had taken up residence behind the tee. Perhaps the Oldest Loon designated the Falsterbo Lighthouse, in the middle of the course, as the migration landmark for every bird in Europe.

No prestigious tournament will ever come to Falsterbo. The pristine village, which comes closer to being unregenerately ritzy than almost anything in Sweden, is not built for congestion. And the folks with summer homes there have the juice to keep their sanctuary exactly the way they want it. Also, the course itself is glamour and television resistant. You couldn't fit a crowd of a hundred around the eighteenth green, which is wedged next to a long, high, arching sand dune.

True links--where the golfers are taller than the trees--have never been my choice. Until Falsterbo. It's the most undiluted example of the classic type in Sweden; its topographical variety and unadorned beauty make it the Swedish course perhaps best able to stand comparison with other world-class courses. Though Falsterbo has all the wild beauty, scudding sea and horizontal rain of any fine links, it also has a bit of compassion. Everywhere you look there's ljung and broom--all that horrid-understory links torture. But when you actually play the 6,671-yard par-seventy-one course, you realize you can escape from almost anywhere you hit the ball--which is to say, you can find it, advance it seventy-five yards and get on with your life.

On my day at Falsterbo, it rained four times--one a ten-minute downpour. Yet, during three longer periods, it was sunny and almost balmy.

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