Located to the south of Vienna on the edge of the spa town of Baden lies the prestigious Fontana Golf & Country Club. The 18-hole Doug Carrick and Hans Erhardt designed course opened for play in 1996 and it’s at the heart of an American-styled luxurious residential development.
Residential courses don’t press everyone’s buttons but this is one of the world’s best thanks to Frank Stronach's billions (Stronach is an Austrian-Canadian businessman and founder of Magna International who also commissioned Magna Golf Club, a Carrick-designed course in Canada). A man-made 20-hectare lake brings plenty of drama to the closing holes and they’ve even created a sandy beach with palm trees. You’ll be pleased to hear that this hazard only comes into play for Fontana's swimming club members!
The earth certainly moved for the course designers especially given they had so much spare soil following the excavation of the lakes. Naturally this has been used to create artificial shaping but this has been achieved with the utmost taste.
Crisp and accurate iron play is the key to scoring well at Fontana because this is a target golf course and your approach shots need to fly long and high to avoid the watery and sandy hazards. See if you can emulate Markus Brier who carded a remarkable 65, 67, 66, and 68 in the four rounds of the 2006 Austria Open here at Fontana. Brier became the first Austrian golfer to win on The European Tour completing his personal love affair with the event, having won it twice before, when it was part of the Challenge Tour.
In the 2009 Austrian Open, Spaniard Rafael Cabrera Bello fired a European Tour record-equalling 60 to claim his maiden European Tour win at Fontana. Cabrera Bello had a 30-foot eagle putt on the final green to record the Tour's first-ever 59 but he narrowly missed. No doubt questions were asked as to whether the Fontana golf course was too easy for modern professionals because the Austrian Open was moved to the Diamond Country Club in 2010.
I have to admit that when I drove into the Fontana golf club premises, I was shocked. I had driven through the west of Austria, hill after valley and mountain after gorge, and here I was, on a totally flat expanse, with the only real relief many kilometers away at the horizon line. Fontana was built on a totally level surface, and the only high spots of the course are the hillocks and moguls created by the architects with the dirt they got when digging the large lake in front of the clubhouse terrace. This golf course was artificially put together pretty much from A to Z, and the creators had in mind a championship venue, complete with room for crowds along the holes and hazards to create excitement for the spectators and risk/reward situations for the players. In fact, Fontana hosted several Challenge tour events and the 2009 European Tour’s Austrian Open, and it was in the running in 2015 to host the 2022 Ryder Cup (which was finally awarded to Italy’s Marco Simone golf course near Rome).
So, does the club live up to its intent? The clubhouse is certainly impressive, as is the view from its terrace, despite the mansions built on the left bank (I am not a great fan of real estate cum golf course projects). The course is easy to walk, and the design is very American in style, with rather large fairways, loads of bunkers, vast waste areas and water in play on 9 holes. It is definitely long enough to challenge most golfers, at 6,490 meters from the back tees and still 6,089 from the yellow tees (in fact, the course manager will encourage you to tee from the blue tees if your handicap is higher than 15). The condition of the whole venue is impeccable, and the greens can be very fast. There are some visually remarkable holes, such as the par-four 2nd, 5th and 8th, the par-three 4th or the par-five 15th. There are also the signature holes: the par-three 17th across the far, narrower end of the main lake, and the finale 18th, a par-five running around and along the same lake.
And importantly there are the shots for show, score or bust on this target golf course: how much do you want to cut across the water on the long 8th, or on the short 16th, or on the 18th? How far over the waste area on the left side of the par-four 5th can you carry to open the approach shot to the green? How long can you drive on the par-five 9th and 15th while avoiding the bunkers straight ahead? Is it safe to drive over the first row of tall pine trees on the right side of the dogleg right 13th? Could one drive the green of the sharp dogleg 12th despite its apparent length of 362 meters from the tips and the six bunkers waiting for those who try and fall short or slightly right of the green? Players will face many fun strategy choices around this venue, especially if there is no wind because this could toughen the course considerably. The harder holes are not the par-fives, which are of average length, but the long par-fours.
Great golf in a great setting, what else can one ask for? Probably a little more time for the course to mature. I believe one of the reasons for the Austrian Open to move from Fontana after the 2009 event was that the trees along the course are still young and small for the most part (with the exception of the pine forest in the northwestern part of the course), so they don’t really come into play yet. Give them 10-15 years, and this golf club could well become one of the great courses in Europe. It already belongs for sure to the top tier of Austrian golf… provided the management of the area keeps the 17th and 18th holes as they stand now! (I was told of a real estate development project that would place houses on both sides of the lake, a great loss for the club if it were to become a reality).