Golf on the German island of Föhr has a long history. The first holes were opened in 1926 adjacent to the Southern Beach as an amenity for patrons of the nearby sanatorium and boarding school. Bernhard von Limburger was involved in the design, but some credit is also given to the professional Mr. Gregory and other locals. There was no official club or charter; the director of the sanatorium decided who got to play and who was considered a "member" or on the "board". This informal arrangement lasted until World War II, when the course fell into disrepair.
After the war the course was restored and enjoyed a few years of old glory, before it became increasingly clear that the nearby resort town of Wyk would marginalise it and a sale of the property could be imminent. Thus in 1966 a respectable club was established to acquire a new site further west and by 1971 Frank Pennink had laid out 9 holes over it. The expansion to 18 holes came in 1989 under the auspices of Donald Harradine, although this work is not mentioned in his official biography. There might be a mildly interesting story behind that, but the real headlines belong to the latest and most radical changes that started in 2009 with the opening of 9 additional holes in a faux links style. Christoph Städler was the responsible architect and brought in his then-associate Christian Althaus, who went out on his own shortly after. Following the overwhelming success of the new holes, Althaus was retained by the club in 2014 to redesign most of the old 18 holes to the same style.
In the space of half a decade the course had gone from run of the mill to top of the class. Sure, the club was lucky to acquire some good expansion terrain for the new holes, but the magnitude of the overall transformation is evident when looking at the five remaining parkland holes. They are well liked by old-time members, but architecturally minded golfers will identify them immediately by their flat greens and tree-lined fairways. In contrast, there is no one-dimensionality about the eminently strategic Althaus makeover. Mick McShane, the shaper of Kingsbarns and the Castle Course, was hired to create an open playing field with links characteristics. However, there are also ponds and transition areas going from barren duneland into the forest, so it's not entirely obvious what to call this type of course. It's clearly sandy and rugged, almost like a flatter version of Friar's Head, and there's a breeze coming in from the nearby ocean.
Surprisingly, for 27 holes on a site with little room to spare, the routing is not only perfectly walkable, but also quite interesting. Side by side holes are avoided as much as possible and yet each 9-hole loop manages to return to the clubhouse. The most memorable feature encountered are the greens: they are very undulated and difficult, but not over the top in terms of speed. And with an outstanding green complex, how bad can any hole really be? There are few such problems though; the shot values are so precisely devised that creative ideas will often succeed and marginal shots are rarely punished too severely.
With more than 20 proper golf holes, Föhr Golf Club should contend for the top tier of courses on the European continent, but the placement of the remaining old holes at the beginning and end of each 9-hole loop may postpone such accolades for the time being.
I love this 27 hole complex, which sits on some good and some non-descript land, but you wouldn't know it, as it's extensively shaped. The Red Course leads out over what would typically be a tree-lined shute, but it is broken up by rugged bunkering and solitary trees to lead the player into a completely different landscape for the second shot. The approach to the green is hellish and if you're not careful you have wrecked your card after the first hole. The course then gradually becomes more and more linksy, the 4th and 5th are proper links holes and the 6th and 7th likely the picks from a visual point of view. The 8th and 9th are old, tree-lined holes and nowhere can you see the difference between old and new holes better than here.
The Yellow loop leads out exactly like the red - never change a winning formula! Only this time it's not the approach to the green that excites, but the huge double green with the 7th. It's followed by probably the best par 5 on the course with a great-looking tee shot and some cracking ground game options towards the green. While the overall character is still linksy, a few ponds do appear here and there, such as on the 4th with its alternate fairways. So it's tough to classify the course as a links, but I haven't played many links courses that are more fun than this one. There's also a great transition into tree-lined country at the 8th and again, the final hole is forgettable.
Now for the Blue course. It starts with another disappointing old hole, but the 2nd is already transitioning into better stuff and the 3rd is one of the quirkiest designs overall: a wicked, short par 4 with alternate fairways. Again we are now getting more and more linksy as we leave the trees behind and enter an area of real dunes, which are (sensibly) made the most of. This corner of the property may have the best terrain and it's sprinkled with old-school gimmicks like chocolate drop mounds and cross bunkers - but also some scattered trees, as we turn back towards the house. Again, ignore the final hole or rather look forward to the club replacing it - apparently Christian Althaus is already on it.
Five balls means worth flying in for a game, but you can't fly to the fantastic island of Föhr, unless your plane can land on grass. That alone is almost worth another half-ball and once they replace the remaining tired holes, I can't see how not to award it. Worth a week away to play? Already now, if you ask me. (UM)