Gut Altentann is the Austrian course that Ron Kirby and Jack built and it’s set on the outskirts of Mozart’s hometown, Salzburg. Gut Altentann Golf Club was founded in 1988 and it was the Golden Bear’s first European ensemble. Twenty years later, and the course is one of less than a dozen to have been designed by Nicklaus in continental Europe – a remarkably small number considering that Jack has built over 300 courses worldwide.
This is an Austrian Open venue, so it’s no surprise to hear that Gut Altentann is a stern challenge. With two lakes and a sprinkle of Jack’s risk-and-reward design makes for an immensely enjoyable round. The topography is perfect for golf and the variation holds your attention from start to finish.
Measuring over 6,700 yards in length from the championship tees, the course is beautifully landscaped with trademark Nicklaus contoured bunker complexes and huge greens – averaging 640 square yards in area – throughout. Water plays a large part in proceedings too, coming into play at no fewer than eleven holes on the course.
The original plan was to build an exclusive resort, complete with golf course, hotel and spa and other sports amenities, but the financing collapsed before the clubhouse was even built, so the routing of the course is rather unusual with the 3rd and 8th greens being closest to the old farmhouse, which was not destroyed and became the clubhouse, while the 1st, 9th, 10th and 18th start or end a couple of hundred metres away.
The toughest hole on the front nine is the 447-yard par four 3rd where a stream cuts diagonally across the fairway at the point where it doglegs to the right. On the inward half, the hardest hole is reserved until last. The 490-yard par five 18th has a stream running left from the tee that then cuts across the fairway as it doglegs sharply left to the green – a very demanding finish to a round at the Gut Altentann Golf & Country Club.
Going to play a Jack Nicklaus course for the first time, one always has (or should have) high expectations. Mr. Nicklaus is known for his well-entrenched rules of golf course design: strategy is more important than sheer length, risk-reward is a necessary feature of a challenging but fun golf course, and holes should alternate hazards presented to the player. Hazards include water, many punishing bunkers and other perils such as ravines, waste areas, or other “natural” threats. And finally, all of the above must respect the natural lay of the land as much as possible. Therefore, teeing up on the first tee of Gut Altentann, I was expecting to see concrete signs of all this. After all, this course was the very first designed by Jack Nicklaus in Europe, his showcase and advertising project for this continent I would think.
I was never disappointed. The routing of the course is a bit unusual because of the history of the club, which did not develop into the exclusive resort it first pertained to become, but the design is in line with Mr. Nicklaus’s tenets, the play is exciting and challenging throughout. Take the first few holes: the first has a split fairway with a slanted rough and big bunker in the middle; the second doglegs around a bunker some forty meters long, and its green is tucked in a corner with a steep-sided creek running left and behind it; the third (most difficult hole) is a par-four with a long straight stretch with a looming row of trees on the right then a turn right through the trees, and the fairway is crossed by the creek mentioned above while leading to an elevated green; the par-three 4th includes water on the left, and a ring of five bunkers around the green. I could go on like this until the 18th hole, a par-five (second most difficult hole) where two long and accurate shots will only give you a narrow window onto the green, across the sunken creek again. It is a very pretty final shot as the green is in fact almost double: there is a narrow link, around a deep bunker lining a drop in the middle of it all, to the green of the 9th hole.
There is water in play on 10 holes, huge and/or multiple sand traps lurking on 15 holes, great use of the hilly terrain on the second half of the course, trees definitely in play on eight holes, causes for pauses to think about how to shape the next shot and how daring to be are often and varied. What else can a golf course offer in terms of fun?
The condition of the course was impeccable (the manager Ms. Hofmann apologized to me before I teed off about the 7th green, where one of the hand-held mowers they use on this course broke down and discolored an area the size of a bath rug). Management makes every effort to keep it beyond reproach. For example, the 11th, an uphill par-four had no less than 14 rakes around the cluster of four big bunkers that guard the elevated, blind green!
The clubhouse is a lovely 18th century farmhouse, with a great terrace and a very good restaurant. The members I met were all very hospitable, as was the staff. No wonder this club has enjoyed an enviable number of members, some of them never having been residents of the region, such as Franz Beckenbauer of world football fame or Ferrucio Furlanetto and Gösta Winbergh († 2002), members number 1 and 2 of the club, opera singers who came to Salzburg often for the Mozart festival and call Gut Altentann their home away from home.
You don’t have to be a star to play at Gut Altentann, but coming to the Salzburg area and not finding the time or means to visit the course would be missing a great opportunity at golfing fun.