There are three or four golf clubs that call themselves after the city of Köln (Cologne), but Golf- und Land-Club Köln is the original and has the rest riding on its coattails – despite being the only one on the "Schäl Sick" (local dialect for the wrong side of the Rhine). The majestic river used to be the border between civilisation (the Roman Empire on the left side) and wilderness ("barbaric" tribes on the right side) and that distinction has survived – at least in the minds of those on the correct side!
The club was originally formed on the “correct” side of the river in 1906 and it was where it operated its first 9-hole course. The subsequent move to 18 holes in 1952 necessitated a move across the river to the "Schäl Sick". However, some members were not interested in leaving the correct side and stayed with their 9-holer, which is called Marienburger Golf-Club today. Bernhard von Limburger then routed the new championship layout through the dense forest at Refrath with the intention to test the best golfers and reward accuracy rather than length off the tee.
A 17-year-old Bernhard Langer bagged his first professional win here in 1975. Three years later the German Open came to town and Seve Ballesteros shot 20 under par to beat Neil Coles by two shots. The event returned to Cologne in 1983 when Corey Pavin won by three shots from Seve and Tony Johnstone.
In 2010 a new event appeared on the European Senior Tour. The Berenberg Bank Masters was first hosted in South Africa, played on the Links course at Fancourt, but in 2011 and 2013 the event was contested over the classical old course here at the Golf- und Land-Club Köln.
A meandering creek, reinforced with ominous stone walls, comes into play between the 11th and 13th holes, but the main obstacle to a good score at Köln is not water but wood and sand – trees line each and every fairway and deep greenside bunkers protect many of the putting surfaces.
The hardest hole on the card is the 440-yard par four 6th where fairway bunkers either side of the landing area on the slight left doglegged fairway put a high premium on accurate tee shots – avoid these traps at all costs in order to have a chance of a par four here. If you do manage to tame the 6th, the 7th curves the opposite way and is even longer.
Despite the very dense forest, there is no glaring tree encroachment. The fairway bunkers are all visible and there are no overhanging limbs near the tees or greens. The playing angles are mostly intact and even average golfers stand a fighting chance of avoiding the trees during their round. The shadows are very long; consequently the fairways do not get much sun and wind, so the club does its best to rectify that situation by deploying a lot of sand.
The atmosphere of the place is aptly described on the club's website – "folks have been playing golf for a little longer here". Few obvious concessions to the modern world have been made, but behind the scenes Köln is a very professional operation.
Golf- und Land-Club Köln recently commissioned Infinite Variety Golf Design to restore the bunkering. The architects involved kindly commented as follows:
Frank Pont: “Dr. von Limburger was undoubtedly the best German golf architect ever. Refrath may be his best course, given the smart routing and the immense quality of the green complexes. The course needed some refreshing, and our bunker renovation was hopefully just the start of a careful, long-term restoration of a real jewel.”
Hendrik Hilgert: “Our philosophy was to largely restore the old Limburger bunkers which allowed us to bring back many of the original hole strategies which had been lost over time. Furthermore, we convinced the club to go back to the original classic bunker style with flashy sand faces which greatly increased bunker visibility and adds a lot of beauty to the course. Last but not least we used modern bunker construction technology to improve playability and reduce maintenance requirements.”
Hats off to Hilgert and his CDP associates. Koln is a very consistent, well-maintained championship test in a lovely setting. It would be fitting if the course played firmer. The lay-out is suited for it. The routing is spacious, coherent and consists of three returning loops.
The round is off to a strong start with the lovely, friendly par 4 first, although the first trees blocking an even better view of this hole are visible on the right side. The 2nd is a strong, strategic slight dogleg right par 5 with a stream running diagonally across the fairway. The short, blind and reachable par 4 4th is also an early highlight in the round, and my favorite hole on the course. It features a sloping hill that is easily carried but is all you can see off the tee, and you know and hope what lies behind must be quite wide. The left side is favourable for the best approach into the green, which looks awfully small and narrow from a but is in fact quite large.
After a while it becomes apparent that many holes are doglegged with the dogleg dictating the preferred strategy. Nevertheless, Refrath is well-bunkered and the green sites provide for plenty of interesting (recovery) situations, run-offs and a set of crowned greens with intelligent slopes. It all works very well and the spectacle is evenly spread throughout the round, without an obvious climax stretch of holes. A weaker spot in the routing is that the par 3s, although pleasant and pleasing to the eye, are samish in length and roughly play in the same direction (all 4!). The 12th however is a brilliant hole with a superb elephant back green, sloping away front to back and to the left.
I really liked the width of the holes at Koln, the course is very spacious and therefore the round was a very pleasant walk without the need to search for lost balls more than occasionally, without compromising on challenge. The demanding par 4 14th on the other hand was a hole, not unlike the extreme 14th at The Island, where a dead-straight shot is the only option as the hole was clearly very narrow in comparison with the rest. This however worked quite well whereas it could have been just another cramped par 4 if the tree management hadn’t been quite so good. Well done Refrath, especially from a German perspective it is admirable that you’ve chosen to be a role model for other classic courses that have overgrown over the last century.
Refrath has a similar ‘je ne sais quoi’ sense of stepping inside a painting with almost unnaturally beautiful satured colours that can be experienced at Les Bordes (Old). The bunkers contrast with very bright, blinding white tints and are surrounded by a well-manicured, brazilian waxed landing strip of rough edges for definition. If you’re spotting parallels with Falkenstein I wouldn’t say that’s far-fetched either, although the land is less exciting at Refrath, is closer to parkland than it is to heathland, and feels more contrived in terms of the shaping of the holes and hazards – the water hazards for example that have sharp stone wall edges with sudden height differences between bordering parts of the fairways. It doesn’t feel too out of place though and the style is consistently applied throughout the course.
This place is well-deserving of a visit and should be seriously considered for a place comfortably in the next continental top 100.
I love Refrath and know it very well.
It's usually in very good condition, the holes are varied and memorable, the place is an oasis and very classy.
Strategically and visually, what it really needs is a proper do or die water hazard between and in front of the 9th and 18th green.
Arguably, the existing water hazards on 3, 5, 11, 12, 13 c/should be brought more into play as well.
Unfortunately what it got is an IMO very bad bunker 'renovation' project.
I like bunker renovation projects when they are done well and fit the place, like e.g. at Richmond GC, but Refrath's is completely out of place.
It just makes the bunkers and course look unkempt and thereby takes away from its class without adding anything strategically.
Imagine Augusta just having its perfectly manicured bunkers being turned into muni ones to imagine the change.
4 balls for the current setup which I played in July 2019.
5 1/2 balls if they undo the out of place, strategically irrelevant and poorly done artificial semi-wildening of the bunkers and get those water hazards I suggested above instead.
As an aside, I am a well travelled golfer and very much like the site, and I deem it to be correct for most countries, but the German listings and rankings are currently probably the weakest and most distorted.
Ok, to make this a 2nd tier Surrey course (which would be 1st tier Germany) we'd have to start by thinning out the broad-leafed trees except those on the perimeter of the course, which shield against traffic noise. Then we'd have to clear the undergrowth to get some circulation of air, which in turn will open the door for firm and fast playing conditions. The enclosed picture shows the 17th green, which already has some of that lighter Surrey feel I am talking about.
It can never be heathland, the soil won't allow that, but there are bits and pieces of that look encountered throughout the site.
But anyway, there's a lot to like about the course as it is. I found the front 9 pretty entertaining, it has a few undulations and some shorter holes that make it interesting for average players. From the 14th, however, the proceedings get a little stale - undoubtedly the idea was to challenge players like Langer and Seve with a few long holes at the end. For me it's three drawn-out par 4s and an uneventful par 5. Unadulterated length gets old pretty quickly, especially considering that there already were two long par 4s on the front. However, the set of par 3s is world class and looks like it came straight out of Harry Colt's top drawer. The greens putt true and can be made fast enough to accommodate the professional game without overwhelming the typical club member for the rest of the year.
Overall I would call this a quality experience with a considerable upside. (UM)