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.”
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)