Not unlike a British heathland course, the layout at Royal Limburg Golf Club twists and turns through beautiful woodland. It is located in the huge Campine nature reserve to the east of Antwerp, on free-draining ground that is rarely ever waterlogged, even in the worst of rainy seasons.
F. W. Hawtree designed the course in 1966, and it’s a timeless classic, routed in two loops of nine which each return to the clubhouse via open heathland. Most fairways are bounded by pine and birch trees with massive clusters of heather around the property to add great beauty when in bloom.
The routing of the course at Limburg is such that half the holes are doglegged, and these ensure the thinking golfer will prosper as he or she plots their way around the course. A fine old-fashioned design feature – the short par four hole – also adds interest around the turn at both the 8th and 10th holes.
Martin Hawtree made a few alterations to his father's original design in 2010 and Bruno Steensels completed a bunker renovation project in 2018.
It was the middle of last summer when I first visited Houthalen and was treated to the Royal Tour. The course was in beautiful condition even though it was one of the driest periods and of course this was affecting the turf just like at every other course in the lowlands.
I had long looked forward to this round. Unfortunately, as good as the condition was it was a round I'd classify as one of my most disappointing rounds in recent memory. Such a wonderful property and so much potential to have something amazing, something like the the great courses in Surrey but instead, from an architecture perspective, a course that for me represents a missed opportunity in terms of the routing, greens and surrounds. The club has also engaged in several changes, some stronger than others but none of which are in the context of the existing course, so what's currently there is very much a mongrel for lack of better description.
This indicates they may be a bit unsure of the direction they want to go in. If I were the owner of this club and had 100% say in what would happen and was allowed carte blanche I'd bring in one of the great young architects, take a few study trips over to Surrey to study what Colt, Simpson, Braid and other great architects have done with similar sites then go back and largely redo almost all of it.
I realize this seems like strong criticism but starting with a brilliant property like this and ending up with anything but a brilliant course is not doing the site justice. I believe people will like this course, but mainly because it's a great property, so good that it makes average architecture seem good.
They also suffer from many years of not managing tree growth which has led to very narrow tree-lined holes, throw in a few doglegs and you have to be straight and precise. The original greens from Hawtree are mainly small round and featureless almost like the ground was just flattened.
Again very critical but I'm not a huge fan of the bunker shaping either but let's just keep it at greens and surrounds. A costly process to renovate it all completely but the outcome could be amazing and give the course the greens and surrounds the land deserves.
Without any rerouting of the actual course you could make this one of the top courses in the Benelux. In the current state it falls well short of these accolades for me.
I fully agree that a large scale upgrade of all greens and green surrounds would propel Royal Limburg to the league of top courses on the European continent. In the current state they are out of tune with the rest of the golf course. Which is situated on a beautiful site and has a strong routing and elegantly designed holes. Fred Hawtree is known for his somewhat understated, functional, well balanced and esthetic designs (Royal Birkdale, Hillside, St. Nom-la-Bretèche, Royal Waterloo La Marache, etc.) and Royal Limburg is another example of this.
Only 3 reviews? I’d better write something then. Played here in late July 2014, so not seen the recent bunker renovation mentioned below. Funnily enough some of them were a bit tired though.
Houthalen is a lovely course and I enjoyed it greatly. I think this was one of those rushed rounds during a family holiday where I popped out for some milk and came back 18 holes later (without milk).
The few open holes following the tree-lined ones work well, good variety throughout, good atmosphere around the place, and it was a bonus to play it during a purple patch. Probably wise to time your visit for August if possible.
I did slightly prefer it to Royal Zoute, but not that much in it. Well worth a visit and not too far from The Eindhovensche just over the border if you want to pair it up with another track.
One highlight to rival the course though was getting paired up with Romelu Lukaku’s father-in-law on the back 9. This was the same weekend that Lukaku has flown over to be introduced to the crowd at Goodison Park as a new signing during a pre-season friendly. And I’m an Everton fan. What are the chances?
I’m surprised there have only ever been three reviews for this course. It’s easily one of the best courses in Europe and I don’t understand why more people haven’t written about its undoubted charms. A number of folk have suggested to me in private over the last few years that it should be given serious consideration for the national number 1 position – and that was before the wonderful bunker renovation that was completed over the last winter – and I now know why these people have been championing the course for the top spot.
Holes are laid out across a rolling landscape that alternates between dense woodland and open heathland, with many of the fairways bounded by huge swathes of heather and I can only imagine how good it must be to play here when it’s in full bloom. Large clusters of rhododendrons also backdrop some of the greens, adding early season splashes of colour to the golfing canvas (though their presence might well be frowned upon by some who’ll deem it inappropriate to have such flowers on the course).
I loved the short par four holes at the 8th and 10th, both of which are played to elevated greens with bunkers set into the slopes surrounding the putting surfaces and it was evident that a lot of work has recently gone into removing extraneous vegetation between tee and green at the par three 11th, leaving a large expanse of sandy wasteland which won’t take long for nature to heal. The 17th is a severe dogleg to the right with a large tree in the middle of the fairway obscuring the view to a raised, sand-protected green – on paper, I’d probably think this hole was a bit too extravagant but it works really well in reality.
I’m not a fan of the artificial pond next to the home green which also has to be carried from the 1st tee but as it’s the sole water hazard on the course and it only comes into play at the start and end of the round then I suppose I can overlook such a feature as there were more than enough good things going on elsewhere – especially with regard to the aforementioned upgrade work – to compensate for what is only a small blemish to my mind.
I notice Royal Limburg made a modest upward rise in the last European Top 100 published at the end of last year but, following the brilliant bunker upgrade carried out in recent months, I’d be surprised if it didn’t climb even higher when the chart is revised again at the end of next year.
It’s been a while since I last played here, but recently having played Royal Zoute, Spa and Royal Ostend I can still clearly remember Limburg, because I compared these to Limburg everytime. When I played here the heather was in full bloom and this was a delight to see. In fact I’ve never seen heather as beautiful and abundant.
This however doesn’t distract from the fact that even without these aesthetic pleasures Limburg is a great course. It plays ‘hard and fast’ year round with true and fast greens and it has matured really well over the years. In my opinion, Limburg can really compete with the Dutch Colt-designed heathland-courses while having it’s very own character.
My favourite holes were 8-10 and the 18th. Limburg has holes with great diversity: You’ll find a few tricky risk-reward par 4s, some devilishly long par 4s and the par 3s are pretty, mostly tree lined and harder than they appear. Limburg should certainly be listed in the top 50 in continental Europe, unless something weird has happened over the last few years.
I think it’s the most interesting, challenging and complete course I’ve played in Belgium and I’m sorry to say (not really) Limburg has the edge for me against Zoute.