The golf complex at The National Golf Brussels lies less than a 30-minute drive from Brussels city centre, just a few kilometres to the north of Tervuren, where the Royal Golf Club de Belgique, commonly known as Ravenstein, is situated. The clubhouse and some of the holes at The National sit within what was formerly the largest horse racing circuit in the country, the Sterrebeek Hippodrome.
As horse racing steadily declined during the 1990s, a decision was made to find an alternative sporting use for the property, which led businessman Frank Monstrey and his wife Petra Noë to commission Bruno Steensels to fashion a modern golf facility, extending to a championship-standard 18-hole course, a 6-hole Compact course, along with a two-level driving range, chipping area and practice green.
The local landscape’s pretty flat so several small lakes were created to add visual interest, with spoil from the construction of these water hazards used for creative contouring in other parts of the layout. Around half a dozen holes are routed around these aquatic features, most notably on the par three 2nd and the par five 18th.
The par three 5th is the pick of the short holes, played across water to a green fronted by a large “beach bunker,” with a line of trees to the right of the fairway separating the golf course from the old racing track. Another remnant of the site’s past is found next to the 7th tee, where a tunnel that was once used by trainers to walk their horses to the track is now maintained as a bat cave.
Another modern Bruno Steensels design, The International in Amsterdam, hosted the KLM Open in 2019 and it might only be a matter of time before its Low Countries cousin in Brussels gains a similar slot on the European Tour circuit.
The National turned out to be the biggest surprise of my recent trip to Belgium. I thought in advance that it might struggle to hold its own against the esteemed “Royals” on my itinerary but how wrong could I be?
I knew Bruno Steensels had designed the course and I’d really liked his design at Millennium when I played there nine years ago so I should have been better prepared for what I found at this exciting “inland links” layout.
The course lies just a few kilometres from Royal Belgium’s property but you would never know in a million years they were so close to one another, such is the difference in the terrain between the two sites.
Ravenstein is all about the trees, of course – which I was to find out in the afternoon after playing here in the morning – whereas the National is far more open with just small stands of trees dotted around the property.
Because the land is so flat, several lakes were excavated to provide spoil for shaping and very pleasing fairway contours have been fashioned as a result of having sufficient material to do just that.
On the front nine, I really liked the beautiful par threes at the 2nd and 5th, where both greens sit behind water, along with the par four 9th and its “big dipper” of a fairway as it heads back to the clubhouse.
The back nine is routed round the perimeter of the property, enclosing the front nine, and I thought the best of these holes was the short par four 15th with its wide fairway and well-bunkered green.
Unfortunately, the 18th was a bit of a let down as it’s totally contrived to force a carry over water to a peninsula green with a beach bunker at the back to catch overhit approach shots – just a wee bit over the top for me that one!
One interesting thing that really caught my eye was the scorecard with its recommended pace of play stating 1 hr and 34 mins for holes 1-9 then 1 hr 28 mins for holes 10-18 – I like to play fast but can an average 4-ball really be expected to get round here in just over 3 hours?
I can’t remember when I last played two contrasting 18-hole courses in close proximity to one another at two different venues on the same day – and I know which one I’d sooner return to…
The surrounding is not so nice and there are quite a few planes from nearby Zaventem airport, nevertheless from a golfing standpoint, the National is one of my favorites in Belgium: Outstanding maintenance from the tee box to greens, great drainage which makes this course a great option in winter.
The course is generally challenging, and even more so when the wind blows.
Yesterday I enjoyed my first look and run around The National. Coming from The Netherlands where we have The International which just recently hosted the KLM Open the look and feel of this courses is strikingly familiar. This all makes perfect sense given they share the same architect, Mr. Bruno Steensels.
The National is to my knowledge one of the very few new build courses in Belgium in recent years and it's great to see some new life being pumped into the small but rich in history golf scene. A new totally modern inland links like course also has a perfect place in this country adding further variety.
The course is big, long and bold. Especially from the 6600 meter pro tees which we sampled on occasion but mainly stayed up at the men's back tee. In principle it's not likely the course would ever be set up from that distance unless the European Tour was here but it does allow them flexibility to greatly adjust the set up based on the weather conditions. This is common of modern championship courses. Whether that's a good characteristic is open for interpretation. The obvious disadvantage is that in one way or another it lengthens the walk of the course and the distance between green and tee, you are either walking back or walking forward an extra distance depending on the tee you play.
In general this course allows for quite generous fairway width off the tee, however, it's quite long so average players may struggle to reach a lot of the greens depending on wind conditions. We played in a 3 club wind.
For example, I hit far more woods into greens than normal on par 4's. On the other side I felt the par 5's were quite reachable for my playing partner who was a low single digit hcp.
Often when a course becomes quite long it's the par 4's that make up much of the length. This is definitely the case here.
The property at The National was a flat field and thus a blank canvas for the most part. A rare and unique luxury for an architect. That of course provided the opportunity to route and shape the course and the greens completely in the style of the architect. That also means a huge amount of earth was brought in and moved to make this possible. In the US Fazio is one of the main go-to guys for projects with huge earth movement. He also tends to make his courses playable for all levels and fun for even the highest of hcp'ers as he will build in banks and other types backboards at the widest part that help bring the ball back into play.
Granted I've only had one quick run-around here but to me it feels the opposite. I'd say this course is really set up very penal around and on the greens to challenge the very best players and make it as tough as possible for them. Amateurs will really struggle not just to hit the greens but to play reasonable recovery shots with such small margins for error.
My worry is that for all but the best golfers this impacts the level of fun they will have. The difficulty of the greens and surrounds is further enhanced by very photogenic and relatively deep bunkers. Strong bunker players will love the fact that these are some of the most consistent playing bunkers I've ever seen. The sand is really perfect and it's rare to get a bad lie. In fact, we didn't really see any and we sampled quite a few bunkers but everyone was literally perfect. A big compliment on the work and sand choice here.
The trouble and difficulty is in trying to approach firm greens that are raised when you often have to play the ball over deep bunkers with low irons or woods to reach the greens.
When a course plays firm and fast which I'm sure The National does in the dry periods (it was wet in several areas when we played due to significant rain) I really like to have an option to play long shots on the ground and roll them onto greens. That's not a realistic option very often here at The National. That for me was quite disappointing and took a huge element of fun away.
The greens have various tiers and sections on them many of which have severe run offs and sharp edges that play very unforgiving and require a high level of touch with recovery shots which all but the best players will struggle with. Don't get me wrong there are tons of fun recovery shots but tons of impossible ones as well. We played the greens running very slow but the turf is perfect as you'd expect on such a course. Speed up these greens to 10 or higher on the stimp and they become scary.
The National is clearly designed to be a top end course with superb state of the art facilities, it has a fabulous restaurant and plans for a 5 star hotel.
The course is a must play in Belgium but you need to check your ego at the door and play a shorter distance than you might normally play, which nobody will do and as a result they will, in most cases, receive a nice thrashing. However, the beer at the end of the round will be all the better and more deserved for it.