Royal Antwerp was inaugurated in 1888 and it’s the oldest golf club in Belgium. The course was originally laid out by Willie Park Junior in 1913 and redesigned by Tom Simpson in 1930. It’s one of continental Europe’s architectural delights.
The following extract is from the New World Atlas of Golf.
“No royal family has taken a livelier interest in golf than the Belgian. King Baudouin has represented his country in international matches, a unique distinction for a reigning monarch, and his father, the abdicant King Leopold, is a true aficionado.
In all Europe, including Britain, Antwerp has few peers for the type of course that wends its way through woods of pine and silver birch, heather and shrubs, and it has a character similar to those on that fine belt of golfing country west of London. At first sight it might appear easier than Sunningdale, Wentworth and their brethren. Its level changes hardly more than a yard or so; rarely do the trees threaten peace of mind, even that of a golfer. Yet its very flatness call for fine judgement of distance, and the unusual disposition of some 6,700 yards makes the strict par of 73 severe even for the good player.”
According to the Peugeot Golf Guide: “Having the privilege of being an old style course, its length doesn't mean having to drive à la John Daly and the subtle greens hardly require the putting touch of Cory Pavin. But the trouble in store should never be underestimated, as this is an iron hand in a velvet glove. The remarkably intelligent layout, highly strategic bunkering and the presence and use of trees and heather are an example for all modern designers."
My first round abroad since september 2020 was one I’ve looked forward to for a long time and also one to remember. Having heard and read rave reviews about the drastic renovations that have taken place in Kapelle, on the (now a little less) wooded outskirts of Antwerp, my expectations were high but the course still surprised me in positive fashion.
Distance will not be the problem for most golfers playing RAGC. The routing calls for a great variety and rewards the shotmaker, not particularly favoring a certain shot shape throughout the course. Patience is key. As the course is a par 73 with 5 par 5s which are not too long, the player knows that’s where advantage must be taken to post a good score, which in itself adds to the pressure. Trouble lurks when you find one of the hazards or find yourself shortsided on or next to one of the contoured greens with steep runoffs. This is most apparent at the par 3 16th, a heavily bunkered ‘short hole’ with a green sloping back to front and left to right, with run offs on the back half of the green, not leading to a valley of sin but flattening out and making the shot back even more challenging. Good luck getting the ball back on the putting surface if you manage to miss the green. You could use any club in the bag to pull that off depending on the exact location (don’t recommend the driver). I’m sounding very nostalgic for a still sub 30 y/o man, but hey, they don’t make them like that anymore! When they do, it is in most cases overdone and unnatural looking.
The Simpson original design shines in all its glory, which is characterized by the endless variety of green complexes, strategic bunkering, deception and optical illusion by the placement of the hazards and the subtle contours of the land. Often, it may look like the approach you’re about to hit is no more than a PW, while in fact you’ll need a full 6 iron or vice versa. Such design features had me in awe for the majority of the round. It’s very impressive given the land on which the course is built, which is perfect for golf topographically and lovely wooded, heathered and undisturbed by road noises or other distractions. Then again the land is relatively flat and just not that spectacular if compared with most of its fellow golden age Continental Europe and Surrey peer golfcourses. It even lacks the subtle movement that the also flattish Hilversumsche is known and famed for. That is solely made up for thanks to the sheer quality of the architecture, and the quality of the renovations and maintenance since.
In its current form, Royal Antwerp is nothing less than the best golf course in Belgium I’ve played (Royal Belgium and Sart Tilman still on my to do list). It’s indeed a monument to the golden age of golf course architecture and Simpsons design philosophies, and rarely you'll find it in such obvious form to see and admire. Any (aspiring) golf course architecture student from the low countries should rush to visit Royal Antwerp.
The first time I visited Royal Antwerp was like 8 or 9 years ago. The experience at the time was a lot like the movie Groundhog Day, experiencing the same thing over and over and over again. A tight course totally overrun by tree growth that had never been maintained. When I was finished every hole looked exactly the same, none of the features stuck out or were memorable, the turf was poor and the greens were of very average condition with considerable disease. On top of all this the reception we received at the clubhouse from the secretary was just plain rude and unwelcoming.
Fast forward to present day. Holy cow! I'm thrilled to say this is the single best renovation and turnaround I've ever seen in Continental Europe. We are talking Oakmont levels here. Royal Antwerp for me has become the poster child for what COULD BE done to every single European Golden Age Course that has been neglected for years. Which unfortunately includes far too many to name here. Clubs that are not being good custodians to Golden Age historical gems they have been graced with.
In fact, every single club should be getting a committee together and taking a field trip to study what has been done at Royal Antwerp because they have figured it out and what an amazing success story this is.
It all started with removing 100 years of tree growth, yes literally thousands of trees, in total perhaps 5000. Not an easy task but one that has paid off tremendously. More light and air circulation for starters which has done wonders for their turf. Their once diseased greens didn't need renovated, just a little love and a lot of light and air. Result is some of the best green surfaces in Europe. Bunkers cleaned up and we are talking an unrecognizable course. One that deserves to move to the top of the Belgian rankings and not only into the top 100 in courses in Continental Europe but well up the list.
Tom Simpson is looking down from above on his work of art at Royal Antwerp and he's just plain proud and shining with joy.
My opinion with regards to classic golf courses is based on a simple principle and that is to be the best possible custodians you can for the history you are graced with. Almost anything designed by the likes of Colt and Simpson to name just two are like living museum pieces of art. They are treasures from the great masters and should be treated as such.
That's exactly what Royal Antwerp has done and they are not finished. More tree removal is planned which will further strengthen the wonderful direction they have been headed in.
My sincere compliments and honestly astonishment that this great of a turnaround was even possible on the continent.
I'm not going to talk about the course or the architecture but it needs to be seen along with some older photos of where they started to even believe.
I pray this is exactly what was needed for Belgium and to a large extent Dutch Golf in general. Although some of the Dutch neighbors have made solid starts down similar paths of improvement. Hopefully there are many more to follow.
Exciting times for Belgium Golf and proof that the skies the limit.
Bravo Royal Antwerp!
You have to admit the sound of a golf ball smashing into a tree trunk always has significant comedy value (as long as it’s your mate’s ball).
Here I was standing in a fairway bunker with a bunch of trees a few yards away right in my line. I could hardly avoid the timber on this occasion and it felt reasonable to assume the original design strategy may have been compromised on the hole. Trees should be seen and not heard.
Deforestation of hardwood forests in the tropics is very bad and arguably should be stopped, but deforestation of forested golf courses in temperate regions should be mandatory. Perhaps someone (Elon Musk?) could re-deploy all those Brazilian & Indonesian forestry contractors to Europe and set them to work restoring our old courses. A slight digression, but arguably a valuable one if it leads to better golf (and saves the planet).
The bare bones of design, routing, bunker placement on the gently undulating fairways of Royal Antwerp were all of the right stuff. The forest does admittedly provide a nice setting and it’s actually a charming course. Any risk of further osteoporosis appears to have been tempered as the most recent review suggests a surgical makeover is well underway.
This course lacks the land movement of Royal Des Fagnes, so it’s more engaging than exciting. However, the 2 nines are more coherent as a whole compared to its Spa cousin. I’d rate them at a similar level. We played here in 2016 and it did feel like a slightly faded classic - but a classic nonetheless
If you have the chance to play here again, I would definitely recommend.
Last 2 years they have changed the course massively and all for the better.
If you already liked it, then you are now going to love it !
Thanks for your comment Raphael. I have indeed heard that the winds of change have done a great job of restoring Royal Antwerp. As soon as I’m permitted parole from this admittedly comfortable Dutch prison, I will look forward to popping across the border to see for myself.
Earned parole for some birthday golf earlier this week so duly followed Raphael’s suggestion & sneaked across the border to revisit Royal Antwerp. My review here was pre-renovation therefore I was eager to see it again. My original impression, albeit positive, was of a slightly faded classic. Well, as suggested, they’ve been busy and produced quite an impact - so congratulations to all involved.
Much more light & space due to extensive tree removal is the first thing you may notice. Beyond this, the maintenance was excellent - bunkers better defined this time & creative mowing lines around green sites that now bring more natural features into play. Finally, the sheer understated variety on offer both in bunkering & green complexes (something not called out in my review) makes me think that the relatively modest site is now maxed out to its full potential. Royal Antwerp now has nothing to declare except its genius.
Even with the rating shifts of recent years on this site (i.e. many reviewers now seem more discerning, so today’s 5-ball seems more “valuable” from than 4-5 years ago), Royal Antwerp remains a 5-ball. You could even make a case for 5.5. If there’s a more accomplished course in the land of the Friet, home of the Bruges, I’ve yet to see it.
I also really enjoyed getting another look at a Tom Simpson course. His creations are clearly more Oscar Wilde to Harry Colt’s George Orwell and I’m now very eager to see more of his courses. Fortunately, Belgium has a few more for me to check out before I start sending the begging letters to Morfontaine
The Tom Simpson layout at Royal Antwerp dates back more than a hundred years to when Willie Park Jnr first set out a course for the club after it moved to its present location. Tom Simpson then worked here in the 1930s and the course that is in play today is both credited to him and named after him – though the very long walk from the 5th green to the 6th tee, bypassing other holes on the secondary 9-hole course, made me wonder if the original hole sequence had been changed.
I could see that a lot has gone on recently regarding bunker refurbishment, the planting of heather around tees (especially on holes 3, 7 and 15), the clearance of vegetation around greensites (most noticeably between the 11th and 12th holes) and I suspected a good number of trees had been cut down (which has since been confirmed, along with an indication that even more will be removed this winter).
The only weak hole on the card is the slightly uphill par three 2nd (I’ve also since been told it’s not an original hole) but at least this slight blemish is got out of the way early in the round, leaving you to savour the remaining holes, especially on the back nine, which reaches a climax on the par four 17th, played over a centreline revetted bunker to a brilliant front to back sloping green.
It really is relentless on the inward half; one really strong hole after another, particularly with the par threes at holes 12 and 16 and the back-to-back par fives at holes 14 and 15. The landscape might be largely flat and easy to walk but there are a sufficient number of subtle shifts in contour to retain your interest throughout the round.
Local designer Dimitri Van Hauwaert of Diamond Golf Architects is overseeing the current course improvements and I think he’s doing a terrific job, though I think mowing lines could be a little better in places, with golf ball gobbling thick rough cut back to offer a bit more fairway width. I hope to return to Belgium on another trip next summer and I’d love to replay the Tom Simpson course to see how things continue to shape up on this old masterpiece.
In a word - superb. Beautiful course in lovely condition with a warm welcome throughout the Club. There is not much to like about Belgium - so much of the northern area is desperately dull but the best of Surrey can be found in at Royal Antwerp.
A little bit of geography first of all… Royal Antwerp is located some 20 km north of Antwerp, close by the Dutch border, deep into the Flemish part of Belgium. Dutch (or Flemish dialect) is the language over there, so I was quite surprised to hear so much French spoken by the members around me. In the bar, the smiling waiting team kept on replying in Dutch even when addressed to in French which can be a bit awkward. More understandable if one knows a little about the Belgian politics. If you do speak French, tell them you are not a Walloon (French speaking Belgian) and service will be friendlier…
Back to real stuff, the golf! Overall feeling was that this is a charming and peaceful place, the forest is beautiful, the sandy soil rich in heather, pine and birch. Not overly long at 6200 meters from the back tees, par 73, the course doesn’t provide a huge test of your golfing abilities but is nonetheless very pleasant. Fairway bunkers are rarely a threat from the tees, and green side bunkers not too deep. What I loved about those bunkers is the way the surrounding grass was let wild, which would give a clear visual definition and indeed a nice look. Greens are pretty small for the majority of them, not too undulating, true but were too slow for my taste when I played there.
The opener is fairly easy (300 meters par 4) and seems a bit tight compared to the rest of the course. 2nd, a 186 meters par 3 was for me the weakest hole on the course (other par 3s were very good!), fairly flat and bland despite its length. 3rd and 6th (stroke index 1) didn’t really impress me either (the latter being named by golf magazine in the Top500 holes). I can’t recall any sensational hole but the rest of them were good, or very good (12th, 14th, 16th and 18th would be my favorites).
Again, a very nice track in beautiful surroundings. Not the biggest test but very recommended nonetheless when in Belgium (Zoute, only an hour away, remains the top Belgian track in my opinion)… A 4 ball rating is maybe a bit harsh but 5 would not really be deserved with regards to other Simpson courses in Continental Europe (France’s Morfontaine, Fontainebleau and Chantilly to name but three), the speed of their greens ON THE DAY and the few average holes, so a good 4.5…. Cédric