Routed over a naturally sandy site within a modern 250-acre residential estate, the fairways of the Sand Valley course were originally set out by architect Lassi Pekka Tilander.
Unfortunately, the company hired to build the course fell significantly behind the construction schedule and so, as a consequence, it was removed from the project.
In stepped Tony Ristola – an architect who has worked mainly in Germany and is famed for his on-site commitment – and he spent incredibly long hours with local contractors over the next eighteen months to ensure the enterprise would open its doors to golfers in 2009.
The completed course is characterised by wide, open fairways set out on a generally flat landscape, with many of the holes flanked by large, sandy waste areas and occasional small stands of pine trees.
Many of the greens allow a running shot approach and this golfing attribute -- coupled with the firm and fast nature of the fairways -- has led some to describe the layout as an “inland links”.
Feature holes at Sand Valley include short par fours on each nine (at holes 5 and 16) as well as the 130-metre 3rd, the first of four short holes on the card, which is plays to a wickedly tricky raised green.
The following article was written by golf course architect Tony Ristola and is an edited extract from Volume Five of Golf Architecture: A Worldwide Perspective. Reproduced with kind permission. To obtain a copy of the book, email Paul Daley at [email protected]
I arrived at Sand Valley eleven months after construction began. Having taken the project sight unseen, and expecting to clean up the mess, I proceeded to walk the property for five days, making notes and shooting hundreds of photographs to document the state of affairs. It took that long to evaluate the totality of the mess that had been made. It went beyond shoddy work. The site was a confusing jumble of clutter and disarray, and I continually unearthed new surprises as the days and weeks went by.
The five-day walkabout became an eleven-page report for the investors to ponder. With fourteen holes ripped open in some manner, I found it difficult to find anything worth saving. Valuable time, a season’s perfect weather, and an untold sum of money were poured down the drain. All this was difficult for the ownership to follow, so two consulting engineers and a superintendent visited; all confirmed the dismal state of affairs. Though no declaration was made, we all knew the project had to begin a second time.
As construction commenced anew, only the basic routing was maintained; and here we adjusted greens and tees to garner the best possible holes. Otherwise, the original plans were abandoned, and the course designed in the field. Sifting through scores of ideas and actively mining opportunities on a daily basis, greens, fairways and features were adjusted in real-time using continual communication and monitoring – only possible since construction was led by the architect on an all-day, everyday basis.
The property has multiple personalities with holes running along the river, river dunes and open, rolling terrain, over canyons, through forest, along ridges, wetlands and through a sand quarry – a mixture of high and low country. Most holes enjoy expansive views of the region; but what ties this diverse property together is the element of sand – after all it’s the main focus of the project’s name.
The owner clearly sees how things could have been done simpler, easier and cheaper – and with impressive results too. Experience is a great teacher and, to his credit, instead of hiding the false start and challenges, he has been very open about it. His candour and openness is a tremendous gift and benefit to future investors, and to golf development in Poland. Equipped with this knowledge, others can avoid the hard lessons Sand Valley had to endure. If they heed his advice, they will be able to create affordable, first-rate golf, protect their investment and help to grow this great game.
When the idea to visit Sand Valley was first discussed at Top 100 my thoughts were immediately transported, mistakenly I should add, to the Midwestern state of Wisconsin. It soon became apparent that our trip would require a lot less time in the air as we would be heading to northern Poland to see the work of German course architect Tony Ristola rather than playing the acclaimed Coore/Crenshaw layout.
The European Sand Valley may not be quite as well known as it's American namesake but the quality of the design is remarkable. This is golf on a grand scale, the wide fairways brought together by large sandy waste areas and peppered with an array of attractive rough-edged bunkers mostly set into large mounds. Good strategy from the tee will produce the best angles from which to attack the greens and what incredible greens they are. To merely describe them as undulating would certainly be selling them short, the Castle Course at St Andrews being mentioned in comparison on numerous occasions.
The 12th hole, a split fairway dogleg par-5 with a massive sandy waste area was my favourite hole but the mid-length 9th, a wonderful par-4 played over a deep valley to a shallow green set amongst mature pines gives it a run for its money. The 3rd is the shortest par-3 of around 125 yards to a raised green, the other three are all over 175 yards with both the downhill 10th and the dangerous 14th being excellent.
With so much variety and imagination in the design, including three short but fun par-4's, it was a shame that at the time of our visit the greens were in pretty poor condition with open hollow tine holes covering the greens and patchy grass coverage at best. Apparently, the watering system pump had failed just as the weather became unusually hot which led to the fire brigade being employed in an attempt to save the day with their water hoses.
At least a couple of greens are just a little bit too wacky for me, particularly the 16th which is reminiscent of an elongated, slightly flattened molehill with seemingly very few usable areas in which to cut the hole. The huge sloping 18th green is also devilishly tricky. Maybe a couple of greens could be softened in time but all things considered we had a blast and if this course had been built in my local area I would have joined without hesitation.
One final point worthy of a mention, the clubhouse serves some of the finest food I have ever tasted at a golf resort. Well done Sand Valley, a solid 4-ball rating on this visit but comfortably a 5-ball when the greens fully recover. Brian W
I remember reading the story about Sand Valley’s painful birth in one of Paul Daley’s “Golf Architecture: A Worldwide Perspective” books four or five years ago and wondering if I’d ever get the chance to see the place in person. Well, I arrived at the resort just a few weeks ago on a press trip with several other European journalists who, like me, were keen to find out more about golf in the north of Poland.
According to Sand Valley’s CEO Antti Pohjonen, the resort has an annual growth rate of more than 50%, with the vast majority of visitors arriving through Gdansk airport from Scandinavia. The key to the business’s success is offering golfers value for money, based on Antti’s “four pillars of a perfect golf holiday” which are golf, accommodation, catering and service. For sure, the villas are well-appointed, the food and drinks setup is superb and the service (under “Happiness Concierge” Marcin Polec) is unsurpassed but what about the golf?
Well, the stated aim in the course guide book is to have guests “head home with memories of every single golf hole they have just played” and, although that’s quite a tall order, I think most golfers will leave remembering a large proportion of the holes for one reason or another. The guide book also states: “we believe in wide and rumpled fairways, in heavily contoured greens and planning your way around a golf course” and “we believe that by providing firm and fast conditions throughout the golf course more fun can be had by all skill levels of players.” Again, I agree with those sentiments 100%.
The course is nicely routed across undulating terrain with two nines returning uphill to a ridge that the clubhouse sits on. Water only comes into play at a handful of holes, three on the front nine and two on the back, and sandy waste areas proliferate on many of the holes, either running alongside fairways or across them, calling for a carry from the tee or to the green. My favourite holes on the front nine were the par fours at the 2nd and 6th, both of which dogleg right from the tee to the target. On the back nine, the par five 12th was easily the best hole on the card, played from an offset, raised tee position across a massive expanse of wasteland before a blind second shot is then required as the fairway moves 45 degrees further right and down to a green that runs away from back to front.
On some holes, the putting surface contours bordered on the outrageous and on others – such as the 3rd, 4th, 14th and 16th – the greens were jacked up way too high for my liking. In fact, I’ve not played a course since the Castle at St Andrews with greens as controversial as these. Now that could possibly be turned into a real marketing ploy as I’m sure most players here will never have putted on greens like these and they probably never will again. With generally wide fairways, tee shots are not a problem here – approach play and putting are, so golfers should have their short game in tip top order before venturing out onto the course at Sand Valley.