For the story on how SAP moved into the town of St Leon-Rot, 4,000 strong and led by CEO and single digit handicapper Dietmar Hopp, see the description of the slightly older Rot course. The second layout, naturally called the St Leon, was given to international name Dave Thomas, while local hero Hannes Schreiner was reduced to the role of advisor. The Englishman struck rather more gold, as he secured himself a follow-up job at Terre Blanche. Sean Connery owned that property, but didn't get anything done, so he sold it to Dietmar Hopp, who did.
It should therefore come as no surprise that the panel with the club presidents at St Leon-Rot still bears only one name and why not? Hopp has certainly realised his vision: the youth program is the foremost in Germany, top flight amateur events are regularly staged here and in 2015 the Solheim Cup was contested over the St Leon course.
Next to the two championship courses there is also an executive 9-holer and everything is somewhat intertwined, so there is a fair amount of criss-crossing going on. The signage is of course excellent, so no skimping on the details. Naturally this also applies to the impeccable services and maintenance standards. Interestingly, the whole area sits on top of a mighty layer of sand, which is up to 1,000 metres deep, but doesn't come up all the way to the surface. So it's parkland golf after all, albeit with good soil and great tree management. Legend has it that Hopp wasn't too fond of the tight and hilly courses in the region, so here is the antithesis.
The most interesting holes on the St Leon layout tend to be the ones played over water, which is certainly legitimate, but also raises questions of creativity. The bunkering, it has to be said, is generally less than fearsome and the elaborate mounding more glitter than gold. Coupled with huge and relatively flat greens, quick as they may be, the entire burden for making it difficult is placed on the sheer length of the layout.
However, golfers appreciating technically faultless construction and perfect presentation will not find this course lacking. As a level playing field for the competitive sport of golf and perhaps a place to feel a little like a high roller, this one ticks all the boxes. The more playful or even spiritual aspects of the game have probably not featured quite as largely in the founder's mind. But if you're looking for an end-to-end pampering in a very friendly atmosphere, make your way to St Leon-Rot Golf Club.
The atmosphere was not very friendly at the 2015 Solheim Cup at St Leon Rot. Controversy over a gimmie putt resulted in tears and the extraordinary conclusion to a fourball match. Europe’s Suzann Pettersen claimed she did not concede Alison Lee’s 15-inch putt after the American had picked up her ball, resulting in the US losing the fourball match. A furore ensued with the US Captain Juli Inkster saying: “I have never seen anything like it in my career. It’s just not right. You just don’t do that to your peers. It’s disrespectful.” Four-time major winner Laura Davies said: “I am disgusted. Suzann has let herself and her team down.” The sad incident galvanised the US team who overcame a four point deficit going into the singles to regain the Solheim Cup by one point: USA 14½ Europe 13½
I played the St Leon course, designed by Dave Thomas, a few years back. This is the course used for the 2015 Solheim Cup. It is in very good condition and is an okay golf course to play, fairly flat, incorporating water on many holes. I did not find it to be particularly noteworthy or interesting. I have read where some consider it to be in the top ten golf courses in Germany, but I would find that hard to believe.
The clubhouse is nice but sits at the end of an industrial park. Thankfully, I do not rate the clubhouses. There are two courses here as well as a 9 hole executive course as well as a large practice area and short game practice area.
My overall impression is that Mr. Thomas did as much as he could with the routing given the uninteresting land he was provided. I am certain this was once a field or perhaps a forest. The highest elevation point is probably 15 feet which was likely man-made. This had the feeling of a public course in the Myrtle Beach area but without the wonderful oak trees. There are trees around the course, however, they are not as lovely as the oaks in Myrtle Beach. Additionally, there was not enough interesting contouring in the greens nor were the bunkers much of a threat. The only real defense to this course is water on the few holes where they actually come into play. I admit to not remembering the greens as much as I do on other courses as I thought they were not special. Some do have slopes and tilts but not at the level one would expect from a top golf course. This is a golf course very much built for the high handicapper player who does not want to be challenged. My final critique is the use of water. On nearly every hole where there is water it is played to the left. Where a “heroic” shot is required over water, there is typically a bunker between the water and the green to provide a chance of recovery or perhaps to make sure the player does not lose a ball. If one is to use water on a hole, it should have more of a penalty for a bad shot.
I played with a 30+ index so we played the member tees at 6758 yards. The back tees are at 7156 yards.
The first hole is a par 4 with a small pond to the left that does not come into play and its length is 398/376. Bunkers pinch in from the right and in the middle. There is another set of smaller bunkers short of the green. I thought it was an interesting starting hole but an easy par due to the flat green.
The second hole is pretty straight with fairway bunkers right and left as well as right and left at the green. It plays 439/426. There is a small stream down the right side of the fairway but it does not come into play. It is a boring hole.
Third is the first par 5 of 536/508 yards and is relatively straight with a fairway bunker pinching in from the left, two more bunkers farther down on the left and three near the green. I thought this to be another so-so golf hole.
Four is a long par 3 of 211/186 which has three bunkers on the right side guarding the green. This was the first green that I thought had some interesting undulations and slope. However, the green side bunkers are not placed close enough to the green.
The fifth is a dogleg left of 461/431 with water on the left to cross over to the green fronted by two small pot bunkers and a larger one on the left side. I thought this to be the first nice hole on the golf course.
A long par 3 of 200/185 awaits on the sixth with two bunkers fronting the right side. Strangely enough, there are two bunkers on the left well short of the green that detract from the hole.
The short par 5 seventh hole follows at 513 yards. I found there to be nothing interesting about this golf hole so I did not take any notes on it.
Water returns on the eighth hole, a short par 4 of 347/336 yards playing over water to a narrow landing area with two bunkers on the right to catch balls and water all down the left side swinging back to dissect the fairway for the approach shot to the green. You have to cross over the water twice but the reality is that this is a hole requiring the use of two iron shots. A large bunker snakes around the front of the green down the right side. I did not understand this bunker as for me it took the penalty away from the shot that does not have enough on it to clear the water and land on the green. It is a well-shaped hole, but poorly executed.
The best part of the ninth hole is the half way house. It is a par 4 teeing off over water but not enough water to make a difference in strategy. The length is 477/453 and it has a large bunker to the right of the fairway and then three bunkers farther up but not really in play at the green. The green sits off slightly to the left. Yes, the hole is long but it offers nothing of real interest.
The tenth hole is a par 4 of 455/424 dogleg left with bunkers squeezing the tee shot both left and right yet there is ample room on the right. Greenside bunkers are left and right but set back a bit from the green. There are two small bunkers on the fairway left that I could not figure out why they were there.
Here comes the water back at the eleventh, a par 4 of 407/388 that is a straight hole but feels like a slight double dogleg. Water comes in from the left side and a greenside bunker is once again placed between the water and the green. There is a small bunker center right and another to the right side of the green. Once again there are fairway bunkers on the left and right but they are put are places that only very short hitters or poor players would play into. It was at this point I realized this course was built for people of all ages and abilities such as many courses in Myrtle Beach.
The twelfth is a par 5 of 544/486 yards where once again you are asked to drive over water which is not really in play. There is a bunker on the left side of the fairway and one much farther out on the right side. Another bunker is farther down on the right side of the fairway about 115 yards from the green which is fronted by two bunkers on the left. I thought this was the best hole I had played so far.
Thirteen is probably the hole most often mentioned, a par 3 with water biting into the tee shot then fading into the left side of the green which is fronted by a bunker and a small bunker behind it. I did not care for the hole despite the drama. Visually it was simply uninteresting.
Water was down the left side again on the fourteenth, a par 4 of 344/326 yards. Once again, Mr. Thomas provides a safe area with a bunker short of the green but going into part of it on the left. There is another small bunker to the right of the green. I wonder why he did not leave a shaved area in front of this green to take balls into the water if they were pulled slightly left as opposed to the bunker. For me, this was another wasted opportunity for defending the hole.
Many of the par 4’s are of similar length when water is not involved. The fifteenth is 407/381 and is a dogleg right where the fairway pinches in at the landing area. There are a lot of trees down the right side but they end at the beginning of a very long bunker measuring nearly 90 yards. Finally, there was a hole I really liked.
The final par 3 comes next. It is 193/177 yards and has a long green of 70 yards down the left side. You can play into this green from the right. It is an okay hole.
The longest hole on the golf course is next as a par 5 603/575 fairly straight hole. There are nine bunkers of which 7 are on the right and only 2 on the left. This made no sense to me to have such an unbalanced defense. The green is angled diagonally left to right with the right being the deepest. I do not understand why Mr. Thomas would do this with the bunkers; because more people fade the ball?
The eighteenth is perhaps the best hole on the golf course. The water is finally on the right side and very much in play on this par 4 443/428 hole. I realized water is on the left side on so many holes because more people fade the ball and the architect wanted water, but he did not want it to be penal. But on this hole, Mr. Thomas made the water very much in play. The water is very reachable on your tee shot down the right while there are three bunkers left of the fairway. The green sits to the right and the water is basically in front of it unless you are coming in from the far left side of the fairway. There is a large bunker left of the green as well as two small bunkers in front of the green. The hole has one of the better greens.
It is a shame that this course does not have better thought out defenses but perhaps it was built for the player who does not like to lose golf balls in the water given all of the bunkers between the greens and the water. Many of the bunkers do not come into play and therefore there is no real strategic element to them. In effect, it is a golf course that you play the yardage and you do not worry about the obstacles. On a windy day one could run up a big score given the amount of water as well as the sprinkling of trees and bunkers around the golf course, but wind is a better defense than the course itself. The greens are large but most are uninteresting. It is not a course one should go out of their way to play.
I suppose if you want a championship venue like the Belfry, then the late Dave Thomas could guarantee that. But to me the second take at St. Leon-Rot is somewhat less impressive than the first (Course Rot), which wasn't exactly a world-beater to begin with.
Granted, the site is flat and surrounded by industrial estates and agriculture, so almost every feature had to be created from scratch. However, with SAP money behind the project, the economics were certainly viable. Pete Dye would have gone wild with this, but Thomas was apparently content to build another American style Tour venue. That notwithstanding, the club sells it as reminiscent of a Scottish or Irish links, which just doesn't go down very well.
Expectations were fairly high for me after the opening par 4 with its spectacular alternate fairways, but the second was a major let-down - it's a contender for straightest hole ever! Apparently the club realised that as well, because for the Solheim Cup they're going to start on 2 and finish on 1.
There are a handful of good holes scattered throughout the course and my favorite was the 8th (see the included picture - and ignore the ubiquitous cart paths if you can). You actually have to draw it off the bunkers to attain the optimal position. Needless to say, if you're long enough to blow it right over them, you can hug the drier right side. The approach to the green is over water again, so playing it too safe off the tee incurs a subsequent risk.
I also liked #6, the prettiest of a set of par 3s that otherwise suffers from yellow fever. Meaning that little thought was given to the members tee, so you will hit only one or two different clubs from there, whereas the ace player gets a nice spacing of distances from the white markers.
So if you're more of an average hitter or seek a simpler and perhaps more charming game, you're better off elsewhere. As is your wallet. (UM)