Royal golf in Belgium – and a few highly-regarded “commoners”…
We’ve planned week-long summer golf trips to several European countries in recent years – Sweden in 2016, Netherlands in 2017, France in 2018 and Italy in 2019 spring to mind – but a visit to Belgium in 2020 fell through due to covid travel restrictions. Last month, we picked up from where we left off two years previously, re-establishing all our contacts before flying to Brussels to play ten of the country’s top-rated tracks.
Many of the clubs now have the “Royal” prefix attached to their title. According to the Royal Belgian Golf Federation, affiliated clubs that are at least fifty years old can apply to the Royal Palace for this designation, provided they meet a certain number of specific criteria. Most of the clubs we visited were “Royals” but we also stopped off at a few highly-regarded “commoners” along the way on what proved to be a high-quality golfing excursion.
We started in the northwest of the country at Royal Ostend Golf Club, where The Links course was founded in 1903. The layout was damaged during both World War conflicts but it was eventually brought back into play in the summer of 1948. In more recent times, Martin Hawtree redesigned the course and the clubhouse was renovated during the 1990s.
Playing hard and fast like a true links, the holes occupy three distinct 6-hole “compartments”: holes 1-4 and 17-18 are positioned nearest to the clubhouse, holes 5 to 10 are laid out closest to the beach, with holes 11 to 16 set a little further inland, on the other side of the main road and tram track that run along the coast.
Just 27 kilometres away, on the other side of Zeebrugge, lies the 36-hole setup at Royal Zoute Golf Club in the upmarket seaside resort of Knokke-Heist. The Championship course dates back more than a hundred years to when Harry Colt redesigned the club’s original layout. After World War II, Lieutenant Colonel Allen reinstated the fairways and these remain the course in play today.
Also called “l’Extêrieur” (because it encircles the smaller “l’Intêrieur course), the Championship layout is routed in an out and back manner, with the longer back nine stretch featuring three par fives between 461 and 501 metres in length. The Belgian Open has been staged here on a dozen occasions, the last one taking place in 2000 when Lee Westwood won the event.
Located to the north of Antwerp, less than 5 kilometres from the border with the Netherlands, Royal Antwerp Golf Club is one of the oldest in continental Europe, having been formed in 1888. The course is of a more recent vintage as the club moved to its present site in 1913, when Willie Park Junior laid out the original holes. Tom Simpson was then engaged to upgrade the layout in the early 1930s.
The 18-hole Tom Simpson course is regarded as one of the best wooded heathland courses in continental Europe, with a sandy soil base and both heather and pine trees lining many of the fairways. The landscape is largely level, making it an easy-walking course, but there are plenty of intimidating fairway and greenside bunkers to negotiate from start to finish.
Rinkven Golfclub was founded as Antwerp International Golf & Country Club in the 1980s, with 27 holes in play. Another nine holes were added in 2006 but it was only after Russell Talley from Hawtree Ltd. carried out a major redesign a decade later – which included the addition of some new holes – that the property’s potential was fully realised.
We played the South course, the slightly shorter of the two 18-hole layouts, which is said to provide a greater variety of holes. It’s a fine mix of woodland and parkland golf, with water coming into play a few times. Just a couple of months ago, the latest edition of the Belgian Open was staged at Rinkven on a composite 18-layout which includes most of the front nine holes on the South.
Not many people will have heard of Golfclub Beveren, situated in the very heart of Antwerp’s dockland area, but we paid a visit on a media trip to Flanders in 2018, when we got the chance to see grassroots golf in all its glory at a fabulous little club which operates a 9-hole course, 4-hole compact course, driving range, practice area and restaurant.
We liked this place so much four years ago that we had to return to the multi-functional clubhouse to see how things are developing. Club officials, along with local architect Dimitri Van Hauwaent, have done a remarkable job transforming this small 70-acre industrial site into a progressive facility that puts into practice all-inclusive policies that others only talk about.
We then moved southeast from Antwerp towards Liège, stopping off at Royal Limburg Golf on the way. The club was formed in the mid-1960s but a full 18-hole course didn’t evolve until 1973, designed by Fred Hawtree. Martin Hawtree, Fred’s son, made some changes in 2010 then architect Bruno Steensels (who’s a long-term club member) carried out a full bunker renovation five years ago.
The fairways are set across a gently undulating landscape, weaving in and out of woodland areas and the huge expanse of heather that flanks the more open heathland holes. An ongoing tree management programme has improved the general playing conditions, as has removing extraneous vegetation around a number of tee positions and green sites.
Designed by Tom Simpson, the course at Royal Golf Club du Sart Tilman was only a few months old when it was forced to close at the start of World War II. By 1947, the place was back in full swing (thanks to the efforts of US military and German prisoners of war) and the club now leases the golf facility from the University of Liège after it purchased the land in 1963.
All eighteen holes are laid out in a wonderful woodland setting with rolling topography across much of the property. Configured as two returning nines, the course features a handful of par threes and par fives, with interesting short par fours easing golfers into their round at two of the opening three holes. The old thatch-roofed clubhouse caught fire during a renovation project eleven years ago and a large modern design now serves members and visitors.
Royal Golf Club Des Fagnes resides less than five kilometres to the north of Spa, which is the name most commonly used by members when talking about their club. It’s a Tom Simpson layout that was designed along with Philip Mackenzie Ross when both men were in partnership in 1930. Three editions of the Belgian Open were contested here during the 1930s then another four of these championships were held during the 1940s and 1950s.
The holes are set out on gently undulating terrain, with two circuits of largely tree-lined fairways returning to the two-storey clubhouse. Like Sart Tilman, there are five par threes and five par fives on the scorecard, with three of each appearing on the front nine. Civilization is less than a 10-minute drive away but you’d never know that when you’re out on this course.
The final stage of our Belgian tour returned us close to Brussels, adjacent to the famous site of the Battle of Waterloo, where Napoleon was defeated for the first time in 1815. Royal Waterloo Golf Club (founded in 1923) moved next to the historic battlefield in 1960 and over time it has developed into a 45-hole facility with two 18-hole layouts and a 9-hole track.
We played the main La Marache course which has evolved over time from the original “A” and “B” nines that were designed by Fred Hawtree more than sixty years ago. Fred’s son Martin has since carried out a number green and fairway upgrades and the bunkers are currently undergoing a complete renovation.
The 18-hole Arboretum course at Royal Golf Club of Belgium (often referred to as “Ravenstein”) has been in play since the club was formed in 1906. Tom Simpson redesigned the layout in 1928 then Martin Hawtree advised the club during a 10-year improvement plan in the 1990s. The Arboretum is complemented by a delightful 9-hole short course called the “Parc” which was introduced by Simpson’s design partner Philip Mackenzie Ross in 1951.
Today, the Arboretum extends to just over 6,000 metres from the back tees, playing to a par of 72, with two strong runs of par four holes from the 7th to 11th then from the 14th to 18th. Refreshingly in this modern era of generally slower play, the club advise on the scorecard that a round should be completed in 1hr. 41 mins. for the front nine and 1 hr. 40 mins. for the back nine.
Located less than three kilometres away from Royal Belgium as the crow flies, the Championship course at the modern National Golf Brussels complex could hardly be more different to its esteemed older neighbour. Designed in the style of an “inland links” by Bruno Steensels, the course is set out on land that was formerly part of the country’s largest horse racing facility.
Quite a bit of soil was shifted here to create movement in the fescue-fringed fairways, along with elevating teeing areas and raising green sites. Several deeper digs have allowed small lakes to be created at holes 2, 5, 10 and 18. Interestingly, the back nine is routed in a clockwise direction around the perimeter of the property so technically out of bounds runs along the left at all these holes.
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