Sweden has some fantastic golf courses and the North course at Halmstad is one of them. The club is located at Tylösand on a promontory that juts out into the Kattegat Strait, which in turn separates Sweden from Denmark. It’s a surreal setting where you can smell the salty sea air and you can hear the sea, but you can’t see it.
Halmstad Golf Club was originally founded in 1930 and in those days golf was played on the army training ground. Some better land was soon identified and in 1935 Rafael Sundblom of Stockholm started work on a new course and three years later it was ready for play.
In 1963, Nils Sköld was commissioned to lay out an additional nine holes to the north of the existing course. Therefore, the North course comprises of the nine holes designed by Nils Sköld and the back nine of the Rafael Sundblom layout. The South course, as it is now called, is not a bad track either.
There are some cracking holes at Halmstad but the par three 16th is something special. In fact it was voted Sweden’s best golf hole in 2004. Measuring 164 metres from the back tees, “the Brook” is protected by a creek. If Bernard Darwin was alive he might describe the 16th as follows: “At the sixteenth there is one of those uncomfortable tee-shots, which are so excellent. There is a brook, a nasty insidious serpentine beast of a brook, which winds its way from the tee all the way up to the right hand side of the green, and it is our duty, if we desire a birdie putt, to carry the brook, yet if we show ourselves the least bit too affectionate towards it, this ungrateful brook will assuredly engulf our ball to our utter destruction.”
With gorgeous sandy soil, undulating fairways, plateaux greens, tempting doglegs, ravines and brooks, it’s no wonder that Halmstad is where Europe’s greatest golfers want to play. Anders Forsbrand made a winning breakthrough here in the 1982 PGA Open Championship. Laura Davis tore the course apart in 1999 with an astounding 15 under par. The Solheim Cup was played at Halmstad in 2007 and the European side, which featured England’s Laura Davies – the only player to have taken part in all ten Solheim Cups – lost 16-12 to the Americans, despite holding a one-point lead heading into the singles matches.
There’s a great deal of peace and tranquillity at Halmstad and who can blame people for flocking here to enjoy that experience. Great avenues of trees provide a wonderful sense of isolation and you have nothing to do other than focus on the hole at hand except, of course, to fill your lungs with the smell of pine and sea air. Delightful.
Here's what Golf Digest Sweden had to say about Halmstad (Norra):
You know how, every so often, you have one of those magical days playing golf where the light is perfectly dappled through the trees, the grass is a brilliant green, and it's warm with only a hint of breeze; well that was my day playing the Halmstad (Norra) course.
It's a spectacular parkland course set very close to but not within sight of the ocean. The club is a prestigious Swedish one with two high quality courses and this is the better of the two. The design elements and conditioning are of the highest quality, with brilliant holes following one after the other: undulations, doglegs, water carries, narrow fairways and greenside hazards that penalise approaches from certain sides.
When I told a friend I was going to play the North course at Halmstad, he said: « Be very careful, it is a forest course so make sure you take many balls with you! » In fact, I was surprised in many ways by the Halmstad club and course.
First, access to the course is via a coastal road near the Kattegat sea, and the parking lot of the club is less than 200 meters from the coast. However, it could be 200 kms, because there is no hint of any sea around the north course, it is definitely nothing but forest. In fact, most of the time you cannot see any hole other than the one you are playing, so it is almost as if you were alone for your round.
Alone, you are not, at least not when we played Halmstad. We had a 7.17 tee time on a weekday, so we thought we would be about the first flight off. Not quite: the charming young lady at the reception desk told us that the course was booked solid from 6.00 am until dark that day. Obviously a very popular golf destination for Swedes and golftrotters alike!
Teeing up at the first hole, we felt that despite this being a forest course, the trees did not seem to be a problem at all, and this impression was confirmed throughout the round: the fairways seem wide and comfortable, with enough room to let you hit somewhat off the intended perfect path without too much penalty. Well, until you walk up for your second shot, and you realize that the architects of this course carefully designed it so that the approach shots cannot be easy if you are not in the right spot on the fairway, so strategy is more important than first thought. Deep bunkers, fairway-encroaching trees, doglegs and rivers crossing your path lurch…
One may expect that the round will be an easy walk, as the first few holes are really very flat. That is, until you come to the first par-three, the 4th hole. All of a sudden, we were facing a deep hollow and a blind green due to elevation changes, and at the end of the round we had to acknowledge that in fact, none of the par-threes are level. The only one where the tee is no higher or lower than the green, the 7th hole, offers a different challenge: the green is protected by two very large bunkers, left and right, and the putting surface is very much slanted toward the deeper and bigger sand trap on the right side.
The 16th is the hardest of the par-threes: not a very long hole at 164 meters from the tips, and the tee is elevated… so you can see clearly that the long, narrow green is guarded by a river in front and right, a couple of greenside bunkers on the left, and dense tree growth all around the sides and back! It takes a confident, even a daring tee shot to go for the flag.
The par-five 5th is index 1, and no wonder, it’s 548 meters from the tips (and still a most respectable 459 meters from the red tees). It has an uphill, blind tee shot and a double dogleg design, with the second turn only 100 meters from the green. Other than this hole, the par-fours and par-fives on the first nine seemed pretty flat.
We arrived at the halfway house, almost as far from the clubhouse as one can be, ate our Swedish regulation hotdog, and started on the back nine. Soon, the relief of the holes seemed to get “angry”. The par-four 12th plays over a hill with a sharp decline leading to a smallish flat area (it will take a very good drive to get there for the approach shot). The green is across a deeply sunk river, back up the hill. The par-three 13th is sharply uphill, with the same river crossing the fairway (far enough from the green though). The fairway of the par-five 14th is full of bumps, including a ravine where your second shot might land to keep you from having a good view onto the green for the approach. The 15th starts flat, but from the dogleg onto the green it seems an earthquake just happened and created havoc. Only the final hole goes quiet and provides for a relatively comfortable finish.
I need to make a special mention concerning the clubhouse here. The building is modern, very functional and well-conceived, with a big pro-shop, a comfortable restaurant and a great terrace on the upper floor overlooking the starting and finishing holes of both courses. But the best part is that it is bustling: I was there at dinner time one day, and lunch time the next, and it was full of people and families both times, taking good advantage of the excellent buffet offering as well as the menus and a la carte dishes on offer. This club is really hopping, with a very friendly atmosphere, and I can only wish the management team a happy future. I need to find an opportunity to come back, if only to play the South course…
On arrival, it’s easy to see why prestigious tournaments such as the Solheim Cup (2007) and the International European Amateur Championship (2011) have been held here in recent years as it’s a massive, well-maintained modern 36-hole facility which is served by an enormous clubhouse – and the biggest pro shop I’ve ever seen at any golf club!
To further emphasize the club’s golfing pedigree, the British Boys Amateur Trophy currently sits on display in the corner of the reception area, won by junior member Marcus Svensson, who defeated South African Keegan de Lange at Royal Birkdale in last year’s Final. So before setting foot on either the North or the South course, you sense you’re playing somewhere special.
During my round, I felt the course drew comparison with the two Blairgowrie 18-hole layouts, where golfers play largely in isolation at every hole. In terms of conditioning, I thought the bunkers were truly exceptional throughout, hand finished by tooth raking the sand to allow a decent chance of escaping the traps first time. A number of long runway tees (such as at holes 7 to 9) were also worthy of note, with the architects presumably doffing their designer hats to Robert Trent Jones Snr when they were constructed.
The opening three holes on the North at Tylösand take you east from the clubhouse, deep into the surrounding forest, to a wonderful par three that plays across a deep gully to an elevated plateau green. This starts a fabulous sequence of six holes to the turn, beginning with my favourite hole on the course, a gorgeous double doglegged par five, and ending with a downhill, right doglegged short par where the green is conveniently situated next to the half-way house and the almost obligatory stop for a cup of coffee and a hotdog smothered in sweet mustard sauce.
On the back nine, the 12th is well worth its stroke index 2 status, plunging steeply downhill and slightly right to another elevated, back-to-front sloping green that sits fifty yards beyond a daunting creek. Mention must also be made of the treacherous 16th, where the downhill tee shot has to carry another dangerous creek which slashed diagonally across the fairway in front of the putting surface. It’s a hole that’s been cited as one of the best eighteen in Sweden and rightly so.
Due to its current very high position in the current Swedish chart, I expected the North course to be top drawer layout and it certainly turned out to be just that. Unfortunately, I didn’t have enough time to play the South course – nine holes were designed by Frank Pennink – which first opened for play in 1979 but it’s always nice to have a reasonable excuse to pay a return visit sometime in the future…