The Swedes are good at golf. Peter Alliss said that it is because of their voracious appetite for perfection. Players like Johan Edfors, Henrik Stenson and Peter Hanson would spend hours going through their rigid routines, perfecting techniques they could trust when the heat was on. Hanson, like most great Swedish players, was born and brought up in Skåne, a small province in the south west of the country. For golfers, it is the jewel in the Swedish crown with 440km of coastline and 300 golf courses.
Last time I was there, I came across a framed photograph of two golfers and their caddies on a windblown golf course on the coast near Gothenburg. The caption printed on the back said they were professional players with unpronounceable names taking part in the Swedish Masters. In the distance was a sandy beach and the sunlight was glittering on the sea.
There is a close affinity between wildlife conservation and golf in Sweden. Many of the links courses are shared by migrating birds, twitchers and golfers. Everyone gets on well, the landscape is protected by the state, and the sport seems to be the better for it.
Above the green, gathered together in the dunes, was a group of spectators, but when you looked closely, you could see that they were actually birdwatchers standing with their backs to the golf leaning into the wind and staring at a flock of seabirds through binoculars. There is a close affinity between wildlife conservation and golf in Sweden. Many of the links courses are shared by migrating birds, twitchers and golfers. Everyone gets on well, the landscape is protected by the state, and the sport seems to be the better for it.
Skåne is an idyllic, rural province in the south of the country. I flew to Copenhagen and drove my hired Saab across the Oresund Bridge to Malmo from where there is a choice of 75 courses, all less than 90 minutes from the city. Falsterbo, a remote strand of wild coastline is on the tip of the Venning peninsula where the Baltic Sea meets the Oresund and the wind blows all year round, has one of the oldest courses in Europe and is a classic links - flat, beautiful and unpredictable.
Originally nine holes, it was laid out by the Scot, Robert Turnbull in 1909. A local Doctor, Gunnar Bauer, lengthened it to 18 holes in 1930 and 12 years ago, the greens were re-laid by Peter Chamberlain, the head pro. Today it is a 6,000m par 71. Falsterbo reminds me of the beautiful, windswept Lossiemouth on the coast to the north of Inverness. In fact the Scots have been coming here for years with the masterly Major David Blair winning the Scandinavian Championship in 1961. He was made an honorary member and a lyrical poem about the old course and how the golfers, the wildlife and the weather coexist.
The first time I played it, a gale was blowing from the south, the air was clear as a bell, cotton wool clouds scudding about and the flags as stiff as boards. The first three holes were downwind and benign. Like most links the Falsterbo landscape is flat and treeless. The professional, David Leet, said, “you can see the holes you will have to play as you progress.”
That is all very well, but walk off the third green and the prevailing wind is in your face. The fourth hole is a 405m stroke index one Par 4 with burns and lakes along the right all the way to the green. You must hit the ball straight down the left to give yourself a view of the hole but there are bunkers, a small lake and heavy fescue to avoid. Go right and it’s all over because you’re in the bog. Against the wind it is at least a par five and probably more like a par seven for me.
The traps are often hidden below the level of the landscape and what you believe to have been a solid shot will kick away offline because the rolling fairways are full of bumps and valleys which will redirect your shot into a hidden lake or a pot bunker. The 5th for example; water left and right and invisible bunkers flush with the fairway and 20 metres short of the front edge. What?
By the 7th, one of the original holes laid out in 1912, Falsterbo had got me by the throat. The trouble with this innocuous looking left turning 290-metre Par 4 is the venomous cluster of 14 pot bunkers short of and on either side of the flag. Say you hit a solid 200-metre drive into the teeth of the gale you’re then faced with a 9-iron into a stiff crosswind onto a humpbacked green surrounded with craters full of sand. When I eventually made it to the edge of the green, a gang of Oyster Catchers were screeching derisively from the dunes and I was in a deep sand pit with nowhere to stand.
The 10th and 11th holes; a dog leg par four followed by a vindictive 145m three across water with a cross wind from the south east are the golfing equivalent of a left and a right from Ingmar Johansson. There’s little relief until the last three holes where the prevailing storm is usually behind you.
You will never forget the right-handed double dogleg 18th. You stand on the high tee with frothy white rollers hitting the beach to your right and the clubhouse shimmering far away at the end of a long, rolling, narrow fairway. Catch your tee shot and it will stay in your mind forever like Betjeman’s dream of a “glorious, sailing, bounding drive that made me glad I was alive.”
Falsterbo with its springy turf, the scent of thyme on the breeze and the haunting cries of seabirds is a magnificent course. Whatever you do, if you love the game of golf, play this links before you die, and, if you’re still alive, find the strength to play it again the next day.
Boskogens Golf Club is only half an hour’s drive from the centre of Malmo. There are two courses, the Old and the New and the club is owned by 2,000 members. I was lucky to get on the Old Course on a Saturday morning. It’s a par 72 and 6,500m long. Mostly parkland and in immaculate condition, Boskogens features eight doglegs and forces you to think your way round. This is where Peter Hanson took up the game and it’s a challenging, long, twisty course with tight fairways. I loved the 5th, a narrow 500m par four between avenues of trees with water to the left and right, just 100m before the green.
The final two holes, particularly the 17th, a tempter at 380m with a wood stretching 260 metres up the left and a sharp 7-iron second over stone walls and a valley up to the green demands strength of character. You finish with a short par 5 bending to the right through woodland on to a small green with a narrow entrance between deep bunkers. Boskogens is a hospitable club with a good restaurant and bar. Like most Swedish courses, it is informal and there’s no nonsense about jackets and ties. It is good value with green fees around £80.
Catch your tee shot and it will stay in your mind forever like Betjeman’s dream of a “glorious, sailing, bounding drive that made me glad I was alive.”
The ‘Masters’, at Barseback near Loddekopinge north of Malmo is one of Europe’s finest courses. They played the Solheim Cup here in September 2003 and the Scandinavians, Annika Sorenstam and Suzann Petterson, performed miracles to keep the Americans out of the match. This 7,365m par 72 course is divided into three styles starting with a benign seven holes through parkland converting unexpectedly into a links and changing again at the 12th where it turns into dramatic woodland. Donald Steele was involved in the design of both courses at Barseback and comes back to check and refine his work every year.
The second course is named after him and is somewhat shorter but it is the Masters which is the real tester. The 9th is a par 5, 510m curving to the right with the long grass quivering in the wind and crystal sunlight flaring off the sea while a squadron of Mute Swans patrol above the beach. Flat as a pancake with a diagonal green and heavy bunkerage half way down the hole, there is nearly always a stiff breeze in your face. The same on the 10th, a beautiful, demanding par four of 380m with a narrow fairway and bunkers left and right beside a long narrow green.
You return to deep woodland on 13, a 370m left-to-right dogleg with an uncompromising, tall lime tree 210 metres away at the elbow on the right of the fairway. This is a stunning, dramatic hole, as is the 17th, a straight, narrow 400 metres and the 18th, an L-shaped par four which turns sharp right at 230 metres that you must fade your ball and carry it an unfeasible distance. Barseback is a lovely, must-play course.
I finished my trip at the PGA of Sweden National. There are two courses; The Links and The Lakes. The Links was laid out with much earth moving by Kyle Phillips who also designed Kingsbarns at St. Andrews and the Yas Links in Abu Dhabi. The PGA is directly east of Malmo and was opened in late 2009. The links connection comes from the exclusive use of fescue, the lack of trees and the burn crossing the fairways on many of the holes.
This is a memorable roller coaster of a course and is full of devilish challenges. They come at you early on; the second, a 541m par 5 with a giant bunker 40 metres short of the green as imposing as the 7th, a 200m par 3 with a 50 metre long green. I remember standing on the par 5, 8th and taking in another massive bunker on the right and the ubiquitous burn crossing the fairway in front of it. I had to hit my fourth onto a large two-tiered green up a dangerous slope with bunkers back and front. It just seemed so unfair.
The 18th is what you would expect at the headquarters of the Swedish PGA, a rolling 440m par 4 with a second shot over the burn for the last time and deep bunkers left, right and in front of the green to be avoided. This is a challenging course. The new clubhouse is as imposing as it is comfortable and there are 16 suites that can be rented. The PGA is slick and a bit corporate but both courses are world class and totally different in style.
I can’t wait to return to Sweden where the welcome is warm and the courses are beautifully kept and well designed. The season in Skåne is seven months from April to mid October but some of the links courses are open throughout the year and the Swedish Autumn is benign and colourful. My only regret is that I had never been there before.