The Old Course at Vasatorps Golfklubb in southwestern Sweden played host to the European PGA Tour’s Scandinavian Enterprise Open (what became the Scandinavian Masters) from 1978 to 1980, just when Sweden was emerging as a European golfing hotbed. This storied venue produced champions such as Seve Ballesteros, Greg Norman and Sandy Lyle.
The Enterprise Open and Vasatorps are generally credited with establishing golf in Sweden as a spectator sport and laying groundwork for the country’s spectacularly successful player development movement.
So, when a sweeping renovation of the Old Course was formally proposed to Vasatorps members at a meeting last month, the reaction of those 120 golfers in attendance was something of a surprise: Applause.
“We were amazed by their openness to the changes we suggested, which some could fairly describe as quite radical,” said Steve Forrest, a partner with the course architect firm Hills & Forrest, whose plans were enthusiastically approved on March 10. “No matter how good the plans, no matter how badly the course may need renovation, usually there’s some guy in the back yelling, ‘We shouldn’t change a thing!’
“Our firm had obviously built up a lot of trust with the membership through development of the Tournament Course at Vasatorps. Still, such enthusiastic approval was a wonderful surprise. I’d like for the entire Vasatorps membership to attend our next such meeting, wherever in the world that might be, purely for moral support.”
Hills & Forrest will break ground on its renovation of the Old Course, or Gamla Banan, on June 13. A reopening has been scheduled for spring 2013, some five years after Hills & Forrest christened its original design at Vasatorps GK, the celebrated Tournament Course.
Hills & Forrest is one of the most active and decorated course architecture firms in world golf. Its portfolio includes more than 200 original designs, and 130 major course renovations, on four continents.
The firm has made a particularly resonant impression on the Swedish golf landscape. The Tournament Course at Vasatorps, Hills Golfklubb in Gothenburg, and Sand Golfklubb in Jönköping have all opened for play since 2005 —all are ranked in the country’s Top 12, according to Golf Digest Sweden. For its part, Sand has been ranked among the Top 100 courses in the world outside the United States, according to Golf Digest U.S.
“The Old Course at Vasatorps has a wonderful history, but it had clearly become the ‘members’ course since the opening of our Tournament Course,” Forrest said. “The members have seen all these new courses in Sweden — they’ve seen one at their own club! They understand better than anyone perhaps that the Old Course was lacking in several respects. Naturally they wanted to restore it to a position of prominence and respect.”
Forrest offers these comments as he flips open his laptop computer inside the Hills & Forrest booth at March’s China Golf Show, in Beijing. His firm currently has three projects underway in China, with several more in planning. He quickly calls up a satellite image of the Old Course routing and expertly overlays his plans for renovation.
“Google Maps has utterly changed the way we do business,” said Forrest, who served as president of the American Society of Golf Course Architects in 2007-08. “If a client’s tree is dying or I see a better routing option on a project half way around the world, I can analyze it right away, draw a new feature, and send the solution in less than an hour — with a decent internet connection, mind you.”
The solutions in store at Vasatorps are numerous, and striking: Several holes on the Old Course will be repositioned or rerouted, and most every green will be moved. The layout’s bunkering scheme will be totally reimagined (Forrest foresees a style that is flat-bottomed, grass-faced and rough-hewn around the edges — a “heathland” style on the order of Sunningdale and the Tournament Course next door).
Plans for the Old Course also call for a major increase in the size, impact and visibility of layout’s water hazards.
“The course renovation process is often an exercise in restraint. Big changes are something an architect must, in some sense, negotiate with members who are normally quite protective of the golf course,” said Forrest, who completed a major renovation of Oslo Golfklubb, in Norway, in 2009. “At Vasatorps, where our work on the Tournament Course earned us a high level of trust, we have been given a freer hand.
“Nearly every green on the Old Course will be brand new and has been re-sited, for example. If we’re going to renovate, we may as well put the greens and bunkers where they should be — to maximize strategy, challenge, aesthetic interest, safety and playability.”
Forrest emphasized that playability was a vital consideration in renovating the Old Course, a very flat piece of terrain that always drained poorly. Many design improvements stem from the effort to improve drainage. The reconstruction plan includes implementation of an extensive, state-of-the-art, subsurface drainage capability, of course, but there’s more to it than technology.
“When you expand water features, it generates dirt — dirt you can employ to raise up and better contour fairways,” Forrest explained. “We’ve done this strategically on the Old Course, so fairways surface-drain more efficiently into the ponds. And, of course, when you replace soggy land with ponds, you don’t have to drain that land. What’s more, by expanding water features, we create more visible hazards that can be deployed more strategically.”
The mid-length par-4 3rd hole is one of half a dozen examples. This dogleg left had been so flat that a small water hazard, at left, was invisible from the tee. Forrest will expand the pond’s footprint five-fold, use the fill to recontour the fairway, then move the tees forward to improve safety relationships and create a driveable par-4 with water dauntingly (and visibly) guarding the entire left side.
The new routing also swaps the opening two holes on each nine, thereby solving traffic issues and creating a more forgiving opening hole (and a more testing 10th). A somewhat dangerous confluence of greens — where holes 2, 3 and 11-14 come together — has been addressed through a combination of rerouting and green relocations.
“I have to congratulate the Vasatorps membership for their open-mindedness. But I shouldn’t be surprised,” Forrest said. “We took out an existing nine-hole loop to build the Tournament Course. Years ago, the club built a short course to accommodate younger and more novice players. The club is continually remaking itself and adding benefits for its members. It is truly the most diverse facility in the country, and perhaps all of Europe.”