"The modern golf course I daydream most about is Lofoten"

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Darius Oliver, who co-designed the World Top 100 Cape Wickham Links, gives a candid and insightful assessment of the best new courses in Continental Europe. 

There is an exact 50-50 split between modern and historic courses in the Golf World Top 100 Courses in Continental Europe, illustrating the strength of courses built on the continent in the last 30 years. By the time of our 2023 ranking, there's every chance modern may overtake traditional.

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Darius Oliver co-designed Cape Wickham in Tasmania, our World No.10, and is also a writer who has published Modern Masterpieces, a book whose content needs little explanation. Having seen most of the finest golf in continental Europe, Darius is perfectly placed to assess the various different aspects. He does that here, putting it in context alongside the best of GB&I. And the traditionalists aren't ignored either.

Old Head Golf Course

The most breathtaking location for a golf course...

There are many scenic courses in Europe, so that’s a very difficult call. For me it’s a three-way tie, between Old Head in Ireland, Ardfin in Scotland and Norway’s Lofoten – perhaps the only courses that rival Australia’s Cape Wickham as the world’s most spectacular. Among older courses in continental Europe, Crans-sur-Sierre and Sperone stand out.

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The most interesting overall design...

Including its superb nine-holer, the European course which stands out to me as being exceptionally well designed is Morfontaine. Each hole and all 27 green sites have tremendous aesthetic and strategic appeal, and they’re fascinating to study.

There isn’t really a modern course that comes close, although the original Eddie Hackett holes at Belmullet (Carne) in Ireland are a true throwback. There aren’t many modern courses anywhere as rugged and understated as Carne. The golf is totally raw and the holes feel much older than they really are. I wish there were more courses like it. 

Of the modern European courses I’ve seen, I found elements of design at Sand (Sweden), Budersand (Germany), Praia D’El Rey (Portugal) and Lofoten to be quite interesting.

Belmullet Course

The best green complexes...

As much as I love the simplicity of Carne's greens, and some of the crazy, organic
targets at Machrihanish Dunes, both Kingsbarns and Castle Stuart stand out for
me as having a really solid set of modern green complexes. The Castle course at Bro Hof Slott in Sweden is another one that impressed me.

Among Europe’s older courses, I think it’s hard to go past Morfontaine and Chantilly.

The best presented golf course...

This is a hard one, because so much depends on the time of year you visit or particular experiences during your round. I’ve seen each of Doonbeg, The Grove, Loch Lomond, The Scandinavian, La Zagaleta, Valderrama, PGA Catalunya and The European presented in almost perfect condition. The best golf turf that I’ve played in Europe, however, was at Kingsbarns.

Kingsbarns Golf Course

The most memorable golf hole...

It's obviously tough to narrow all of Europe down to just one most memorable hole, but the first time you stand on that 2nd tee at Lofoten Links it really takes your breath away. The original 14th at Doonbeg may have given it a shake here, and certainly the 2nd and 10th at Ardfin are spectacular as well – but there is something impossibly beautiful about the 2nd at Lofoten, and a magic that photos can't properly capture. I have to say, though, that it helps that I saw the Northern Lights from this tee box!

My favourite older hole in Europe is the 17th at Falkenstein, and for no other reason than it occupies beautiful rolling ground, has a healthy cover of heather and is unusual in that it favours a draw from the tee and a fade into the green. I once took a detour from the UAE to Scotland via Hamburg just so I could return to the club and play this one hole.

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The best use of its site...

Lofoten in Norway isn’t perfect by any means, but it is pretty close to ideal for the land it occupies. The same could be said of Machrihanish Dunes as well, given the environmental restrictions. But my pick for the best use of a modern site would be Carne, in its original form, because of Hackett’s preparedness to integrate flatter, duller ground early in the round in order to get as many holes as possible into that epic landscape nearer the sea. 

Among classic European courses, the likes of Royal Hague, (Utrecht) De Pan, Chantilly and Morfontaine stand out for the use of their land. You can include Ullna in Sweden in that as well. It has a nice routing that uses its lakefront land well.

Royal Hague Golf Course

The most demanding golf course...

Renaissance Club and Trump Scotland are pretty demanding for mortals, yet somewhat straightforward for elite golfers. Old Head can be brutal too, as can The European, Valderrama and the Stadium at Bro Hof Slott. For me, though, the course that seemed closest to unplayable for the average amateur was the Faldo Course at Amendoeira in Portugal. I won’t be hurrying back.

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The most fun golf course...

Kingsbarns and Ardfin would be right up there, along with Machrihanish Dunes, which I prefer to most of David McLay-Kidd’s other work because it feels so authentically old-school – and is great fun now that it has matured. Lofoten as a destination and an experience is incredible, but there are a number of shots that you really need to sweat over and some of the holes are less enjoyable than others.

To me, the essence of golf is having fun, and the modern course that best complements all the great old links in Europe on that basis is Carne. On the European mainland, I really enjoyed the Castle Course at Bro Hof Slott and Royal Hague. Morfontaine too, but that’s becoming an old answer.

Bro Hof Slott Golf Course

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The one golf course I want to return to the most...

The modern courses in Europe that I daydream the most about are Lofoten and Carne. The proper answer, though, to the question of where I most want to return, is probably Kingsbarns, because playing that course again would mean I was back in Fife. 

Among the older courses I’ve played on the mainland, my personal highlight is Morfontaine and in particular its nine-hole Valliere. I could play those short, quirky holes every day for the rest of my life and never get bored.

The best golf clubhouse... 

Morfontaine and Kingsbarns, because they manage to strike that rare balance between a comfortable and intimate interior, and an exterior that enhances the landscape and is complementary to the golf. The R&A clubhouse at St Andrews is obviously the gold standard in this regard. 

I was impressed by the history and grandeur of the Bro Hof Slott clubhouse as well as the more modern Castiglion del Bosco in Tuscany. If I had to pick one based on first impressions, however, I would probably lean toward The Scandinavian.

Darius Oliver also runs Planet Golf, a brilliant resource for connoisseurs of courses. www.planetgolf.com

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