Ivan Morris - The voice of Limerick Golf
THERE'S a big wide world of golf out there that quite a few Irish golfers know nothing about. In fact, it astonishes me how many so-called keen golfers only play at their home course without ever dreaming of travelling across town, let alone abroad, to sample a new challenge.
Is it that golf to them is merely an excuse for a leisurely walk in familiar surroundings with the added distraction of a small, usually white, ball dictating in which direction they should go next? The idea of playing at a different golf course never arises for some.
Surely, it is not paying the (often nominal) green fee that deters them? A lack of adventure and a true love of the unpredictable joys of the game (for its own, pure sake) would be closer to the truth, perhaps?
I'm a golfing adventurer! I love playing Russian Roulette golf. It's fun to walk over unknown, new ground avoiding hazards that I do not always know are there in advance; while calculating the playing distance I might be facing for my next shot.
Is it a short 150-yards, or a long 150-yards, or whatever it might be? Yes, there can be quite a difference in playing a shot with the same club from the same yardage due to topography and the atmospheric conditions.
Never on my radar as a golf destination, Belgium is one of the few European countries where I had not played at least one game of golf but, Belgium is my biggest surprise ever in all of my golf travels!
I had no idea what pleasures were in store or enthusiasms I might encounter, especially at a fabulous 9-holes course (Golf Club Beveren in Antwerp) that is still under-construction but is nevertheless eminently playable.
Built on reclaimed land in the middle of an extraordinary and extensive Docklands area, this 'work in progress' for a mini-budget of €250,000 has to be seen to be believed. What the enthusiastic membership and their architect (Dimitri van Hauwaert) have produced is sheer genius. Thousands upon thousands of tons of dumped rubble and sand makes Beveren play like a fast and loose links.
Lots of golf clubs (everywhere) could learn how to operate in the modern world by studying this delightfully progressive little place. It has everything including a brand new, utilitarian clubhouse with a superb kitchen, a high-tech academy full of swing-improver gadgets, a practice ground and a short, extremely clever, 4-holes improver course for beginners that reflect the designer's 'big idea' by not being 'stuck away' in a corner. Standing on the 1st tee, I braced myself for being divested of at least a few golf balls - the fairway ahead looked so squeezed in on all sides by trees, bushes, ditches filled with water not to mention the busy Docks close by where shipping activities never cease.
The apparent narrowness was but a designer's trick; making shots look hard but play easy (after a fashion). This commendable principle certainly holds true at Beveren where the fairways are plenty wide even if they don't look it.
Royal Antwerp (the second oldest course on the continent of Europe) is a classic forest routing amongst 'ginormous', 'South Carolina' pines and colourful, prolific (of all hues), rhododendron bushes. It's a long, course played over rumpled land without any elevations to speak of.
The lack of elevation did not prevent the designer, Tom Simpson (famous for his work at Ballybunion) from disguising distances by inserting chocolate drop mounds in front of several greens as well as the occasional water features and ditches that inflict acute pain and anguish on the slightest of stray shots.
Royal Limburg is a big, sweeping, undulating property that features sterner shot values and more variety than Royal Antwerp due to a sharing of forest and heartland characteristics that also dish out some pain but, the course is so pretty one hardly feels any of it!
Straightaway, without a second glance, Limburg goes into my extremely short and selective list of all-time favourites with a return visit very high on my priority list.
Playing golf at Oudenaard Country Club, in the Flemish Ardennes, had a broad-shouldered, rustic feel that resembled very closely the land at Dromoland Castle and Adare Manor. The clubhouse is an arresting chateau/castle that dates from 1847, which was once owned by Dukes of Flanders who have resided on this same property since the eight century.
Golf in Belgium is a very private affair. Green fee players at all courses are strictly limited but are welcome never the less - if booked well in advance. Rates are reasonable varying between €35-€85 at the courses I played.
Of course, I was in Belgium to observe the novel Knock Out European Tour event. I have to say I like these new, shorter formats for professional tournament golf.
If only, the pros would play a 54-holes stroke play event (to qualify) and the top 16 then played for the title via match play, I'd be happier still.
The Rinkven Course where the Belgian Knock Out was played looked very difficult but, of course, it was set up like that just for the pros.
Words of the Wise
If you can't, or won't, travel overseas to play golf, at least play at some of the courses around and about your home town. It will be good for your game and will be surprisingly enjoyable (guaranteed!)