Koninklijke Haagsche
The Hague, Netherlands

A dream landscape for golf with man pitted against nature on a grand stage.

A famous chef once remarked that ‘Mother Nature is the true artist.’  The better the ingredients, the better the meal. Yet it is how the chef mixes the fresh produce, how he develops and accentuates flavors that creates a culinary experience. Similarly with golf course architecture, the better the landscape, the better course in the hands of a master architect. Inspired pairings of landscape/architect abound from the Golden Age of golf course architecture (Herbert Fowler and Eastward Ho! on Cape Cod, Seth Raynor and Fishers Island, Alister MacKenzie and Cypress Point, William Flynn and Shinnecock Hills, the list goes on and on) with one of the greatest pairings drawing to a close the Golden Age.

In 1937, Daniel Wolf hired the English firm of Colt, Alison & Morrison to build an eighteen hole course on the other side of a ridge from his estate house twenty-five kilometers southwest of the country’s capital of Amersterdam. Their drive up to Mr. Wolf’s house couldn’t have been too inspired as the surrounding land is flat in typical Dutch fashion (yes, 20% of the country is below sea level!).  Regardless of the prior correspondence between Wolf and the firm, nothing could have prepared Hugh Alison and John Morrison (at this late stage in his career, Harry Colt’s traveling days were numbered and he never saw Haagsche) for the sight that unfolded once they climbed the path and reached the top of the ridge.

Stretching out in all directions from this ridge line were rolling sand dunes as far as the eye could see. The benefits were immediately evident of being on the west side of a coastline where the prevailing westerly winds and currents had been depositing sediment and forcing it inland for centuries upon centuries. Large enough to create an heroic setting without being too big to hinder good golf, the dunes were perfect terrain,  literally every architect’s dream. Paul Turner, a Colt historian, sums it up nicely when he writes, ‘Though I haven’t seen Kawana yet, I think it is safe to say that Haagsche is the boldest site with which the company ever worked.  St George’s Hill, Pine Valley, and Hamilton run it close but the fairways on those courses don’t heave to and fro like those at Haagsche.   The course is spectacular and needs sturdy legs but the dunes are the right size and the holes never slip over into being too severe and fluky.’

Effort to divide the design credits between Alison and Morrison is a fool’s game. For example, documents exist that credit each individual for the routing. Having worked with Colt for so many years, both had the ability to string one hole after another and have them cumulatively capture the best attributes from a particular property. That’s certainly true here and Alison and Morrison waste no time in giving the golfer the full flavor and joy of the  rambunctous topography. The first hole is a three shotter that desecends from one of the property’s high points to a very low one and then the golfer is marched straight back up the hill to the second green. The third plays across one valley and then over a large depression before the one shot fourth plunges forty-five feet from tee to green. The three shot fifth gradually climbs uphill with the walk from its green to the sixth tee being steeply uphill. However, from this pulpit tee, the golfer is afforded a magnificent long view over most of the front nine. This kind of roller coaster ride never abates from start to finish and first time visitors are often left in breathless wonderment as to what they have just experienced.

Having completed the routing, Alison and Morrison let the ground provide much of the golfing challenge and not many man made hazards (a.k.a. bunkers) were required.  For  instance, on the 480 yard tenth there isn’t a bunker from tee to green. Yet, to reach this short three shotter in two, the best line is down the left  (i.e. the side with the most severe trouble). As one shys away to the right, the natural slope and landforms kick the tee ball yet farther right. From the left, more level stances are afforded and the golfer enjoys a preferred angle into the green which is bunkered front right. It is a classic risk/reward hole with the better player given something to do in order to gain an advantage yet it is a hole that doesn’t loudly proclaim attention received from the hand of man. Like Colt,  both Alison and Morrison accomplished their work  in such a manner that they often don’t always get the credit that they deserve. They never built silly water features or did anything that called attention to themselves as they were content to let the holes and property speak for themselves. In the case of Royal Hague, only twenty-three greenside bunkers and one fairway bunker were required.

Look closely at the photograph below of the eleventh green complex. Yes, it would be easy (as well as false!) to say that Alison and Morrison just draped the green over the ridge,  threw green seed down and voilà , a putting surface was born. Their mastery of sighting the depression, incorporating the natural ridge line into the green itself,  smoothing off the landform to create a putting surface and then blending the surrounds easily escapes the undiscerning eye.  While in stark contrast to some modern design houses, that’s just the way they liked it, too.

The benefits of working with sandy soil and of avoiding the use of heavy machinery are fully appreciated by admiring the graceful landforms above. Representing golf course architecture at its finest, the simplicity of the eleventh green complex is deceiving as it is rife with golfing qualities. Getting it right took time and finesse.

Like a great chef, just having the best ingredients isn’t enough as it’s what one does with them that counts. In this case, the talents of Colt’s firm are clearly manifest by the extraordinary array of diverse green complexes. Some like the first, seventh and fifteenth are partially tucked behind dunes while others like the ninth and twelfth occupy the high spots of their surrounds whereby poorly struck balls are shed away.  There are some uniquely situated ones  as well like the fourteenth cut into a saddle and the notorious sixth, surely one of the fiercest/meanest/finest green complexes in world golf. Possessing at least nine, the course features as many false fronts as any course with which the author is familiar.  Coupled with today’s agronomic practices and the short grasses that feed many a ball away from these crowned targets, Royal Hague justly belongs in the top tier of contintental European courses. Indeed for some, there is no course they would rather play, such is its high level of excitement mirrored with excellent golf as we see below.

Holes to Note

First hole, 505 yards; Pace of play experts frown upon reachable par fives as opening holes. Yet, the view from the tee of the long fairway tumbling away beneath as it heads into prime dunes country is so enticing who would argue with Alison’s and Morrison’s decision. Indeed, credit belongs to Daniel Wolf that such a hole was even possible as most owners insist upon a clubhouse occupying the property’s high point. Wolf had a different (i.e. better!) idea and he was insistent that the clubhouse not be visible from the course. Thus, approximately ten acres of prime land remained at the disposal of Alison and Morrison with the first tee, ninth green and tenth tee all owing their creation in part to the wisdom of Mr. Wolf.  A gentle opener just as Colt preferred, the golfer needs to be ready to play nonetheless as the first and fifth are the two easiest holes on the course and he dearly needs to take advantage of these reachable three shotters if possible.

Few first tees afford a more exciting prospect than at Haagsche.

A rarity at Haagsche, the first green sits below from where the golfer plays his approach shot and a running shot can readily find the green. Many of the other green complexes are less kind as they are elevated, thus shrugging balls away.

Second hole, 390 yards; The heart of Haagsche lies in the strength of its two shot holes. Cumulatively, they rank among the finest two dozen sets or so found in world golf as they are blessed with a staggering amount of variety. Some of the game’s great long two shotters (e.g. the sixth, fourteenth, fifteenth) are matched by some of the best short holes (e.g. the third and seventh). The second is one a slew of holes that measures around the 400 yard mark and whose uphill approach shot makes it play longer than the card suggests. Frank Pont is the current architect on record at Royal Hague and his January, 2008 Feature Interview on GolfClubAtlas.com is a must read. In it, he details the state of the course when he was initially hired in 2004 and what he has done to bring back as much of Colt, Alison and Morrison’s work as possible. Here at the second is a prime example where a smallish green built by Frank Pennick in the 1970s was out of character with the other original Alison and Morrison greens. Pont created a skyline green twice the size and had it fall away to the rear so that once again, the second feels like it belongs on a Golden Age course. Indeed, the crowned greens at Royal Hague are one of the course’s distinguishing marks and the camber helps identify who has put a good strike on the ball – as well as who hasn’t!

What goes down must come up. As seen from the second tee, Alison and Morrison’s routing attacks the land in all sorts of manners.

As seen from behind, the second green now drifts to the rear. A ball that comes in too hot will likely find one of the hollows or depressions behind. Short grass wasn’t as frequently used in the Golden Age around greens but improvments in agronmony make it a very effective hazard, requiring a deft touch for recovery. The all world third hole stretches away in the distance.

Third hole, 385 yards; The fact that Haagsche occupies wild, tumbling land is well known but how does that translate into good golf? On land with continual movement, many architects would get tripped up connecting one hole after another. Not Alison and Morrison. Each and every hole exploits the land in an appealing – and varied –  manner, yielding holes of distinction. One of the most memorable is the third, where a drive over a steep valley is required. If well positioned in the right corner of the fairway, the golfer enjoys a fine look at the green. More times than one might hope though, the tee ball gets pulled into a giant depression along the left side of the fairway, leaving a blind approach. Alison and Morrison welcomed the occasional blind shot as without them, the course would do a poor job of properly reflecting the naturally heaving terrain.

How can a course over modest property compete against the thrills provided at Haagsche? Answer: It can’t. Seen above is the tee shot for the third with its do or die carry to reach the fairway.

Just making the carry to the fairway isn’t enough as the golfer still needs to position his ball correctly. A huge bowl along the left swallows up tee balls and leaves the blind approach as seen above.

Tee balls that hug the inside right of this dogleg (i.e. closer to the side of the trouble) stay on the higher ground and afford this view for one’s approach.

Fourth hole, 220 yards; High spots in general afford the most expansive, long views. As Haagsche is an open links with stunted vegetation, that certainly holds true. Even better, the course borders protected dunes land on three sides so the views are often breathtaking.  On non-windy sites, golfers take in the long views and then enjoy the advantage that elevation brings. However, on windy sites of which Haagsche is definitely one, elevation brings its own special challenges. Standing on high, the golfer has no way to protect  his tee ball from the wind and that becomes a primary change from Haagsche’s numerous elevated tees (namely, those at the first, fourth, sixth, eighth, tenth, eleventh, thirteenth, fifteenth and eighteenth holes). Here at the fourth,  how well he flights his ball goes a long way in determining the success in keeping the ball on the desired line to the green located some forty-five feet below. The GolfClubAtlas.com Facebook page has a video showing Byron Nelson hitting the perfect low, boring knockdown into this green – if only we were all so talented (!) as the Texan who grew up playing in the wind.

This exhilarating view from the elevated fourth tee will never be marred as the land in the distance is protected coastal property.

The fourth is aerial golf all the way as a fronting bunker has sealed off the entrance to the green since opening day in 1939.

This view from behind the fourth green captures the hole’s downhill nature.

This 1940s photograph is the landscape upon which Alison and Morrison feasted their eyes. A concerted effort is now under way to restore these sandy qualities to the course.

Sixth hole, 470 yards; Despite the obvious merits of the land and routing, if each hole ended in a dullish green complex, it would all be for naught.  As greens are the ultimate target in golf, their quality makes – or breaks – a course’s lasting appeal. As previously mentioned, Haagsche’s greens elevate the course into the top tier of courses in Europe and there is no greater example of why that is so than here. Only half of its 6,300 square foot putting surface is available for hole locations, so severe is the turtleback nature of the putting surface. Indifferently struck approach shots bleeding away left or right are shunted away from the green from where the golfer then faces a ticklish recovery up one of the green’s slopes. In part for these reasons, Kyle Phillips has cited this half par hole as one of his favorites in world golf.

Challenges abound at the sixth with this sandy wilderness some two hundreds from the green needing to be avoided off the tee. Farther ahead, note how the green was built up to be the high point of its surrounds.

The green at the sixth is an unbelievably difficult target to hold as it falls off sharply to its left as well as to its right, as seen above from behind the green.

Continued >>>