How to get your greens
There's a golfers' paradise waiting for you within two hours of Brussels, says Frank Partridge
Saturday 01 May 2004
Although Tintin, with his trademark plus-twos, frequently gave the impression of having interrupted a round of golf to embark on his latest adventure, neither he nor Belgium is readily associated with the game. The comic-strip hero's only recorded swing of a club resulted in a mishit that nearly decapitated his dog Snowy, and in real life, Belgian professionals have made little impression on the international tour. Football and cycling,
bien sur - but golf? A definite
Although Tintin, with his trademark plus-twos, frequently gave the impression of having interrupted a round of golf to embark on his latest adventure, neither he nor Belgium is readily associated with the game. The comic-strip hero's only recorded swing of a club resulted in a mishit that nearly decapitated his dog Snowy, and in real life, Belgian professionals have made little impression on the international tour. Football and cycling, bien sur - but golf? A definite non.
But the channel tunnel has brought a surprisingly diverse golfing region within easier reach of British players in search of new challenges. The Wallonia region, south of Brussels, has 30 clubs within a two-hour drive of the capital, and only 20,000 native players to use them. The weekly scramble for tee-off times, all too familiar in the south of England, is virtually unknown in Belgium, and although every club is private and the sport is generally played by the monied classes, almost every club welcomes high-handicap players, and the green fees are inexpensive.
So is the process of getting there. Return fares on Eurostar start at £59, and there's no extra charge if you continue your journey beyond Brussels to any railway station in the country. Sticking the clubs in the back of the car and crossing the Channel via Eurotunnel costs £173 for excursions of between two and five days, regardless of how many fellow players come with you. Road and rail communications within Belgium are outstanding: nowhere is very far from anywhere else.
Eleven of Wallonia's courses are dotted about a small area, just south of the Brussels ring road, that's come to be known as le quartier du golf. Outside the peak traffic periods, it's reachable in 45 minutes from the city centre, along a motorway that skirts a vast forest, well-heeled dormitory towns, and the open plain where Napoleon finally met his Waterloo. As in most of Belgium, the countryside is generally low-lying, but a proficient course architect can do wonders with gently rolling terrain and the natural abundance of trees, lakes and streams. It's a fallacy that you need steep hills to make a course interesting, and at least a dozen of the courses are as undulating as anything in the Home Counties.
Having said that, in one location left flat by nature, a huge amount of earth has been moved to create two magnificent, contrasting 18-hole courses - one in the so-called style "l'Anglais"; the other "l'Americain" - at Golf Château de la Tournette, near the medieval town of Nivelle. The English course is gently rolling and open; its American neighbour is studded with scenic, but fiendishly placed lakes. The green fees are about as high as anywhere in Belgium: €55 (£38.50) on weekdays; €70 (£49) at weekends.
A few miles to the west, on the edge of the Erbisoeul forest near Mons, the Royal Golf Club du Hainaut consists of three nine-hole circuits, each with their own characteristics, and two of them created in 1933. The contrast between the old and the new (the third course was designed in 1990) shows how the sport has evolved. The modern golf club is lighter, with a larger "sweet-spot" in the head, enabling the player to drive the ball further. So the new circuit at Hainault is longer and wider, but balances things by protecting its greens with a greater array of bunkers. Choose which combination you want, and combine two generations of golf in a single outing.
Head back east for a very un-Belgian-like experience, at the Golf Club de Pierpont. This is sited on a treeless plain between Nivelle and Charleroi Airport, the latter offering another convenient point of entry for UK golfers with Ryanair services from Stansted and Prestwick.
It's said that one of the gifts bestowed on the Duke of Wellington after Waterloo was part of the forest that used to grow here, whereupon the victorious general instructed his men to cut down the trees and had them shipped back to England for vast personal profit. Whether the legend is true or not, Pierpont is the nearest thing in Wallonia to a seaside links course, with virtually no relief from the sun, wind or rain, and some fascinating holes to reward big-hitters. There are so many blind summits along the way that you half expect to hear the roar of the sea from the other side. Part of the clubhouse complex, converted from a 17th century farmhouse, is a 20-room hotel, with packages starting at a remarkably low €80 (£56) for a day's golf and a twin shared room.
But the most celebrated course in French-speaking Belgium is a few miles outside the thermal resort of Spa, in the far south-west. The Royal Golf Club des Fagnes is rated 58th of the top 100 courses in mainland Europe. By modern standards, it's relatively short at just over 6,000 metres, but it compensates with its subtle undulations, narrow approaches and dog-legs, plethora of sand and water traps, and, above all, the sheer tranquillity of its setting - deep in an echoing forest. Driving me around in a buggy, the club secretary, Arnaud Baupain, described the back nine as "a little sauvage" - and even though the greens looked lush and true, I was secretly relieved that I had left my clubs behind. The wayward Tintin would do well to do the same.
Golf Château de la Tournette: Chemin de Baudemont, 1400 Nivelles (00 32 67 89 42 66, www.tournette.com)
Royal Golf Club du Hainaut: Chemin de la Verrerie, 7050 Erbisoeul-lez-Mons (00 32 65 22 02 00, email firstname.lastname@example.org)
Golf Club de Pierpont: 6210 Les Bons Villers (00 32 071 85 17 75, www.pierpont.be)
Royal Golf Club des Fagnes: Avenue de l'Hippodrome, 4900 Spa (00 32 87 79 30 30, e-mail email@example.com)
For information about golf in southern Belgium, see www.destinationgolf.be or call the Belgian Tourist Office Brussels & Wallonia on 020-7531 0390
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