The birth of a European Elite golf course?


By: Joakim Isaksson, Consultant & project manager, Slottsbanan 2.0 December 9, 2019


Ålands Golfklubb´s Castle Course has gone through a major rebuild during 2018 and -19. We are now at the final stretch of the project.

Adam Lawrence from Golf Course Architecture visited us and stated that

he may have seen the birth of what could be one of Europes Elite courses. He is not the only one praising the work done by our project team. We open early July. You should get here and have look for yourself.

Ålands Golfklubb Hole 10 in the morning
Hole 10 on a summer morning. A beautiful but dangerous 310 meters cape par 4. How brave are you?

For me, Adam Lawrence´s words sound almost too good to be true.

How is it possible for Ålands Golfklubb located on a small island, with 30 000 inhabitants, in the middle of the Baltic sea to produce something that all golfers from around the globe should be figuring out how to get to?

Let’s start from the beginning – Castle Course dates back to 1984 and has over the years been a very popular course to play during a 2-3 day golf trip from Stockholm and Turku (Finland).

However, in the last couple of years, the number of visitors has declined ever so slightly year by year.

Alands Golfklubb performance
Lost market shares? Market (Number of golfers in Finland & Sweden) was flat-lined but the number of visitors was dropping.

During the re-build project, we have updated all greens, bunkers, major parts of the tee’s and rerouted the course completely.

You may say that it is a new golf course where it previously happened to be one before.

Architect Philip Spogárd from Spogard & Vandervaart quite ingeniously re-used the fairway areas to make it possible to work within budget at the same time as the course moved to the sea and the golf experience improved significantly.

Why did you do it?

I once was asked by Kai Hulkkonen from our main contractor Nelson&Vecchio, why did you do it?

Being an engineer, I love why questions! There is always a next why waiting after the previous one.

The first answer to why is simply that our members decided that we should do it.

The board presented the analysis (below), a financial plan and Philip Spogárd’s masterplan to the members.

After this, the members’ meeting gave the board the task to realize the masterplan within the given financial framework.

It could not have been done without our great members’ support.

Ålands Golfklubb Hole 16 par 4
Hole 16, par 4 – Hitting the wedge approaching the 16th green will be special. I cannot wait to play this hole with my friends.

If you then ask why the members decided on it? Maybe it was due to the board’s analysis and soft arguments that went something like:

  • our greens were not up to standard before the end of June;
  • our guests were not as frequent and happy as they had been before;
  • we had a golf course that was sort of close to the sea but not at the sea;
  • the golf experience was not quite there, we wanted to improve it, golf should be fun;
  • our members and guests had played high-end courses like Bro Hof Slott Golf Club (in Nordic golf there is a before and after Bro Hof). The perception of what is a good golf course was changing amongst our players.
  • the space of selling golf is getting crowded, you must offer something unique to be attractive;
  • we need to upgrade in order to stay relevant even in the future, invest for our juniors.

If you then ask why this analysis was done? I guess the answer is that a group of people decided to work for it – really work for it.

At this point the why question turns to what motivated each of us personally?

For me it goes something like – I´m a second-generation golfer, I have seen a few good golf courses, I love my club and the game of golf.

I guess I simply wanted a better course for me and my friends to play at and I had the notion that our club had the resources to do better (probably like all organizations always have).

I´m sure that my colleagues from the board and the club management all had different motivational factors but we aligned our different why’s to embark on a common journey.

Ålands Golfklubb junior golf lesson
Build for future generations and maybe you should not only be talking about hard facts when presenting to the members.

Golf should be fun. If you are thinking of a rebuild you should really dig into what is a good and fun golf experience for your customers.

I´m not the one to tell you. Talk to the good architects like Phillip Spogárd and his peers.

I believe that the (golf) experience you want to deliver to your customers should be the central question of any project; this needs to be a constant discussion throughout the project.

If your project organization cannot have this dialogue – I would argue that you have the wrong project organization.

Don’t get me wrong irrigation, drainage, bunker liners, and turf quality is, of course, essential, but it should not be setting the direction of the project.

It seems too good to be true – that people like Adam Lawrance and Kimmo Ekroth (GolfTraveller and panelist at Golf Digest top 100 courses in Europe) are visiting and saying that Castle Course very well can be an elite European golf course.

Statements like that still get me blushing and going “Really!?” In my mind, this was not what we set out to do.

Ålands Golfklubb golf course redesign in progress
Golf should be played because it is fun. Let’s try and make it fun.

But what we always tried to do during the project was to aim for the best possible result with the resources we had at hand.

As I see our main resources:

  • A good piece of land (I have heard others using stronger words) close to a 14-century castle;
  • Healthy club finances, local government and business community supporting the project;
  • This led to that the members approved a budget of 2.4 M€;
  • Supportive members;
  • A professional organization.
Activity Estimated cost
Preparation 50 000 €
Works 1 100 000 €
Materials 650 000 €
Administration & planning 300 000 €
Total start budget 2 100 000 €

Starting point for our project budget was 2.1 M €. We created a margin of 300 000 € (2.4 M – 2.1 M) to allow for us to be successful from a budget point of view. Unforeseen things will happen.

Ålands Golfklubb as it was before the golf course renovation
Our land is one of our key resources, picture taken pre-project

Create the best possible project organization

One thing we figured out during the process was that Ålands Golfklubb is good at maintenance and administration of golf but we do not have experience of large scale rebuild projects.

For me, the two most important decisions, that set the scene for our success, was the selection of the architect and the main contractor.

By adding agronomist Per Gundtoft and our extraordinary course manager, Johan Englund, to the mix we had a great project team.

After this, it was to trust the professionals and manage towards the budget. The project’s direction was set towards creating the best possible golf experience within budget.

Ålands Golfklubb 14th century castle
The 14-century castle is a part of the experience playing 15th a par 3 down-hill hole, with the fjord Slottsundet in the background.

Close to done

In all honesty, the project is not closed yet, still some 4% to go, but I dear to say that we are close enough for me to state that the team overperformed.

They created a better product than the club could ever have imagined, within budget and more or less on time (6 weeks late in a 2-year project).

When you read this, it may all sound simple, it was not.

It has been over 5 years of thinking and hard work from lots of people. I´m glad we all found what motivated us and decided to do the work.

Ålands Golfklubb Hole 17 par 3 redesign process
Hole 17, par 3 – in the middle of the dramatic ending of the round. The before after and during photos visualizes the advantage of working with professionals. Picture 3 – Nelson&Vecchio´s head shaper Shane Ringwood’s artistic interpretation of the hole, before they executed. Its great stuff!

I hope you also would like to the wedge on to the 16th green. I can guarantee that there are lots of other fun shots waiting to be figured out at the new Castle Course. We open in early July 2020.

If you want to learn more about our project and insights you can get in touch with me at +358 40 583 3199 or [email protected]

Ålands Golfklubb golf course redesign project processes
Our process of re-building from start to finish