Isabel wanted to play college golf in America, but she needed help. Peter, her father, agreed to pay under two conditions: 1) She promised to return home to Sweden after school, and 2) under no circumstances would she marry an American boy. Six years later, Isabel and I are pulling into Ljunghusens Golfklubb, the course she grew up playing. She’s got a permanent address in Florida and a very American fiancé. But it’s a happy occasion: Peter and the family have given their blessing for us to be wed at a church down the street in a few days.
Ljunghusens is perched on a gorgeous piece of land on the southern tip of Sweden, just a few miles across the Baltic Sea from Copenhagen. It’s a crisp late-summer Friday afternoon and the sky is clearing after an unusually cold and rainy few months. The parking lot is packed. Bikes outnumber Volvos two to one. Pushcarts outnumber golf carts 100 to none. It’s my first time teeing it up on her turf, and I’m taking in every detail. I’m certain of this whole wedding thing, but I still need to know what I’m marrying into.
Before going further, let me make this clear: I like America. I like buffalo wings, I like Miller Lite, I like “Sunday NFL Countdown” and I like all three of those things at the same time. And I’m not entirely clear on many of Sweden’s institutions, like pickled herring and universal health care. I’m also lactose intolerant, and everything in Sweden includes some form of dairy, including the meatballs. Especially the meatballs. So, on paper, the Swedish traditions didn’t seem like an automatic fit.
But the more time I’ve spent getting to know this new side of my family, the more I have come to admire the Scandinavian way. They do not have a television downstairs. After eating dinner, they sit, look each other in the eye, and talk. It’s weird and awesome. They don’t drive if they can bike there and back in under 30 minutes. They drink a lot of beer, but they won’t have a sip if they plan to operate a moving vehicle at some point that day. They have coffee and a pastry together every afternoon. They happily pay a shit ton of taxes and trust that they’ll get a lot for it. And the golf culture is strong. Surprisingly strong.
Ljunghusens is one of three courses on this tiny peninsula. It’s a family course with a rich junior program that pumps out collegiate and professional golfers every year. Flommens, the everyman’s course that borders the sea, features some form of water on every shot, including a terrifyingly short par-3 opener. Falsterbo is Sweden’s third-oldest course and the most refined of the group—a true links with stunning coastal views. But only Ljunghusens has 27 holes. That’s not including its short course for juniors and beginners, which is imperative should you want to get your Swedish golf ID. This is another Swedish concept that had me skeptical, but, upon further review, Big Government’s involvement makes a lot of sense.
Golf in Sweden is neither public nor private. You may pay modest annual dues to a local course should you wish to have priority access to tee times and store your clubs, but that is the only barrier to entry. Anyone is welcome to make a tee time. Anyone with a golf ID, that is. To obtain your golf ID, you must register with the Swedish Golf Alliance and pass a series of playing tests. The first may be on a short course, like the one at Ljunghusens. You then graduate to the family tees on a full-length course, then finally to the front tees. Once you have the equivalent of a 36 handicap, you are free to play unaccompanied anywhere. All the while, you are learning pace of play, etiquette and basic rules. Think of it like a driver’s license for golf. It all amounts to a respectful, pleasant, fast-playing crowd with a high golf IQ. This is perhaps best reflected on the first tee at Ljunghusens after 4 p.m., when there are no tee times. Instead, there is a green metal spiral into which anyone can drop their golf ball. Once your ball has made it to the bottom, your group is up.
It’s 4:35 and our ball has landed. Isabel, her brother Alex and I step up. (Thankfully, no golf ID is required for prospective double-passport holders.) As I look down the first fairway of a gentle, flat, dogleg-right par 4, I have completely forgotten where I am in the world. There is a revetted-face pot bunker down the right, thick purple heather that the locals call ljung down the left and gorgeous sand pines guarding the green. If you dropped 100 Americans on that tee, I’d bet 99 would guess that they’re in the U.K. and the other one failed high school geography.
I was transported to the common-land courses of England on the third tee when a group of free-grazing cows came over to say hello. Each hole after that blew my mind; there were features from Kittansett, Kiawah and Bandon. Other holes reminded me of Royal St. George’s and Sunningdale. But none of those courses have the Baltic Sea and Denmark staring back at them, and none of them have meatballs, lingonberry, pickled cucumbers and an ice-cold Staropramen waiting back at the clubhouse.
To this day, I’ve known my wife to break only two promises. And I’m so happy she did. As any married person will tell you, you don’t just wed a partner; you marry their history, their culture, their entire way of being. For me, that includes a language I don’t understand, a frightening but tenderhearted Viking father-in-law and post-meatball abdominal pain, because they are the greatest thing I’ve ever tasted. I’m still not sure about pickled herring, but you can bet your last buffalo wing that I’m getting a golf ID.
The local rumor of ancient membership ties between Falsterbo and Royal County Down is unsubstantiated, but the U.K. influence here is undoubtable. Revetted-face bunkers are numerous in this part of the world and just as penal as their British and Irish brethren.
The scenery along Nos. 19 through 27 at Ljunghusens could be the envy of almost any other course on the planet. But while many of those jaw-dropping clubs stay private, Ljunghusens offers tee options for all manner of players that continue to make golf a Swedish family tradition.