The Winning Argument golf in holland the netherlands

The Winning Argument

A long-awaited trip to the Netherlands confirms a player’s suspicion that it should be the world’s next great golf destination


“Yes. Well, technically the Netherlands, as Holland is actually a name for two of its 12 provinces that has been conflated into the name of the country.”

“They play golf in Holland?”

“The Netherlands! And yes, they really do.”

I’ve been having some version of this conversation for more than a decade. I finally had to concede that the rest of the world will forever incorrectly interchange Holland and the Netherlands. But I’ve remained steadfast that the country should be golf’s next hot spot, despite knowing that my argument generally will be met with bewilderment, occasionally topped with barely concealed snorting. I live outside of London, and people here take the majority of their golf holidays in Scotland or Ireland. If sun and poolside drinks are needed, they head south to the Costa del Sol or Algarve coasts of the Iberian Peninsula. The more adventurous may head to Dubai or Turkey. Those who can afford it will go to the U.S. Nobody goes to the Netherlands.

To be fair, I am biased. I am Irish, born in Belfast, but grew up in southwest France, my family deciding that a diet of overfed goose and cheap red wine was much healthier for a teenage boy than soda bread and Buckfast. In the Périgord region near Bordeaux, there are almost as many Dutch ex-pats as British and Irish. So I grew up with Dutch friends and spent some hazy teenage days in Amsterdam and Utrecht. 

As an adult, when my relationship with golf rose from casual acquaintance to worrying co-dependency, I became curious about the game in one of my favorite countries. I was stunned to discover what could be the best collection of golden-age architecture outside of the British Isles and the U.S. 

Why didn’t more people—even golf nerds such as myself—know this? Because the Dutch largely prefer it that way. While completely private golf clubs are rare in the U.K. and Ireland (I can’t think of more than 10), the Dutch traditionally have embraced the exclusive model. In a densely populated country with little natural space, having a personal domain has been a premium that people down into the middle class have been happy to pay for. The logic has merit: Why spoil an abundance of stunning duneland and some of Harry Colt’s best design work by sharing it with strangers?

The fatal flaw of my Netherlands argument was that I had never experienced it myself. It took years of scuttled plans and those mind-numbing “Holland golf” conversations, but finally I was able to convince five of the Netherlands’ best courses to allow me entry. And, to my delight, I found that not only was I correct in my long-held assumption, but that I had been underselling it.

Utrecht de Pan Golf Club

The Winning Argument golf in holland the netherlands

I am a member at Royal Dornoch and have been lucky enough to play many of the great golf courses in the U.K., but something different happened to me at Utrecht de Pan. If I died right now and went to heaven, and God decreed that I would be forced to spend eternity only at this course, I would be giddy. Something about the gentle scruffiness, the awkward blind shots and the quirky weirdness of the clubhouse touched a part of my soul that nowhere else quite has. Perhaps it was the whiff of the exotic that swayed my judgment. Maybe it was the tug of nostalgia and my misspent youth. Or maybe golf at de Pan is that good.

The ground under the course, located just northeast of Utrecht’s city center, holds the remnants of a giant moraine left behind by the last ice age. This sandy, loamy soil has high acidity and for millennia was covered in ancient heathland. A few centuries ago, the wealthy merchants of Utrecht started looking here to build vast sporting estates and covered it in pine trees, which thrived in the sand. Fast-forward to the 1920s, and this land was invaluable for an architect like Colt, who, with Rye, Swinley Forest and Sunningdale among his myriad triumphs, should be regarded by anyone with any sense as the game’s greatest architect.

The approach to de Pan winds through a latticework of roads bordering enormous houses. This is horse country—specifically, dressage. Think Kentucky stud farms more than Wyoming’s broad vistas: The horses casually grazing in the perfectly fenced paddocks here can probably trace their lineage back farther than the British royal family. Named after Pan, the Greek god of the wild, fields, flocks and bucolic pastimes, the club sits quietly in these estates and whispers its status rather than shouts. It is a model in the delicate art of saying something by saying nothing at all. The clubhouse is a collection of small, thatched barns arranged around a tiny courtyard, which appear like someone just turned up and casually converted them because it was convenient, but which I suspect were carefully designed and have been maintained with no concern for expense since. The bar is intimate and charming. The terrace, overlooking the first tee and 18th green, is possibly the most enchanting in golf. It’s a bijou spot where a few chosen friends can enjoy their own private idyll, not a flashy giant plaza of nouveau riche.

On the course, de Pan’s magic comes from its gentle rhythm. It’s not a roller coaster—more a peaceful stroll through Elysian fields. It has some remarkable and, in some cases, famous holes—the sixth, a par 4 with two blind shots, being one. But the true quality comes from the restraint. Elevation changes are kept on the sensible side of extreme, carries are not excessive, the greens are interesting but never unfair. It’s a course you want to go out and play again immediately. And you could. It’s not exhausting. Rather, it’s a close friend. A quiet but encouraging partner who makes you believe the best of you is in the next shot, the next putt, the next hole, the next round.

Clipping a wedge off the perfect fairways and into those greens fills you with the kind of joy you normally find only in the first flush of a love affair. There’s a lightness of touch, infecting you through your feet to the depths of your being. It’s clean. Pure. 

This feeling washes over its members. Those I met were confident in what they have without feeling the need to compete. And yet it’s not a museum piece. In recent years, the golf architect Frank Pont has tinkered with it. And, some 20 years ago, the club began an experiment with grasses and hydration techniques that diverted de Pan from the inexorable chase after bright-green, overwatered fairways and instead returned it to the browned-out, “hard and fast” courses of the 1920s and 1930s. Today, de Pan is both an old course and a modern leader in water reduction and sustainability. 

That one place can occupy all of those boxes at once is testament to the choices made by Colt and the club’s members for nearly 100 years. Class, as they say, wins out. 

Royal Hague Golf & Country Club

The Winning Argument golf in holland the netherlands
Wide-angle frames best capture the rowdiness of Royal Hague’s terrain (above and at top)

The story of the current Royal Hague, known locally as Koninklijke Haagsche, goes that, in the 1930s, Daniel Wolf, a wealthy Dutch businessman, had fallen afoul of the original club. In response, he engaged Colt to build a course on land purchased near his estate. Colt sent his two associates, Charles Alison and John Morrison, in his stead due to his advancing years, and both courses operated independently until World War II. Wolf, who was Jewish, found himself in Paris when the Nazis invaded the Netherlands. He escaped to the United Kingdom and then New York, before passing away there in 1943. Meanwhile, the original Royal Hague course was destroyed in the conflict, and the club purchased Wolf’s course and moved there in 1947. So, while the club now trumpets itself as the country’s oldest, the course technically is not. But that shouldn’t detract from the brilliance of Alison and Morrison’s design. 

Royal Hague is widely regarded as one of the country’s finest, mostly because of its enviable spot in the heart of the dunes on the Dutch coastline. The Netherlands is known for its flat lowlands, and it’s defined by water tables and dykes, with the country’s highest point at just over 1,000 feet. But the western coastline is a soaring arena of high, tumultuous dunes. In fact, most of the land from the Hague north is now protected by the European Union as among the rarest and most precious coastal expanses on the continent. 

Alison and Morrison must have been giddy when shown the plot by Wolf almost a century ago, for not only is it sandy, but the topography is rambunctious, falling, rising and twisting in just the sort of way that excites golfers. They charted 18 holes, which start with a bang, then crisscross the land with increasing derring-do. It never moves in the way you would expect. It disappears up alleys. It turns into bowls. It jumps over ridges. The greens—usually elevated, often hidden from the fairway and always difficult to hit—sit like cushions on a rumpled duvet. No tee shot is easy. No fairway is flat. It’s easy to see why so many have fallen in love with the course over the years, and the members of Royal Hague sit with comfortable swagger in their spectacular clubhouse. 

It’s worth noting here that, much like the area around Utrecht de Pan, Wassenaar, the small town north of the Hague where the course is technically located, also hosts many of the country’s wealthiest families. Indeed, the Dutch royal family has homes here, having been based largely in the Hague for centuries. Unlike Utrecht, whose power and wealth comes from merchant trade, the Hague is more genteel. It’s a pretty city that houses the International Court of Justice and multiple offices of the United Nations. It is a city of diplomats, embassies and high-end multinational civil servants who mix it up with the royal court. This naturally spills into the golf club, where the members are wealthy and powerful. It’s a different type of confidence. At Royal Hague, the members are refined, but they are not shy or retiring. And it shows in the bombast of the course.

The trouble is, despite the course’s considerable charms, I didn’t like it. The reasons are complicated, but mostly I just found it irritating. I’ve never been a fan of the “hard equals good” maxim, and Royal Hague is betrayed by a lack of playability. It is pretty and exciting, but it is also convoluted and lacking in patience. In many ways, its origins as a middle finger by a snubbed man to a club that denied him are evident throughout. It tries too hard, and in doing so loses a sense of decorum.

Does all that mean Royal Hague is not a good golf course? Absolutely not. It’s still superb. And I am convinced a second round, perhaps with a guide who knows the course intimately, would yield a more favorable reaction. But the best club in the Netherlands? It’s not even the best club along that coast.

Noordwijkse Golf Club

The Winning Argument golf in holland the netherlands

Ingeborg Slikker, a Noordwijkse member and my host for the day, is the type of golfer I’ve always gravitated toward. She doesn’t play for status. She doesn’t care if someone turns up in a Ferrari. Nor, thankfully, does she mind if her playing partners aren’t playing particularly well. She cares about golf, and when you play with her, that’s what you talk about. Inge is the kind of person who could spend hours talking golf history, moving the conversation to course architecture through lunch and then getting into another 18 holes discussing rule changes as the sun goes down. That’s my jam. And Inge’s favorite subject is Noordwijkse Golf Club.

It lies about 30 minutes to the north of Royal Hague, smack in the middle of that sea of enormous duneland. Developers and architects would salivate over the quality of golf course that could be built here—there appears to be room for a legion more—but only Noordwijkse has been constructed in the last 90 years. And even that was not easy. Originally formed inland as a nine-hole club in 1915, that course was requisitioned by the local government for housing. Plans to build a new course on the present site were cleared in 1959. Construction, however, did not start until 1969, and the course finally opened in the early 1970s with Frank Pennink at the designing helm.

Today the course sweeps from the sand dunes of the coastline into a pine forest, then back into the dunes for a spectacular finish. It’s topsy-turvy golf, more akin to the massive, roller-coaster dune courses in Ireland than the flatter strategies of Scottish golf. The course specializes in intricate second shots, holes where your tee ball is funneled into channels and you need to pick it cleanly to send it over gullies, dunes, turns, hollows and hills into tiny greens. 

Time and again, I lined up over an approach and found myself giddy with anticipation. There is just something so pleasing in the bones when having to imagine a shot. Even if you don’t make it, the act of imagination, of “seeing” it, is much more powerful than simply doing. You never dream like that on a straightforward, resort-style course. But you do here. Eighteen times. 

The North Sea can’t be seen from the course, but it’s always felt, and the clubhouse sits on top of a ridge between the beach and the course. Each hole plays to a different angle, so, like Muirfield, you’re rarely playing into the same wind two holes in a row. Even the holes through the pine forest conspire to feel more like Hillside, Carnoustie or Renaissance.

The course is not without its issues. Strict environmental requirements have meant hands have been tied over the years with regard to maintenance and changes. Those trees have grown much bigger since the course was laid out 50 years ago, and the grounds team is not allowed to touch them, no matter how much they ingress across playing lines. The fairways and greens are small because the acreage of maintained grass is closely monitored. Change here must come incrementally.

Royal Hague is, almost unanimously, regarded as the better course. But a club is not just the course. A club is also about people, and everyone I met here had the same passion for the game, for their club and for the changes they want to see implemented. Noordwijkse is a golfer’s club, not a club full of members who occasionally play golf. Everything is secondary to the 7-iron you just hit on No. 3 with the butter cut held off into the wind. Inge and my other new friends, Joris, Charles and Maarten, could talk about that for days in their beach-bum, surfer’s-hut clubhouse. As could I.

Hilversumsche Golf Club

The Winning Argument golf in holland the netherlands

It was the 10th hole. We were on the tee, and before us a patch of heather was roped off. It wasn’t a huge carry, so at first I hadn’t really paid it much attention. Then I noticed it was full of sheep. I looked closer, and there, under a tree, was a shepherd, relaxing in the afternoon sun, with one eye on his flock and the other on his phone. I asked my host, the affable club president Pieter Croockewit, about it. “Oh, we hire them to manage the rogue blades of grass,” he shrugged.

Hilversumsche was founded in 1895 on a separate site, but the club later moved to more fertile ground, with Henry Burrows laying out the first nine and Colt completing the set in the late 1920s. Since then, Guy Campbell has had a tinker, and Kyle Phillips hardened the course for pro tournaments. Of the Dutch courses I had blathered on about over the years, this was the one people occasionally recognized from TV.

Hilversumsche has hosted 30 Dutch Opens for a reason: Every hole is a picture. It’s the heather, the cut of the fairways, the roll of the land, the greens, stretched out in front of you and cosseted in the gentle hands of perfect trees. It winds its amiable way through some gorgeous woodland, crisscrossed by small paths that see day walkers and locals hiking and cycling by. You begin to wonder how one place can be so blessed, and then you remember the sheep.

Hilversumsche is a club where beauty is appreciated and sought, and any help in that endeavor is used with commitment. The sheep are there because they can eat around the heather, where a machine would cut everything to the same level. They take the unwanted grass and leave the heather to thrive. It’s a lo-fi answer to a problem most clubs would ignore, but at Hilversumsche the details count. Where de Pan coaxes and cajoles, Hilversumsche pushes and prods. The effect is no less spectacular. That’s not to say it looks Botoxed. But it feels carved from the earth rather than offered up by it. While de Pan is a work of nature, Hilversumsche is a Michelangelo. Man has made this. And it’s a worthwhile effort.

The club, on the edge of Hilversum town, sits in an area called the Gooi, another traditionally wealthy district, about 20 miles west of Amsterdam. Rising to prominence in the 18th and 19th centuries, the Gooi is an interesting mix of city money and the arts, with Hilversum being the center of Dutch broadcasting for most of the last 100 years. Bankers and actors live here. The rich and famous. Not far from the entrance to the club is the country’s largest Aston Martin dealership. Across the road is the European headquarters for Nike. The area is affluent and cocky, and the club reflects it. The clubhouse may have a thatched roof, but the vast interior spaces, glass walls and Scandi-chic furniture make it feel more like the executive floor of a multinational headquarters than one of the country’s oldest golf clubs.

Hilversumsche, however, does well not to fall into an elitist trap. Croockewit tells me that, every year, the membership takes a percentage of applications from people with no connection whatsoever to the club. “We need new blood,” he says as we walk another pristine fairway. “A club that doesn’t change and welcome new people dies.” Hilversumsche may be old money, but it is forward thinking, and it shows in the course, which has had more tweaking than any other of the great courses in the country. History is important. Heritage is precious. But not at the expense of something better.

As a result, Hilversumsche felt more modern than the other courses I visited—more like a new heathland than a century-plus old one. But the commitment to progress hasn’t destroyed it. Nor has the determination to host so many Opens rendered it unplayable from catering to tour pros. One common criticism is that it lacks depth of design. There are no blind shots and few doglegs. Many holes feel similar. But the counter is that it’s all out in front of you. It’s not a course that wants to trick you. It’s comfortable, but not a pushover. It’s a lovely place to spend a day.

Eindhovensche Golf

The Winning Argument golf in holland the netherlands

My final day took me two hours south of my hotel in Amsterdam to the city of Eindhoven. There is always a mix of nerves and excitement on these blind dates: hope that the course you’ve been researching will live up to or even exceed expectations, but a very real fear that the whole thing could go bust. When I entered Eindhovensche and spotted the unmistakable silhouette of a limited-edition, khaki-and-tan-leather Titleist Linksmaster bag with a Morfontaine logo—a combination I had never seen before—I immediately knew I was among friends. Nobody gets excited about small-run carry bags like proper golf sickos. And it turned out the bag belonged to my host for the day, club member Rob Hoekstra.

Eindhoven is a classic example of 19th-century industrial boom. Hardly a village 200 years ago, it exploded in the late 1800s with factories pumping out textiles and tobacco before the Philips family formed the eponymous electronics company there. By the 1930s, the family was among the world’s wealthiest and had bought thousands of acres of woodland to the south of the city for their own private playground. Not to be outdone by their counterparts in the north, they also employed Colt. He was given free rein, and the result is predictably exceptional. Many will disagree, but I left feeling that it was the best course in the country in pure golfing terms.

Finding ideal ground in the woods, Colt emptied his arsenal. The par 3s, as always, are superb. From short knee-shakers to long-shot big swingers, each one has its own personality. The par 4s are both short and long. Blind tee shots. Blind approaches. Uphill holes. Downhill holes. Doglegs left and right. Tight fairways on some holes. Width and angles on others. Eindhovensche asks every question of any golfer while meandering expansively through this giant estate. It’s quiet perfection.

Eindhovensche members know this, and if members of the other great Dutch courses are being honest with you, they might admit it as well. Yet it is never quite given the recognition it deserves, and in the way snobbish sleights cut deep in second cities, Eindhovensche wears its burden with a visible frustration. Rob, excellent company throughout, flowing with stories and details about the club, bristled at the mention of the other Dutch clubs’ swagger.

There are nits to pick. It’s scruffier than the other courses. The sheer scale of the property probably makes the level of meticulous attention at a place like Hilversumsche impossible. It doesn’t have that just-so prettiness of de Pan. Some of that may stem from a complicated life post-ownership by the Philips family; the fortunes of this club have been less secure than some of the others, but Rob was buoyed by an approved plan of a full restoration. The hope is that the added attention will improve the outside perception. If done correctly, I have no doubt it will.

The bigger question posed here is often one of bother: Is it worth driving all the way down to Eindhoven? While the other courses are in the Randstad, that highly urbanized sweep from Utrecht to Rotterdam via Amsterdam and the Hague, this is a significant drive away, especially as Eindhoven isn’t a historic beauty known for tourism. It will be a forever challenge for the club, but for obsessives like me, two hours to discover something brilliant is worth every minute.

Obscurity, like most things of any value these days, is difficult to maintain. I am far from the only golfer relentless in their pursuit to play the world’s best courses, and the classic clubs of the Netherlands are slowly being pulled out from under their very comfortable shelters. The members of each club I visited admitted that they are allowing more and more guests to tack on a round alongside their tours of canals, tulips and windmills.

Since my first visit, I have already returned to Noordwijkse for another round. Such is the pull of this old-yet-new golf treasure trove. And now when the Netherlands comes up with my golfing friends in the U.K., I no longer bury them with facts pulled from the internet about how many of these courses are finally moving up in best-of lists. I tell them about the next trip I’m planning with Inge, Joris, Charles and Maarten.

The Winning Argument golf in holland the netherlands