Parnu Bay

Parnu Bay

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It’s nothing more than a deep, hearty, solid thump. Hardly Mozart, the Beatles or Miles Davis. But to lots of golfers, there is no better sound. It is heard only when an iron meets the unremittingly firm, low-shaven turf that covers a truly sandy site. And part of the enjoyment and satisfaction is that it is so uncommon. There are famously few true links courses in the world and I would argue even some of those classified as such don’t always offer this pleasing iron-on-turf crescendo.

Heathlands certainly also give us the same pleasing noise – and accompanying sensation – but they are also in a minority.  In Continental Europe the scenario is even more rare. Even on courses that you might have read elsewhere are links, they aren’t really and do not elicit this same satisfying feeling.

This scenario is what made the first iron shot at Parnu Bay such a gratifying development.

I have no idea whether the ball found the green or the score I made on the 1st, but I can remember the feeling that was translated from the clubhead up the shaft and into my hands.

Parnu Bay is a heaven-sent mass of sand and fescue grass that covers a narrow strip of land on the edge of the eponymous bay that forms the northern part of the Gulf of Riga.

It was no different to the one enjoyed when you strike a ball from the turf of Muirfield, Sandwich or Portrush, and informed us we were in for a memorable four hours.

To find an authentic links in Estonia might have been a surprise but that is what Parnu Bay is, a heaven-sent mass of sand and fescue grass that covers a narrow strip of land on the edge of the eponymous bay that forms the northern part of the Gulf of Riga.

It is a breathtaking location for a golf course, every bit as awe-inspiring as continental superstars such as Bro Hof Slott. The pictures on these pages are certainly not misleading.

It really is as spectacular in reality as it looks, the gently undulating linksland sitting on the water’s edge and being decorated with towering pines.

The scenery and especially the sand are of course helpful in creating a world-class course, but there are plenty of examples of good sites being under developed.

Here, though, the potential has been realised – and as has been often the case with the more prominent modern designs in continental Europe, there is a successful businessman behind the project.

This time it was Peter Hunt, a Swedish-Estonian entrepreneur who started a successful textile company in Estonia soon after the disintegration of the Soviet Union.

The man behind the project

Hunt is a hard-core sports nut for whom investing in sports is for the love of the game, not about making more money. As well as golf, his heart beats for football. In his hometown of Norrköping, Sweden, he is the chairman of the local team which play in the country’s top league.

Naturally, he is also the man most responsible for the town’s disproportionately huge football stadium. And he’s made a success of it, guiding them in 2015 to their first Swedish championship in 26 years.

Tilander was naturally excited – “it was a golf course architect’s dream” – when he first inspected a site that comprised sand, 180˚ of coastline and heathland.

In 2005 he purchased a ‘half-finished’ golf course from developers, assuming it would be ready for play within two years. Soon, however, it became apparent that work done on the course, starting with the original design, was largely unusable. Further issues such as permit problems emerged and it took several years to straighten everything out.

Indeed it wasn’t until December 2010 – four years after they had first been in contact – that he was able to engage the man who would design his course for him, Lassi Pekka Tilander.

Parnu Bay

Tilander hails from across the Gulf of Finland in Helsinki and had previously designed two courses in the country including then-No.1 Estonian Country Club.

He was naturally excited – “it was a golf course architect’s dream” – when he first inspected a site that comprised sand, 180˚ of coastline and heathland. However, all was not quite as straightforward in reality.

For a start, the fact the property is so long and narrow (1.5km by just 400m) and with the clubhouse location fixed at one end of the property, meant many of the holes would run on a north-south axis. This kind of uniformity is not to the liking of many architects and certainly not one with the flair of the creative-minded Finn.

The site’s low-lying nature and the possibility of a rise in sea levels during autumn storms meant sand had to be taken from other areas to build up all of the course to above 2m.

The challenge is ramped up a notch on and around the greens. The surfaces are multi-tiered with consistently bold movement while the run-offs are often unforgiving but always entertaining.

That said, the fact it was sandy meant Tilander knew he could be as innovative as he desired and piece together the course he had always dreamed of creating.

His creation is very much in vogue; Tilander’s philosophy – seen at other designs such as Gorki Golf in St Petersburg – is aligned with that of the game’s prominent designers such as Coore-Crenshaw, Tom Doak and Gil Hanse.

At Parnu Bay, it manifests itself in encouragingly wide playing corridors which are lined by nothing more penal than sandy waste areas. As a result, there is little time spent looking for balls and little chance of losing them altogether.

 The challenge is however ramped up a notch on and around the greens. The surfaces are multi-tiered with consistently bold movement while the run-offs are often unforgiving but always entertaining.

And just at the likes of Hanse’s Castle Stuart, there is an onus on positioning your shot off the tee in order to play your approach from the optimum angle.

Higher handicappers can thus be thrilled by the sight of their ball bounding away along the firm ground even on mis-hits but single-figure players know they need to find the premium line in to give them the best chance to hold the firm, undulating surfaces.

Crafting the desired raw look

This minimalist philosophy is always Tilander’s preference, but would have had to be favoured anyway as a result of the limited resources the architect had at his disposal during construction.

The focus of the work necessarily had to be on the green complexes and bunkering (which is rough-edged and deep) while the wide fairways were shaped only as much as was absolutely mandatory for draining.

In this respect Tilander and Parnu were helped in having a master craftsman controlling the bulldozer.

Lead shaper Mick McShane, a Scotsman with a larger-than-life reputation and a CV (including the likes of Kingsbarns and Castle Stuart) to match, has made a superb job of creating exactly the raw look Tilander desired.

The Finn wanted a classic feel in every respect. So, he was keen that the lakes that were necessary for drainage once the land was raised were not in play and the walks between the greens and tees are as short as you will experience on a modern course other than from 6 to 7 and 12 to 13.

My favourite on the front nine might be the 8th, much more than a gorgeous-looking driving hole from the tee.

The par-72 course, which can play from 5,150 to 6,757 yards, starts as it means to go on, with a wide open par 5 that ends on a funky green.

Combined with that exquisite first ball-turf strike, you already feel intoxicated by Parnu Bay, but soon realise that as good as the 1st is, it is by no means one of the best holes.

The 3rd is an even better par 5, part of a 5-3-5-3 start that sees you challenged by the multi-portioned green of the 2nd and enchanted by the heather-and-pine strewn 4th.

My favourite on the front nine might be the 8th, much more than a gorgeous-looking driving hole from the tee.

It might be only 330 yards off the white tees, but a greenside bunker on the right makes for an awkward entrance to the green of this beautiful and strategic par 4.

From raw potential to success

On the back nine you’ll love the huge scoop out of the back of the huge par-5 10th green and the three super par 3s: the cleverness of the ‘kick in’ approach on 11; the sea breeze-dominated 14th and especially 17 along the coast.

This half, though, is dominated by par 4s. First there’s an unintentional tribute to Woking’s iconic 4th on the brilliantly bunkered 12th.

In the sphere of modern courses in Continental Europe, Parnu Bay rubs shoulders with the very, very finest.

Then there are three sporty 4s at 13, 15 and 16 that off the whites total fewer than 1,000 yards, yet prove that holes don’t need to be long to be challenging or entertaining.

Parnu Bay does end with a long hole though, played down the tightest fairway between pines and the water towards the handsome clubhouse. It is a worthy climax.

The experienced Peter Nyberg, an urbane Swede formerly of Bro Hof Slott, runs Parnu Bay for Hunt and is making the most of what Tilander, McShane and most of all nature left.

In the sphere of modern courses in Continental Europe, Parnu Bay rubs shoulders with the very, very finest.

Chris Bertram

 

Information

Lassi Pekka Tilander

+372 44 33 030

Pärnu Bay Golf Links , Reiu Village , Häädemeeste , Pärnumaa , Estonia