Top golf at the end of the rainbow
Pärnu Bay Golf Links is an ambitious project, one that has been in the works for almost ten years. This summer it was finally ready for play. Golf Travel Journal got a rare treat; we were the very first to play the course.
It is not often that you have a chance to be the first group on the course. Not the first group today, not the first group of the season; the first group ever. Standing on the first tee, looking out over virgin golf territory, you can’t help feeling a bit nervous, a bit overwhelmed. What if I make an ugly divot? What if I make a mess in a sand trap? It’s not like you can blame someone else. You’re it. You’re the first one on the course.
Luckily, we were accompanied by the course designer himself, Finnish golf architect Lassi Pekka Tilander, and his easy going demeanor calmed our nerves. Since he hadn’t yet played the course himself, we let him have the honors on the first tee.
Right from the get-go you get the feeling that money has not been a limiting factor when building this course. Even though the clubhouse was not quite ready when we visited, you could sense that the ambition level is high. And when you step onto the course, that feeling is confirmed.
The entire course has been built up from sand. The land next to the Gulf of Riga is fairly flat, and the fairways have been left fairly level, with only small undulations. The greens, however, have been more aggressively shaped, and often feature several different levels. In addition, they are well protected by numerous sand traps, built in links style with lots of overhanging “beards”.
Actually, to be more precise, the course has no sand traps at all. All sandy areas on the course, and there are many, have been designated as “waste areas”. This means that you can ground your club and take practice swings, and you don’t strictly have to rake (although I think you should). For being waste areas the look a lot like sand traps, though.
Another distinguishing feature is that all fairways have only a single cut, there is no second cut between the fairway and the rough. Many of the holes are lined with rough on one side, and giant sand traps (“waste areas”) on the other. The rough is very links-like, so you most often have no problems finding your ball. Because of the single cut, there are no tee boxes. This leaves it open to the green keeper to put the tee boxes wherever it makes sense for the conditions of the day or the tournament at hand. This I think will be a very nice feature to keep up the pace of play, even when conditions are rough.
The course runs back and forth along the edge of the forest, with a nice mix of par threes, fours, and fives. Most of the holes look fairly easy from the tee, but fairway “sand traps” and large waste areas come into play on most holes, severely limiting your options if you want to challenge the holes. With the option to move the tee boxes around, this makes it possible to configure the course to suit any player, regardless of ability.
The course finishes with a beautiful stretch of holes along the water of the Bay of Riga. Hole 14, a par 3, takes you out to the coast, and then holes 15 to 18 play parallel to the beach, with a forest of tall pine trees on the inland side. This part of the course faces south, so you will have sunshine on these holes throughout the entire day and into the sunset hours. A beautiful finish.
The clubhouse wasn’t quite finished when we visited, but the main structure was in place so we could walk around and get an idea of what will come. Situated with a panoramic view over the Bay of Riga and the 18th green, it looks like it will be a stunner. Just as at Saare Golf, the lower level will have the pro shop and changing rooms, and the top level will house the restaurant and bar. The top level will also have a terrace around the entire clubhouse, so that you can sit in the sun any time of day if you so desire.
With the course being build on sandy soil, it is expected that it can remain open for most of the year, longer than most courses at this latitude, something that we got a hint of when the heavy rain from earlier in the day we played the course quickly drained away.
So how do we rate the course? Normally we rate golf courses on a scale of 1 to 100. On this day we departed from that system and used a simpler method; I gave Lassi a big congratulatory hug. The course is that good. I think it could contend for Best New Course in Europe. Don’t miss it.
Pärnu, summer capital of Estonia
The course is located about 10 minutes from the center of Pärnu, the “summer capital” of Estonia. This is the place you want to seen in the summer, Estonia’s own Riviera.
As you approach the town after the 90 minute drive from Tallinn you drive along the wide Pärnu River. Just as the river is about to meet the sea it makes a sharp turn and runs parallel to the coast for a few kilometers, creating a small peninsula. This is where you find Old Pärnu, with the old town, the many spas, and the old Jugend-style houses along tree-lined boulevards running down to the wide, white, sandy beach. Pärnu is a romantic town where things progress in a nice relaxed tempo, perfect for an afternoon stroll, a bike ride, or a nice morning run along the beach. It is no coincidence that the number of inhabitants multiplies tenfold in the summer. The beach is excellent, and combined with one of the many spas you’ll feel like a new person after a few days.
If you travel from other parts of the world to Estonia, you will most likely first arrive in Tallinn. And just outside Tallinn is another championship course designed by Lassi Pekka Tilander; Estonian Golf & Country Club. The course opened in 2006, and has proven to be one of the best courses in Estonia. Don’t miss it if you have an extra day in Tallinn.
Another worthwhile detour on your way to Pärnu is Saare Golf on the island of Saaremaa on the west coast of Estonia, about a three hour drive from Tallinn. Saare Golf is just outside the town of Kuressare, a popular destination for outdoor activities. Kuressare is also famous for its many spas.
Saare Golf is a quality golf course, with a bit of a links feel to it. This may be in part due to the prevailing westerlies, sometimes quite strong, which add quite a bit of difficulty to the otherwise fairly flat course. It also features large ondulated greens, another hallmark of links courses. You won’t find Saare Golf on any of the major golf rating sites, so (even though I hesitate to use the expression) I will label this a “hidden gem”.
You can play all three courses, and tour historic Tallinn, on an extended weekend. Arrive in Tallinn the morning of day one and tour the city. Drive to Saaremaa and play Saare Golf on day two. Continue to Pärnu on day three and play Pärnu Bay. On day four, return to Tallinn, play Estonian, and fly back home in the evening.
- Visit Estonia
- Pärnu Bay Golf Links
- Saare Golf
- Estonian G&CC