Belgium's Royal Zoute Golf Club is situated on the North Sea coast close to the Dutch border. It lies at the heart of an upmarket seaside resort called Knokke le Zoute (in French) or Knokke-Heist (in Dutch). Golf was first played here in 1899 as an offshoot of the Bruges Golf and Sports Club. Harry Colt redesigned the course in 1907 and the club then became known as the Knokke Golf Club in 1909. Royal title was granted in 1925 and, in the process, the club became known simply as Royal Zoute.
After the ravage of World War II, an Englishman – Lieutenant Colonel Allen – reinstated the Championship course and added a second layout now known as the Executive course. The Lippens family were the driving force behind the development of the club and Royal Zoute has since matured into one of the most glorious links courses in all Europe.
This now famous Championship links is still ostensibly a classic Harry Colt design with a traditionally British feel. Appearances can be deceptive at Royal Zoute. The greens are subtle and cleverly protected, and while the fairways look inviting and easy to hit, there are hummocks and contours that can, as on many links courses, take your ball to the places you least expect.
Nick Faldo described Royal Zoute as a "hidden gem" and many other distinguished players have played the links, including Henry Cotton and Arnold Palmer. A number of Europe's Ryder Cup heroes have been successful at Royal Zoute, as it has played host to the Belgian Open on many occasions. Nick Faldo, Darren Clarke, Miguel Angel Jimenez and Lee Westwood have all emerged as winners.
With two loops of nine holes, Royal Zoute breaks from the traditional out-and-back layout for so many seaside links courses of this era. With no weak holes and a fantastic stretch from the 5th to the 16th, this natural course will please not only the links lover but also those who prefer the softer aspect of trees (planted after WW2) which flank a number of fairways. The natural aspects of the course are its primary defences and the rough can be punishing. When the wind blows, you will need a wide range of shots and tactics to score well.
What is especially noticeable at Royal Zoute is the balance struck by the club's greenkeepers in blending the wild nature of the surroundings with immaculate attention to the fairways and greens. They are beautifully manicured and managed, retaining championship condition all year. Several environmental accolades have been bestowed upon the club for their attention to the preservation of the natural flora and fauna indigenous to the area.
No trip to Belgium would be complete without playing the country's premier golf course. Fortunately, visitors are warmly welcomed and the Club President, also the mayor of the town, is renowned for his cordiality. In addition to the main Championship course, there is also an 18-hole par 64 called the Executive course with small and tricky greens which simply adds to the enjoyment of Royal Zoute.