For most ski travelers the Swiss Alps conjure up holiday card images of majestic snow covered mountains and fairy-tale alpine villages. Not surprising, as Switzerland is the birthplace of ski tourism, and has been a magnet for snowsports enthusiasts for more than a century. But this beautiful alpine nation has a magnificent flip side, especially for those of you who contract golf fever when ski season ends and the world’s best golfers drive down Magnolia Lane to play golf at the Masters in Augusta, Georgia (see Masters infographic at bottom).
Switzerland as a golf destination first blipped on my radar during a ski assignment in the glitziest of glitzy ski towns, Gstaad, when I stumbled across a stunning four-star spa hotel called Golf Hotel Les Hauts de Gstaad. My interest peaked (I’m also a golf addict), so I contacted the hotel’s owner Andrea Sprenger von Siebenthal to find out more about golfing in the land of cheese and chocolate. Six months later I found myself standing on a tee box at the Golf Club Gstaad-Sannenland, perched high above the clouds, overlooking a green velvet valley decorated with rustic mountain huts, and the happiest looking cows on the planet!
My Swiss golf safari was a 10-day odyssey criss-crossing the Alps by train, with stops in gorgeous Bad Ragaz, one of Switzerland’s most famous spa towns; the famed Bürgenstock Resort, once a lakeside playground for Hollywood legends Audrey Hepburn and Sophia Loren; Crans Montana – one of the most beautiful stops on the World Cup ski tour; and, the uber-glamourous Gstaad where my journey would begin.
A high altitude course situated at 1400m, the Peter Harradine designed Golf Club Gstaad-Sannenland (built in 1962) was my first swing at Swiss golf. An 18-hole nirvana for lovers of mountain golf, this quiet, semiprivate 5800 yard par 70 course, hugs the natural contours of the rugged mountain slopes it’s built on, and has jaw-dropping scenic vistas everywhere you turn.
The front nine includes three par-5s where you can unleash your driver onto long, lush fairways with unbelievable views of Sannenland and the nine neighboring chalet villages surrounding Gstaad.
The back nine at Gstaad-Sannenland are more topographically tricked out and target-y, with a challenging blind tee shot on the par-4 14th hole, and an imposing tree on No. 15 that my ball seemed destined to tangle with. My favourite hole, hands down, was No. 10, a 296 yard dogleg right that started with a 7-iron launched off an elevated deck over a 150-foot drop to the fairway.
If you’re a skier who follows the White Circus, you know Crans Montana is an annual stop for the women on the World Cup tour and host of the FIS Alpine World Ski Championships way back in 1987. If you’re a golfer you know it as the home of a ravishing course you drool over every September when Golf Channel broadcasts the Omega European Masters, the European Tour’s second most prestigious golf tournament next to the British Open Championship.
I hit Crans Montana just in time for the Vision Art Festival’s inaugural golf tournament at the semiprivate Crans-sur-Sierre Golf Club. The VAF, which takes place in mid-August every year, showcases some of the world’s top urban artists who turn blank building walls into mind-blowing works of art (as I wrote about previously in “Paris of the Swiss Alps“. The tournament itself, is like a psychedelic Magical Mystery Tour, as golfers have to navigate their shots around giant art installations that include pieces like a five story tall unicorn and a four story high rocket ship! Before getting high on a cocktail of golf, art, and fresh mountain air I got to play Crans-sur-Sierre’s famed 6710 yard Severiano Ballesteros course, a track designed by the late, great Spanish links wizard in 1999.
At 1500m above sea level, Crans-sur-Sierre’s Ballesteros course, and its neighbouring 9-hole Jack Nicholas track sit on a stunning alpine plateau overlooking the Rhône Valley with views of some of Europe’s most majestic snow-capped mountain peaks like Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn. The Ballesteros course is not excessively hilly and is easy to walk. The meticulously manicured greens were fast but fair, not unexpected for a course that was prepping for a professional golf tournament in a few weeks time.
Nature lovers have been flocking to the lavish 148-acre Bürgenstock Resort, perched on a stunning forested ridge 500 meters above the deep blue waters of Lake Lucerne since 1873. Some visitors come for the out-of-this-world views of mounts Pilatus and Rigi, two of Switzerland’s most famous peaks.
My draw to this course was twofold. First, to get a sneak peek at the newly refurbished Palace Hotel, the opulent 1904 Belle Époque building Architectural Digest called one of “the best designed hotels opening in 2017” – one of four luxury establishments on the property. Reason number two was to play golf at the resort’s charming semiprivate Bürgenstock Golf Club, where Hollywood icon Audrey Hepburn learned to drive and putt in the 1950s.
Originally built in 1929, Bürgenstock’s unbelievably scenic 9-hole par 33 course was a delight to play! Not super long at 2175 yards, this track’s first line of defense is layout and topography. Golfers here are frequently challenged by uneven lies on tight rippling fairways lined by thick woods, tons of exposed rock, and tough, small undulating greens. I was fortunate enough to play it on two gorgeous, sunny days – one of them with Swiss skier and Olympic downhill gold medalist Dominique Gisin, who is a force to be reckoned with when she wields a golf club, but that’s a story for another day!
My favourite holes at Bürgenstock: No. 1, a 325 yard par-4 that begins on an elevated tee with heavenly views, then plunges into an inferno-like valley with plenty of O.B. on the left, and a devilish blind second shot to an elevated green. The par-3, 145 yard fifth hole is also a visual treat, with a panoramic view of a beautiful peak called the Stanserhorn off an elevated tee box. The drive here has to be precise, as there’s trouble over the back of the hole, and water on the short right, making for a very tight entrance into a tricky two-tiered green.
Another one of this resort’s treasures is a humble little structure called the Blockhaus, a historically-preserved, two-floor house built directly into a cliff with mind-numbing views of the mountains that encircle Lake Lucerne which lies below. This magnificent home’s neighbour on the right is the very same chapel Audrey Hepburn married fellow actor Mel Ferrer in 1954 (Hepburn’s former home is a few hundred meters behind the chapel in the woods). On the left of the Blockhaus – Italian film legend Sophia Loren’s former lake-house. Old Hollywood royalty in the Swiss Alps, oh the parties they must have had at the Bürgenstock Resort in the good old days!
What’s the first thing you do after winning the British Open Championship? Go to Disneyland? Nope…you head straight to a quaint, spa town on the eastern edge of the Swiss Alps called Bad Ragaz the very next day! This may sound like fake news, but no, it’s fact based and exactly what Henrik Stenson did in July 2016 after hoisting the Claret Jug in Troon, Scotland.
I knew I had to put Bad Ragaz on my golf trip to-do list when I first heard about 17 of the world’s best golfers rushing from Scotland to the Swiss Alps to tee it up at Sergio Garcia’s Sergio & Friends charity golf tournament a mere 20 hours after the Open Championship ended. The group included heavy hitters like Rory McIlroy, Justin Thomas, Adam Scott, Rickie Fowler, Luke Donald, Lee Westwood and Rafa Cabrera-Bello, to name a few.
Only an hour’s drive from Zurich, Bad Ragaz is located deep in the heart of Heidi country in the St. Gallen Rhine Valley, and has been attracting wellness enthusiasts for centuries. Garcia’s tournament, as well as the Swiss Seniors Open, an annual stop on the European Senior PGA Tour are hosted by the five-star Grand Resort Bad Ragaz.
The 6250 yard 18-hole par 70 Golf Club Bad Ragaz championship course, designed by Fred Hawtree, this track is a stunner, with wide verdant fairways, reminiscent of the stately tree-lined Jardins du Palais Royal, and the famed grandes allées du Jardin des Tuileries and Luxembourg in Paris.
Bad Ragaz was the flattest of the four mountain courses I played in Switzerland, but was the one that left the biggest impression on my golfing soul. The sky-scraping trees on this course have a majesty and elegance made even more glorious by the massive alpine peaks that pop out of the forest almost every time you approach a green.
– By Michael Mastarciyan. Infographic below provided by golfposer.com
WHEN YOU GO
AIR TRAVEL: There are a host of Canadian and international airlines that fly directly to Zurich and Geneva from all over North America. For this trip, I flew on Swiss (www.swiss.com) to Zurich.