|Golf under the Midnight Sun|
|Golf in Finland and The Oulu Golf Club by Jari Rasinkangas|
Golf in Finland
Although golf is not one of the first things people think about Finland, the sport has quite long traditions in this country. The first golf course in Finland was established in 1932 in Helsinki. Golf was very uncommon sport for a long time and only a few small courses were built during the following decades. It took 50 years until the next 18 hole golf course was built in the 1980’s when the first big golf boom occurred in Finland. After that, the popularity of the game has grown very fast and now there are 110,000 golfers and 115 courses in the country.
The golf season in Finland lasts from April to October and it is somewhat shorter in the north of the country. Typical summer temperature is between 20 - 25 degrees Celsius, just perfect for golf. The rainfall is also moderate in summer so the conditions are ideal.
The Arctic Circle crosses the northern part of Finland where the sun can shine non-stop from May until July. It is not uncommon to see players starting their round at 9 pm in the evening. There are also dozens of Midnight Sun Tournaments held each summer that are played all night through under the Midnight Sun.
Oulu Golf Club
Oulu is a seaside town in central Finland located on the western coast of the Gulf of Bothnia at the northern part of the Baltic Sea. Golf has been played in Oulu since 1964, when a group of four friends tried golf the first time on packed snow by the seaside with two self-made irons and 4 real golf balls. Enthusiasm for the game grew quickly and later that year they decided to found the Oulu Golf Club. It really was DIY golf in these early days, but the golf was pure fun and the atmosphere must have been something like it was during the early days of golf in Scotland.
The layout of the Oritkari course that shows also the runways of the airfield. Notice some holes crossing each other and some weird doglegs. Players had no experience in golf course planning
For the first four years golf was played over Oritkari’s grassy airfield for light planes. The players constructed a 9 hole course by themselves in their spare time. The runways were used as fairways and small greens were made on the edges of them. The club had only one part-time employee in maintenance work, so the golfers themselves had to also work on the course. The unofficial rule was that every player must first work for one hour on the course before playing.
At the end of the 1960’s the city of Oulu needed the Oritkari area for industrial development, so the golfers had to start looking for a place for new course. In 1968 a new 12 hole course was opened for play in a local suburb called Kaukovainio. The layout was now more like a modern course and there was even some money to be used for professional contractors. Because of the lack of resources after a couple of years, the club decided to reduce the size of the course back to 9 holes. The quality of the course was better than in Oritkari and there was even a manual irrigation system for the greens. The fairways were quite bumpy though, the clay based soil caused drainage problems and the greens were very small, but the course served well the 150 players during the 1970’s.
The first year of Oritkari course. Greens were hardly constructed at all. Some smoothing of the surface of the runway was done and the seeds were planted
By the mid 1980’s the course started to get too crowded and there was insufficient space for another 9 holes. After long discussions with the local authorities, the Sankivaara area was found suitable for a new course in 1989. Oulu Golf Club had by then some 800 members, so it was decided that the new course would have 27 holes to keep the doors open for new members.
|Now that the Club had enough members and resources, they decided to lift the playing standards for the new course. Accordingly, no more ‘self-made’ golf holes were wanted, so both the design and construction were to be undertaken by professionals. After studying some new courses in Finland, Ronald Fream’s Golfplan was selected to prepare the design following examination of the few courses they had already built in Finland.|
Aerial view of the Sankivaara course
The goal for the design was to create an interesting and challenging course for the club members, with also consideration for championship play. The design was modern and first-rate, totally different to what players were used to on the old course. As the site was long and narrow, it was decided that the 18 hole Sanki course would be a traditional loop of 9 holes out and 9 holes back. The 9 hole course was called the Vaara course.
The construction commenced in spring 1990, going through until August 1991. Most of the work could be done on sandy soil that saved a lot of money – as an example of this all the sand for the root zone mix of the greens was found on the property. The most expensive holes to build were the seven holes that had to be built on wet marshland. The first holes were opened for play in May 1992 and the grand opening of the new course was held on the 18th of July 1992.
|Another 9 holes|
|After a few years of playing the new course the number of members rose quickly to over 1500. The course was again too crowded so there was an urgent need for new holes. In 1998 Oulu Golf Club started negotiations with the city of Oulu to acquire more land for an additional 9 holes, to bring the course up to 36 holes. After three years of negotiations, the land was finally granted and planning could start.|
As all members were pleased with the design of the course, Golfplan were again selected to design the new holes. The first site visit was made by architect David Dale in October 2001, with the final version of Master Plan complete by January 2002. Construction started in May 2002 and the new holes were officially opened in June 2005.
With these new 9 holes the design process was somewhat different than 10 years earlier. Advances in modern technology made it easy to discuss problems and changes in design - modifications to the design were requested and delivered by email. Because the construction budget was low, any means that could assist in keeping the costs down was discussed with the designers. This saved time and money but still allowed the achievement of a good standard of work.
Even though the winter is long and cold, the golf season is actually longer than the skiing season in Oulu. The course opens in the beginning of May and the greens are closed by the middle of October. Play then continues on winter greens until the winter comes in force. Usually play stops sometime during November, but there have been years when the course was open even during Christmas week.
Early winter frost on the 5th hole of Vaara course.
In Oulu the biggest challenge in greenkeeping is the difficult winter conditions. As winter may come as early as October, the superintendent has to start preparing the course for winter already in September. Each year the course gets 50 – 70 cm of snow that creates a perfect insulation for the grass. The temperature can get as low as -30 degrees Celsius at this time. Unfortunately nearly every year a thick ice layer forms under the snow that creates nearly impossible conditions for the grass to survive during the long winter. The mild winds from the Atlantic Ocean warm the weather above 0 degrees Celsius several times during winter. This mild weather and rain create a hard ice cover under the snow that kills the grass over several months.
Due to the usual turf winterkills, the greens now have their fourth grass species since 1992. The greens were first seeded with fescue but that started to thin out and did not perform well under heavy stress. Then bentgrass was seeded but did not survive the winter at all. Another problem with bentgrass was the slow establishment rate in May when the usual conditions in Oulu are not warm enough for bentgrass germination.
Early winter frost on the 8th hole of Vaara course.
Annual bluegrass (Poa annua) was then chosen because it establishes a good putting surface earlier under colder conditions. Because the commercial annual bluegrass seed quality was not good enough to produce a quality playing surface, a new creeping bluegrass (Poa annua var. reptans) variety DW-184 was trialled a few years ago. The results were promising and all greens were then seeded to it. Creeping bluegrass is a biannual grass that can continue its life after winter dormancy, assuming it has survived the winter. DW-184 produces a much thicker and darker green putting surface than the old Poa. It is also very aggressive and it germinates quickly so it helps to get the greens in good condition faster in spring.
|Character of the courses|
|The Sankivaara course is laid out in the beautiful surroundings of Sanginjoki River and the layout flows naturally through pine forests and hilly moors, alongside riverbeds and ponds, making the round a pleasurable experience close to nature.|
On the 9 hole Sanki course the scale is smaller. The fairways are narrower and the big pine trees separate each hole thus giving a natural frame for the holes. After nearly 15 years the course is still challenging and fun to play.
With the new Vaara course, most of the area had much smaller trees and different landform from the earlier course. Additionally, a couple of large lakes were required for drainage and irrigation, so the perspective is much more open on these new holes. To fill these wide open spaces, bigger bunkers and greens were designed with more bold contours used in their shaping.
The following examples show the character of two courses:
|Sanki 9th Hole|
Sanki 9th Hole fits nicely among the pine trees. Only very minor re-contouring was made to flow the surface water off the fairway. The hole has more than 10 metres of sand underneath so no artificial drainage was needed.
View behind the green of the 9th hole
The green was set on the shelf of a small hill to add some challenge to the approach and no bunkers were needed. The rough has local underbrush and sandy areas to complete the natural look of the hole.
|Sanki 13th Hole|
|Sanki 13th Hole is a nice exception to the general character of the old course. The site of the hole was originally flat but it was excavated into an island fairway and green having sand ravines around the perimeter of the hole. The land was cut because the sand was needed for the root zone mix and fill material to keep the project in budget. The hole plays 163m from the back tees and plays into the prevailing wind causing difficulties for most golfers.|
|Vaara 4th Hole|
Vaara 4th Hole is a par 5 that was designed on a rocky hillside. The tee shot plays slightly uphill against the slope of the hill, with the landing area having three large bunkers, two set against a steep rock wall that provides a dramatic background for the hole, while the third one is positioned on the inside corner of the dogleg.
Approach to the 4th hole
Even though the two bunkers “on the wall” look dramatic, they can not be reached by short hitters. It is the third one that every player needs to worry about -long hitters try to carry the deep bunker and the rest of the players hope not to slice their ball into it. The hole continues across a side slope ending with a large green on a shelf on the upslope of the hill. The green is also guarded with bunkers. The big, deep one on the right will add one shot to your score with certainty.
|Vaara 5th Hole|
Vaara 5th Hole is a short par 3 (112 m) that was designed on top of a hill that is full of rocks and boulders that were deposited there during the last ice age, some 10,000 years ago. During the design process there were several ideas about how to make this hole work best. The final solution was to build a huge green of more than 1000 square metres in area between the biggest rocks and remove the smaller ones to give space for turfed areas.
Picture is taken at midnight on the 5th hole of Vaara course.
All the contours on this hole are very undulating to match the natural form of the big boulders. More gentle contours would have made the hole look quite artificial. On this hole the pin position changes the difficulty and playing strategy considerably, even though it is a short par 3. The undulating green is 60m long, providing a number of very difficult pin positions. If you are not 100 % confident when playing at these pins, you’d better aim your shot more to the middle of the green and hope for two putts for your par. Most of the pin positions are quite easy though, so par is a fairly common result on this hole. For birdie you have to putt well because the contours can be most deceptive.
|Vaara 8th Hole|
Vaara 8th Hole is a long par 4 with different playing options. The left side of the hole has a huge waste bunker to give golfers something to worry about if they try and cut the dogleg.
Picture is taken at 10pm on the 8th hole of Vaara course.
As good sand was found on this hole, the waste bunkers were designed to camouflage the extensive sand excavations. To scale perfectly with this large open space, bold contouring was also needed on this hole.
|A Natural Feel|
|Even though Oulu is 200 km south from the Arctic Circle you can still play Midnight Sun Golf during June and July. In these mid-summer months the sun hardly gets below the horizon so the light dims only a little.|
The annual 36 hole Midnight Sun Tournament has been played since the 1960’s and it is always a very popular event. All groups start at the same time at 4 pm and it all ends some time between 3 or 4 am. Because the course is in the countryside everything gets quiet for a while around midnight, with only the occasional bird singing. Then quite suddenly nature wakes up again as the dawn of a new day approaches. Even though the course is only 15 kilometres from the city centre you can feel the Finnish wilderness character on the golf course. The wild life is very lively around the course, and even a bear has been seen nearby a few times.
Jari Rasinkangas has been a member of Oulu Golf Club nearly 30 years. He has turned his long-time interest in golf course architecture and course maintenance into his profession. His company GolfArk provides golf architecture services in association with Golfplan – Fream, Dale & Ramsey Golf Course Architects located in Santa Rosa, California, USA.