Of all the Belgian courses that Tom Simpson has designed, he is perhaps proudest of the Sart-Tilma course, which was officially opened in 1939. The Liège course is a genuine delight. It’s all the more remarkable that the famous British architect, who also designed the courses of Spa, Ravenstein, Mons and Antwarp, was hindered in his creative endeavours by a hostile natural environment and a limited budget. Despite having to clear nearly twenty acres of trees, remove fourteen thousand stumps and add five thousand cubic meters of earth, the challenge was nevertheless overcome. And how…
There was actually quite a high demand for a gold course in the “Burning City”. Most of the great Belgian provinces had a quality course at that time: the Antwerp in Kapellen, Le Zoute and Ostende near the North Sea, the Ravenstein in Brussels, Château d’Ardenne in Houyet and les Fagnes in Spa. The success of Spa golf, which came to an end in 1930, accelerated the birth of Liège golf!
At that time, in high society throughout Liège, tennis was the sport that was practised by sports people on Sundays. That is why the Liège Tennis Club had set up its courts in Angleur, on the wooded flank of the Sart-Tilman hill. A stunningly beautiful place located against a backdrop of greenery. It was in that location, on the terrace of this club to be precise, where a number of members came up with the idea to create a golf course with a view to diversifying the sporting offer and swapping the smash for the drive!
No sooner said than done! Six holes were very swiftly created along the Belle Jardinière road in Angleur, and a further three were subsequently fashioned at “Carpathes”, not far from a rocky peak overlooking Ourthe. One hundred or so passionate golfers were therefore able to start working on their swing. But it was the opinion of everyone involved that this infrastructure was merely provisional.
Carried through at the instigation of Jacques Prion, the inaugural President and real driving force behind the club, and Julien Rasquinet, new land was leased not far from that location to the property company Bernheim. In the process, a cooperative consisting of 400 shares and 5,000 Francs was established. The Sart-Tilman Golf Club was beginning to take shape…
The signature of the architect.
By commissioning Tom Simpson to oversee the major operations and design the new course, the cooperative was spot on to trust its intuition. Simpson was an inspirational architect and set the standards in his field of expertise. The courses of Chiberta in St-Jean de Luz and Spa were notable fruits of his endeavours. Though he was working with a tight budget, he was able to turn Sart-Tilman into an absolute gem.
Using a pencil as his magic wand and in keeping with his major concepts, Simpson designed two loops of nine holes each of which make their way back towards the Club House. The English architect was inspired by multiple “dog legs” as he manipulated the natural surroundings and played about with the trees. Due to a lack of resources, he was unable to bring all the desires of his mind to life but the final result was exceptional nonetheless. On 10 June 1939, when Denise de Thomas de Bossierre, the current Belgian champion, became the first person to tee off, watched by Edmond Solvay, President at that time of the Belgian Federation, the Sart-Tilman Golf Club was certainly on a par with the finest clubs of the Kingdom…
The first Club House was nothing to write home about: it was the former “shed” of the tennis club. But in 1939, the architect Fraikin was called to the rescue to construct a more modern and comfortable Club House, taking its inspiration from the one in Eindhoven.
In their book on the Royal Golf Course of Belgium, the late Dominque Gendebien and Vincent Borremans tell us that the membership fee in 1939 for an adult was 1,000 Francs, 250 Francs for 18-21 year-olds and free for under 18s.
The Second World War obviously threw a spanner in the works in terms of the Liège club’s development. No sooner had it been established than its development ground to a halt. In September 1939, the course was occupied by the German army. Nine holes were even requisitioned so that essential “kartoffeln” could be grown! During this period, only a handful of fanatics, who did not hesitate to come up to the land on bicycle, still played golf on the holes that were not occupied by the Germans.
When the war came to an end, events had taken their toll: several bombs had damaged the course; many holes were unplayable and the Club House had been reduced to ruins! The American army would fortunately assist with the reconstruction thanks to a good deal signed with the club executives: in exchange for their help, the US soldiers could use the facilities free of charge to satisfy their golfing urges! Several dozen German prisoners, detained in Awans, would be compelled and forced to also contribute to the renaissance of the club.
Lee Trevino’s souvenir
Fortunately, the course was restored to its former glory. In 1946, six holes were brought back into use and in the following year, the whole eighteen holes were once again available to the club’s two hundred members. The course – at that time with a par of 74 and a length of 6,174 metres- was eventually able to develop without any major concern. Recognised and appreciated by all connoisseurs of golf, it regularly staged prestigious national competitions and gradually saw a rise in its membership total. It was honoured as a Royal Club in 1962 and an opportunity arose to purchase the land a little later but the board of directors did not take the risk, though it would go on to rue that missed opportunity. The University of Liège would eventually buy the land in 1963. It still owns the premises to this day. The members who hold a stake in the club – which became compulsory – also run the Club via the cooperative.
The “Golden Sixties” were awash with events. Things were swinging at Sart-Tilman, both literally and figuratively especially due to the growth of the steel industry! The “Tournoi de la Métallurgie du Marché Commun”, created by the initiative of Alec de Posson, was highly prestigious especially among foreign players. And the oldest members will still no doubt remember the time when Lee Trevino, one of the most famous American professional golfers, came to the club in 1978. A great occasion…
In March 2011, during a renovation project, fire ravaged through the thatch roof of the Club House and took only a few minutes to leave an unusable set of ruins in its wake.
The sadness shown by the members during the first few weeks in the wake of the fire gave way to a dynamism and enthusiasm which is characteristic of the Burning City.
The Board of Directors would decide to reconstruct with a focus on the future as they adopted a modern project which is more in keeping with the needs of a Club of such a standing.
Three years later, the project was completed and the members said goodbye to their makeshift quarters as they were able to settle into their new home.
“The new buildings are very different Uber-modern and transparent, they allow light to flood in and offer a comprehensive set of infrastructure both for members and visitors alike. Restaurant, terrace, changing rooms: everything has been designed with the comfort of players in mind. We can also host business conferences if necessary” remarks Michel Poncelet.
The hospitable welcome and cheerfulness that you experienced during your last visit will undoubtedly be felt to a greater extent in this new Club House where you are made to feel right “at home”.
The Royal Golf Club of Sart-Tilman, presided by Lothar Knauf since 1995, remains one of the country’s finest clubs.
The course, with its somewhat classic appearance, designed in the midst of pine trees, beech trees and birch trees, conceals a wide variety of traps. But it does remain “fair”. It should be remembered that its undulating and fiendish greens are among the fastest and most impressive that any course in Belgium has to offer. Visitors would therefore be well advised to carefully study flag positions and not to take any undue risks in their approach play, if they do not wish to see their scoring adversely affected from the very outset. And even the very best players will often have to settle for three putts…
“These are greens which have not experienced any great change since they were created. The design, slopes and undulations are identical to those present when the course was created. That is where the brilliance of Tom Simpson resides. However, we were able to add speed to them by careful logging and meticulous sanding operations. We also still use small mowers: it requires greater man power but it provides a better result. But my recipe for preparing our greens is like my own secret garden” explains Michel Poncelet, Managing Director of the Club and distinguished specialist in the art of greenkeeping in his capacity as a horticultural scientist.
But Sart-Tilman also consists of devilish par 4s (holes 5 and 11 in particular), awesome par 3s (hole 2 sets the tone and hole 10 is one of the trickiest) and the famous 14th hole, a par 5 over 500 metres in length whose green is protected by a water hazard and three bunkers! The course provides its players of all levels, first and foremost, with a hospitable welcome, exceptional natural surrounds just 10 minutes from the centre of Liège and a genuine golfing challenge.
“We have approximately one thousand members, who are mostly from the Liège region. The atmosphere is very much family-oriented as internal competitions are held throughout the week (Ladies Day, Seniors Day, etc.) and the weekend (open exclusively to members). Moreover, we have a large number of junior members who have helped to forge the reputation of our youth programme, coordinated by Laurent Richard, as one of the most effective in the country” says Michel Poncelet.
The course record is still held by the Pro Laurent Richard who carded a score of 64! As for Patrick Renard and Christophe Puissant, they have recorded the best amateur score of 66! Most members practise their swing under the watchful eye of the pros, Laurent Richard and Manu Janssens. It is no fluke that the Interclub teams of Sart-Tilman have traditionally been among the most formidable in the country.
The 1st Ladies team is particularly distinguished as it has won the Belgian Interclub Championship on three occasions (2013, 1997 & 1999) and then finished 7th in the 2013 European Interclub Championship which was played in Bulgaria.
If proof of its dynamism was needed, the RGCST will put out 21 teams in all categories of the 2014 Interclub tournaments.
As for Miguel Tasso, journalist for Libre Belgique and Members Only, to name but two, he concludes:
“In short, at 75 years of age, the Sart-Tilman now more than ever bears youthful and modern traits though it does still maintain its winning mentality. What is its secret? It sporting and competitive spirit, symbolised by the fine performances of its Interclub teams. And its good humoured nature in communication. When it comes to the 19th hole, the local players are among the most impressive performers…”