Although a golf course was in existence in the sand dunes near Knocke-Heist from the late 1800's, it was not until 1907 when the club employed the premier architect of the time- Harry Colt- to oversee a complete overhaul of the course- that it became known as one of the best courses in continental Europe.
It also received 'royal' recognition in 1925, and changed name to Royal Zoute.
Harry Colt built an impressive portfolio of course designs that stands the test of time and clearly puts him in elite company as one of the greatest architects ever.
Colt had a hand in Pine Valley, Muirfield, Hoylake, Royal Lytham, Royal Portrush, and many more....
At Royal Zoute, Colt made significant changes to both the routing and design of the holes, and moved the clubhouse from the old site near 15th tee, to where it sits today.
Further revision was needed after the damage of ww2, and Lt Colonel Allen was the man appointed. It is also thought that John Morrison may have had some input.
It is known that Colts design originally did not include the existing 3rd hole, but it is not clear whether it was Allen, or Morrison who oversaw this.
Royal Zoute is sited in lovely dunes a few kms from the sea, however the course exhibits characteristics of both heathland and traditional links golf.
When we played in June 2015 the course was unusually hard and fast due to prolonged lack of rain. The routing takes advantage of the rolling dunescape and played similarly to an inland links like Royal Lytham.
However over the years since many trees have been planted, so now the fairways are lined by mature pines, birch and the like. The presentation of the course is such that the long rough is also a feature. This is not a highly maintained course, and I mean that in a good way!
The greens are contoured enough to make life interesting, and yet not overdone. They are normally kept in top condition, and are quite quick, yet true. When we played the fairways were brown, patchy and overly dry, so the ball ran like a real links- firm and fast!
However much of the look and feel comes from the perhaps "shaggy" look of the immediate surrounds to the designated playing surfaces. It is all very natural, and I think it looks great, but it does mean errant shots can suffer indignities.
Balls do seem to be attracted to long grass and thick bush, and at Zoute, one's golf balls have many opportunities to misbehave
Even the bunker edges are a little woolly, and this led to balls stopping in some very awkward spots!
All this aside, Royal Zoute has remained one of the top rated courses in Europe, and hosted multiple championships including the Belgium Open.
I enjoyed the course but thought that although there were no bad holes, there were a few that were a little bland and no more than pleasant. I would put the opening and closing holes in that category.
On the other hand there are a number of excellent holes where the rolling landscape has been complimented by outstanding strategic positioning of bunkering. It is this bunkering that dictates play. It seems errant shots will often leave you short sided behind green side bunkers, and Colt demands all players position and carry the ball to score.
Perhaps this is a tad penal , and not suitable for all players, yet it is consistent with championship golf.
For mine, I particularly liked holes 3, 5, 10 & 14, and thought the stretch of holes from 4 through 16 travelled through some lovely golfing land.
An oddity in my view are twin new bunkers on the dramatic par 3 sixteenth hole. The two deep pot bunkers have absolutely no relationship to the rest of the course, and look decidedly strange.
Royal Zoute has a lovely feel to it, and I would return to stay and play in a heartbeat.
A second course- par 64 is apparently quite good fun, and would encourage a stay of a few days. Staying in the clubhouse was very nice, and I recommend it.
Visitors who consider journeying to Belgium to play Royal Zoute, may consider spending a day or two in the wonderful old city of Bruges only 50 minutes away. Bruges has real character, and history. The canals, cobblestone streets, lovely old buildings, fine dining, shopping, and chocolate make it tourist heaven. My suggestion is to stay at a decent hotel right in the heart of town on the canal- you will enjoy the serenity when all the day trippers leave!
The Travelling Golfer