Iceland may seem like an unlikely golfing power.
With short summers and harsh winters, this island in the North Atlantic Ocean isn’t the most obvious location for manicured fairways and greens.
However, Iceland is experiencing a golfing boom unlike almost anywhere else in the world and the golfing culture here could help to reshape the sport as we know it.
Situated half an hour’s drive north of the capital city Reykjavik is Brautarholt Golf Course. Laid out across a dramatic cliff-lined peninsula, Brautarholt is the brainchild of founder Gunnar Palsson.
“This used to be agricultural land, but that had been declining,” Palsson tells CNN Sport. “This land has been in the family for hundreds of years and there were some generational shifts and we decided to build a golf course.”
Do courses need 18-holes?
Opening originally as a nine-hole course in 2011 before expanding to 12, Brautarholt was designed by renowned Icelandic architect Edwin Roald.
Roald has attracted plenty of attention in recent years with his “why 18-holes?” movement, a philosophy that suggests golf course design would be improved if architects worked to create the best course for the space they have, rather than cling onto the “antiquated” notion that every course must be 18-holes long.
“When you have limited resources, you are forced to use what nature has given you,” Roald told Links magazine in 2017. “If only you could break away from the constraints of having someone else tell you how many holes you must build.
“It is the same as writing books, or making movies. Imagine if all books had to be exactly 200 pages, or a film had to last 95 minutes. Would they be as good?”
Despite comprising of only 12 holes, Brautarholt has been internationally recognized as one of the world’s finest courses. In 2020, it was ranked No. 64 in a list of the World’s Top-100 courses by Golfscape, alongside the likes of Pebble Beach and St. Andrews.
With a short golf season in Iceland and long winters, golf clubs in the country are looking to find innovative ways of extending the season and making golf accessible to youth players all year round.
The Iceland men’s football team made headlines around the world for their exploits at the European Championships in 2016, reaching the quarterfinals and qualifying for their first World Cup in 2018. The women’s team also qualified for three consecutive European championships from 2009 to 2017 having never previously qualified for a major tournament.
Much of the national team’s remarkable success has been attributed to the country’s investment in state of the art, indoor facilities and excellent coaching, a blueprint that may end up being replicated in golf.
The GKG Club in Reykjavik is one of Iceland’s largest golf clubs, comprised of an 18-hole course plus a nine-hole, par-3 course. With a thriving junior program and active membership, the club has recently invested in a state of the art $10 million indoor facility to allow members to practice throughout the year.
Situated beneath the clubhouse, the indoor facility consists of a putting green, chipping area and 16 Track Man golf simulators, allowing users to play approximately 100 courses from around the world.
Ulfar Jonsson is GKG’s Sporting Director and has seen firsthand the impact the facility has made. “We see our younger players are getting technically more advanced and better. So we’re seeing better swings.
“We encourage obviously all our players to play as much as they can out on the course over the summertime, but then they can come in here and work on the technique during the winter.”
Having had limited success on the world’s biggest tours, Haukur Orn Birgisson – the president of the Icelandic Golf Union and the European Golf Association – believes that the investment in facilities like the one at GKG could lead to results for Icelandic players at the highest level.
“When you think about it, we have a golfing season that spans for about five, six months. So having indoor practice facilities means a lot and with new technology, these facilities have become so advanced. GKG is a perfect example of that. So now you have club members playing golf in wintertime, albeit indoors and in simulators, but it’s important for their development.
“It’s important for the junior development as well. You can look at football, for example. Fifteen years ago, they started having these indoor football facilities and a few years later, our national teams qualified for the European Championship and the World Cup. So there you go, it’s important,” he says.
The facility at GKG has also provided a valuable social element to the club. “Now, we have an all-year facility – before, it was mainly a summer sport … Now, all the golfers come in and they’re playing with their friends in the simulators, enjoying a meal and a drink afterwards. So it’s been fantastic for the morale of the club,” Jonsson explains.
As well as being acknowledged as one of the finest courses to play, Brautarholt is also looking to become the most sustainable golf course on the planet.
“Here in Iceland, more or less all of our energy is renewable, so we thought it would be a good idea to move in that direction here,” Palsson explains.
Having embraced hydro and geothermal energy, nearly 100% of Iceland’s electricity comes from renewable sources. Looking to take advantage of the country’s clean energy, Palsson has invested in a fleet of 30 automated electric mowers.
“We’re at a point now where mowers running on electricity take care of approximately 98% of the golf course,” Palsson says.
Managing the fleet of small, orange mowers is the job of course manager and head green keeper Einar Jonasson. “Yes, our little friends. They are just a different way of thinking of cutting the grass.”
With a series of cables laid out around the course, the mowers are programmed to stay on the fairways and can be in action around the clock. As well as providing an environmental benefit, they have also allowed Jonasson to concentrate on other elements of course maintenance.
In addition to a carbon footprint that is close to zero, Brautarholt is also maintained without the use of chemicals and with Iceland’s year-round rainfall, there is little need for any irrigation.
“Our golf course is in a spectacular location and visitors come here to enjoy that nature. We don’t want to harm the environment in the anyway possible, so we don’t care if you see any weeds in the fairway, we don’t want to harm anything,” Jonasson explains.
Having recently invested in a state of the art, electric, ride-on-mower for tees and greens, Brautarholt is looking to set a new, sustainable standard for golf course management.
“I think we are the greenest golf course in the world,” Palsson says with pride.
One of a kind
Despite Iceland’s population of less than 400,000, the country is home to a remarkable 65 golf courses – and among them are some of the most spectacular courses you’re likely to find anywhere in the world.
“I would encourage everyone to come to play here,” says Birgisson.
“The nature here is second to none … When you play golf in Iceland, you get to experience that nature as well. You can play golf in lava fields, you can play golf in volcanic craters, on the banks of glacier rivers, with hot springs blowing up like Geysir right next to you with water hazards that are made out of boiling water. You can’t get closer to nature while playing golf.”
With the country situated almost equidistant to the US and Europe, is there any chance of one of golf’s major tours taking a tournament to Iceland in the future?
“One day, it could be possible. Imagine a PGA Tour event being played in the midnight sun that we have here in June and July, it would be fantastic,” says Birgisson.
Given the standard of the courses in Iceland, it’s little wonder that golf has experienced huge growth in the country and now ranks as one of the most popular sports.
“Golf has risen enormously over the past 10-15 years, and we’ve actually almost tripled our numbers in the past two decades,” says Birgisson, “But the last two years have been explosive and now we have over 6% of the entire population that are actually members of a golf club.
“But at the same time, we have probably about 40,000 that actually play golf. So 12% of the population plays golf and that I think that’s – that must be a world record.”
“It’s also worth mentioning that the level of female participation has arisen from 10% to 33% in that time,” he adds.
With participation continuing to grow and innovative new courses and facilities, Iceland is quickly becoming one of the most exciting golfing destinations in the world. With momentum on his side, Birgisson is confident that things are just getting started.
“We couldn’t be happier, it’s safe to say that the future of Icelandic golf is looking very bright.”