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Weather is pushing Swiss to consider golf as winter sports decline

Clive AgranBy Clive Agran,

LAKE GENEVA, Switzerland -- Switzerland has produced a number of top sportsmen and women. Although mostly skiers and skaters and that sort of thing, don't forget Roger Federer, the reigning Wimbledon champion, who is clearly as comfortable on grass and clay as he is on either snow or ice.

However, it's hard to think of a famous Swiss golfer, probably because golf comes some way down the list of popular Swiss sports. Even minority activities such as mountaineering and hang-gliding are several thousand feet above golf in the Swiss sporting consciousness.

But all that may soon be changing, not so much because of the irresistible appeal of the Royal and Ancient game, but as a consequence of climatic forces which are obliging both cold fronts and glaciers to retreat. The weather, once as reliable as the legendary Swiss railways, has become frustratingly unpredictable.

Unreliable snow has sent winter sport revenues sliding downhill faster than a four-man bobsleigh and is obliging ski resort operators to look to alternative sources of revenue.

At the moment, golf complements skiing by using some of the tourist infrastructure that might otherwise lie dormant during the summer months. That's not to say that taking a chairlift to the first tee is a feature of Alpine golf, but if global warming continues unabated maybe the "blood wagons" that presently transport winter sports' victims to hospital might be converted into drinks' trolleys and rescue thirsty golfers sweltering beneath the unrelenting Swiss sun.

And, who knows, the Swiss Army knife might one day include a pitch mark repairer.

The area around Lake Geneva is renowned for its warm summer weather, is a popular tourist destination and seemed a suitable place to begin an investigation of what Switzerland has to offer the golfer.

Golf Parc Signal de Bougy is roughly halfway between Geneva and Lausanne on the north shore of Lake Geneva.

It's a public facility that was expanded from nine to 18 holes last year. The original front nine offers superb views of Lake Geneva as it gently weaves along the side of the mountain. Although there are a number of tricky drives and tight approaches, there is more room than you might imagine and none of the holes would terrify even a humble hacker.

Although further up the mountain, the back nine is not too stressful either. Perhaps the most unsettling aspect of the course is the profusion of white OB marker posts. Quite why there are so many is something of a mystery. They are not just there to discourage the cutting of corners and it might be that their principal purpose is to spare players the need for forlorn searches in impossibly thick grass.

They might also be seeking to protect neighbouring farmland by endeavouring to ward off the errant golfer, but their presence is a near constant concern. The fact that the 100m from the green posts are also white, serves to both heighten anxiety and confirm the suspicion that the Swiss are unimaginative when it comes to choosing colours.

Although a couple of the climbs from green to tee were a bit stiff, Signal de Bougy is a good loosener from both a physical and golfing perspective.

Further east around Lake Geneva, not far from Montreux, is Le Golf de Lavaux.

It's about the same 700 metres above sea level as de Bouchy and is surrounded by spectacular mountains. Although the fairways are generous, impenetrable rough is never very far away.

The only consolation in losing a ball in the deep stuff is the chance to admire an amazing variety of wonderful wild flowers. Again there is an abundance of out of bounds, probably to appease neighbouring farmers by appearing to discourage trespassers.

Nothing short of a crossbow, however, was going to stop me from retrieving a comparatively new Titleist from the maize field just left of the 10th fairway.

At 6,700 yards off the back, this is an excellent course with superb greens to match the stunning views. It's undulating rather than mountainous, making pulling a trolley both practicable as well as more environmentally friendly than polluting the pure air with buggy fumes.

Only the climb up to the 17th tee pushed the pulse-rate above the medical equivalent of Mont Blanc, but the effort was rewarded with a delightful downhill par three that, with the heart still pounding, was difficult to club.

Only 137 yards from the white tees, the calculation was a complex one when account was taken of the stiffish breeze coming up the valley, the elevated tee and a frog-filled pond at the front swallowing anything short.

The stroke index of nine suggested this was no straightforward flick and none in my three-ball hit the target.

To balance things up, there are a couple of meaty par fives: the 12th is comfortably over 600 yards off the back and mostly uphill, while the 14th is not much shorter.

Neither, however, is a slog. Sandwiched between them is the toughest par four on the course, requiring a long approach over a pond which must have more balls in it than there are cuckoo clocks in Switzerland. The greens were quick and true and the course was in fine condition.

Intelligent use has been made of the changes in elevation to provide an interesting variety of holes and a memorable experience in a, literally, breathtaking setting.

From here on it was uphill, in every sense of the word. At nearly 5,000 feet, Villars is a genuine mountain course to the extent that crampons are probably more practicable than soft spikes.

The clubhouse doubles as a skiers' restaurant in winter and if you ever wondered what a ski resort looks like in summer, then a visit to Villars will quickly reveal everything you wanted to know. Even the static chairlift with its empty seats swaying in the breeze eerily evoked mental images of a world full of bobble hats rather than wood covers and mogul fields instead of fairway bunkers.

Provided you remember to keep your knees bent, your weight on the downhill ski, I mean er… foot and you're not fazed by having the ball significantly above or below your feet, then you will probably enjoy this undoubtedly different course.

Although most of the fairways were uncomfortably tight, the holes were not terribly long. Venture off piste into the rough and you might not emerge for quite some time, and, when you do, it will most probably be without the ball.

Even the most dedicated of hikers might be advised to opt for a buggy as some of the walks from green to tee were truly Alpine in their incline. However, if you do decide to drive, try not to allow the stunning vistas to distract you from the road ahead as the signs to the next tee are easily missed and a wrong turn might waste a lot of time, which would be better spent sitting on the clubhouse terrace watching golfers negotiate the black run that is the final hole.

Although nearly 400 yards long, the combination of the rarefied atmosphere and steep gradient render it reachable from the tee.

Undoubtedly one of the best places to play golf in Switzerland is at the famous winter sports' resort of Crans Montana. The Crans-sur-Sierre Golf Club has both an 18-hole Ballesteros course and a nine-hole Nicklaus course. It's easy to see why Greg Norman described it as "by far the most spectacular tournament site in the world".

Originally created and developed by a couple of Englishmen nearly a century ago, the course first hosted the Swiss Open in 1939, when it was won by the splendidly named Frenchman, Fifi Cavalo. Revived in 1948 after the disruption of World War II, the tournament, later to evolve into the European Masters, has been held in Crans-sur-Sierre ever since.

Seve Ballesteros, who redesigned parts of the course, particularly the greens, in the mid-90s, is among an illustrious list of past winners, which includes Jose Maria Olazabal, Craig Stadler, Nick Price, Nick Faldo and Ian Woosnam.

Renowned for the prodigious distances the ball is struck off the tees thanks to the altitude of 5,000 feet, the European Masters could witness the first sub-60 round in a European Tour event despite the fact the course measures 7,000 yards off the back.

The present course record round is an astonishing 60 by Baldorino Dassu, and there's a plaque on the 14th to commemorate an albatross two recorded by Billy Casper in 1971. At these heights, almost anything is possible.

But it's not just the altitude that makes the course memorable. The holes, which cut through the coniferous forests, are varied and require a rich array of shots. The turf is lush, the greens are true and this gently undulating course is an absolute pleasure to play on right through until it snows in mid-November. Indeed, if global warming maintains its seemingly inexorable progress, one day, all too soon, it might be possible to play a round on Christmas Day.

Lake Geneva

The area around the northern shore of Lake Geneva is known as the Swiss Riviera and is a truly beautiful part of Switzerland. The gentle rolling hills, which seem to rise from the waters of the lake, are covered with neat terraced vineyards and dotted with picturesque little villages.

From the higher vantage points, you can see the distant peaks of the Bernese Alps and the dramatic views of the French Alps dominated by Mont Blanc.

The region has one of the sunniest and mildest climates in Switzerland. Local culinary specialities include fillet of lake perch and, of course, chocolate (Vevey is the home of Nestles).

Lake steamers and boats provide transport around the lake and the opportunity to travel in style and admire the superb scenery in a relaxed way. Please note, however, that the service is reduced from the end of September until the end of May.

Off the course

Take the "Panoramic Express" train through the scenic Golden Pass to the villages of Chateau d'Oex, Gstaad or Lenk. Or ride on the "Chocolate Train," a nostalgic Pullman Express, which goes via Gruyeres to the Nestle factory on Mondays and Wednesdays from June to October.

Take a tip and skip breakfast so as to leave more room for the chocolate tasting! If you feel a little bloated after your visit, walk it off by strolling along the lakeshore footpath.

For a more testing walk, take the cogwheel railway up through vineyards at Les Pleiades for another stunning view and a variety of well-marked trails.

Aigle has a wonderful chateau and wine museum and loads of excellent restaurants and wine-tasting opportunities. If you like a good view, few can rival the spectacular scenery at Rochers-de-Naye, which towers over 2,000 metres above Montreux. There's also a lovely Alpine Flower Garden.

Remember your passport but don't bother with sea sickness pills (it's only a lake, remember) and take a boat trip from Ouchy to Evian in France, which is famous for both its water and hosting one of the most valuable golf events on the Ladies' European Tour.

Ouchy (on the edge of Lausanne) is also the Olympic capital. A walk around the museum will give you a better appreciation of the astonishing feats Olympians perform. There are all sorts of famous shirts, equipment and old film footage to admire and enjoy.

On Saturdays and Sundays you can take the steam train from Blonay to Chamby and visit the steam train museum.

Towns and cities

Lausanne offers an interesting melange of old and new from the old town set up on the hill above to the new, livelier lakeside area known as Ouchy.

Montreux has an impressive air of grandeur with its elegant hotels and broad lakeside promenade. There are attractive shops, outstanding restaurants, lively cafes with open air terraces and an outdoor market once a week.

Visit the 13th century lakeside Chateau Chillon on the outskirts of Montreux, which was immortalised by the poet Byron. There are also some delightful walks through woods, vineyards and flower-filled meadows on the slopes behind Montreux.

Vevey is an elegant resort nestling at the foot of the hills on the shores of Lake Geneva. Linked with neighbouring Montreux by a regular trolleybus service, its medieval old town is a fascinating maze of narrow, cobbled street and picturesque squares.

There are two weekly open-air markets as well as an excellent choice of shops, cafes and restaurants, and from mid July until the end of August there is a folkore market with wine tasting and traditional music.

Driving to Switzerland is straightforward. There are well sign-posted motorway routes via France or Belgium and Germany which make it possible to reach the Swiss border in just over eight hours from Calais. Alternatively, you can take it at a more leisurely pace with an overnight stop in, for example, Reims.

Places to stay

Hotel Aulac
Place de la Navigation 4
1000 Lausanne 6
Tel: 00 41 21 613 15 00
Web: aulac.ch
email: aulac@cdmgroup.ch

Hotel du Golf
CH-1884 Villars-sur-Ollon
Tel: 00 41 24 496 38 38
Web: hotel-golf.ch
email: info@hotel-golf.ch

Although in his 60s, with a handicap of 15 and lifetime earnings comfortably below $100, Clive Agran nevertheless still believes he can win a major. Arguably England's most gifted golf writer, when not dreaming of glory he's scouring the globe simultaneously searching for lost balls and great golf courses. Follow Clive on Twitter at @cliveagran.

Any opinions expressed above are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the management.

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