Golfing the Swiss Alps
Cheese, chocolate, and a 9-hole Jack Nicklaus course
It’s not just skiing and mountaineering in this landlocked European country.
Situated at one of the world’s most majestic spots, Crans-Sur-Sierre is one of Switzerland’s oldest golf clubs and home to the Omega European Masters.
At 4,900 feet, the historic golf site faces the breathtaking mountain ranges of the Swiss Alps from the Matterhorn to Mont Blanc.
The experience of swinging a club, or attending the ‘Masters’ at this elevated stretch of real estate is only enhanced by the club’s 2 signature courses, the 18-hole Severiano Ballesteros and the 9-hole Jack Nicklaus.
“We are among the top 3 golf courses in Switzerland,” says Club Director, Pascal Schmalen.
The playing grounds trace their roots to 1906 when the owner of the original Palace Hotel, which overlooks the course, constructed the first 9 holes.
The early years saw mainly British aristocrats who made their holiday trips to the ‘Haut Plateu’ (high plateau) for fresh air, scenic views, and a few rounds of golf.
The advent of WWI destroyed those halcyon days and it wasn’t until 1924 when 2 other hoteliers rebuilt the facilities and the Crans-Sur-Sierre Golf Club was founded.
Recognized for its special location and exceptional layout, the club was adopted by the Swiss Open as its home in 1939 and then the European Masters in 1983.
Just steps away from the 1st hole is the town of Crans-Montana, which doubles as a ski resort and venue for international ski competitions during the winter months.
Fashionable boutiques lend an air of elegance, while bars and restaurants add vibrancy to this year-round mountain destination.
“The golf course is part of the town’s DNA and some people compare it to St. Andrews in Scotland,” explains Schmalen.
He adds, “What makes it unique is this flat area in our altitude.”
An A-list of Hollywood celebrities and renowned sports figures have made Crans-Montana their temporary residence and even a permanent home.
In the golf world, Adam Scott and his family are now full-time denizens, while Sergio Garcia still owns an apartment in town after relocating to the U.S.
In a country known for the 3 C’s- cheese, chocolate, clocks- Switzerland seldom comes to mind for golf tournaments, let alone a stop on the European Tour.
It was the savvy and charismatic Gaston Barras, nicknamed ‘Mister Golf’ by his countrymen, who played a crucial role in awarding Crans-Sur-Sierre the ‘European Masters’, a direct reference to the Masters in Augusta, Georgia.
President of the club for 40 years until his death in 2021, Barras was also head of the Swiss Golf Association during the 1990s and an Honorary Vice-President of the European Tour.
On his trips to the U.S., Barras convinced Jack Nicklaus to visit Crans-Sur-Sierre and design a course with the alpine surroundings in mind.
Running 5,971 yards long, the 9-hole par-70 course opened in 1988 and features narrow winding fairways and strategically placed obstacles.
As in all high-altitude fairways, the ball travels 10-15% faster than at sea level.
A decade later, the club renovated its other 18-hole course with Severiano Ballesteros lending the imprints. In 2000, Golf Digest ranked Ballesteros the greatest Continental European golfer of all time.
The Spanish champion, whose career also included 5 PGA Tour majors- Masters (1980, 1983) and The Open (1979, 1984, 1988)- was a familiar face at the prestigious Swiss location.
Ballesteros was a 3-time winner at the Omega European Masters (1977, 1978, 1989) and 4-time runner up. In 1977, he fired a -7(273) to beat American golfer John Schroeder by 3 strokes for the title.
Lined with tall pine trees, the 6,857-yard Ballesteros field offers a panoramic art gallery of snow-capped mountains, deep valleys, and picturesque wooden chalets nestled in the distance.
Golf Digest (2015) named the iconic 330-yard, par-4 7th hole among the world’s 18 greatest. The dog-legged fairway slopes upward on the second shot, leading to an elevated green that is guarded by a series of bunkers.
As the highest hole on the course, the last putt can seem like the final gateway into golf heaven with clouds enshrouding the valley below and white peaks piercing the sky in the horizon.
The European Tour, currently the DP World Tour, typically arrives to Crans-Sur-Sierre in the first days of September. Luxury Swiss watchmaker OMEGA has been the title sponsor since 2001.
The €2.5 million purse is within range of the other continental tournaments, though it pales next to the PGA circuit in the U.S. where the pot starts at $3.5 million and increases to $20 million.
For this reason and because of geographic distance, few successful pros on this side of the Atlantic compete in Europe.
Since 1983, only 2 Americans have hoisted the trophy at Crans-Sur-Sierre: Craig Stadler (1985) and David Lipsky (2014).
More than anything, the European circuit has served as a springboard for Americans who initially failed to qualify for the PGA Tour.
Bruce Koepka cut his teeth across the ocean when he claimed his first 4 professional matches at the Challenge Tour in Spain before graduating to the European Tour where he won the Turkish Open in 2014.
That year, Koepka tied for 3rd at the Omega European Masters, shooting -17(263). Bruce’s younger brother, Chase Koepka, followed the same overseas career path, tying for 35th at Crans-Sur-Sierre in 2018.
Another American who developed outside the country is Peter Uihlein who earned his first win at the Madeira Islands Open in 2013. He tied for 36th the following season at the Swiss mountain top.
Prominent non-Americans who started off in Europe before moving on to the PGA Tour include Louis Oosthuizen, Justin Rose, Ernie Els, and Rory McIlroy.
That’s not to say that Crans-Sur-Sierre didn’t have its historic golf moments. In 2008, 19-year-old McIlroy, coming off 3 consecutive missed cuts, squandered 2 chances to claim victory at the Omega European Masters.
On the 18th hole, the Northern Irishman miscued a 5-foot putt to win in regulation and then bungled on the second playoff hole from only 18 inches away.
A win would have made the teen-age McIlroy one of the youngest pros to raise the trophy at the European Tour. Neverthless, his performance at Crans-Sur-Sierre wasn’t without a consolation prize.
As runner-up, the future golf star walked away with a €178,673 check in hand, plus what else but a €3,500 OMEGA watch around his wrist.
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