The Omega European Masters is held every year in the stunning Swiss Alpine resort of Crans Montana, at an altitude of 5,000ft (1,500m). The 18-hole Severiano Ballesteros course challenges the best players in Europe with a combination of testing design, and the particular demands of high-mountain conditions.
RSNG spoke to local expert and pro golf coach Stéphane Barras, the son of Swiss golf champ Roger Barras, for an insider’s guide to taking on the 18-hole challenge yourself, amid the grandeur of the Valais’s 13,000ft peaks...
Take It To The Mountain
Walking around the Swiss resort of Crans Montana with its pavement cafes, restaurants and boutiques, it’s easy to forget that you’re in a truly high-altitude, mountain environment. This means that the golf ball you are used to playing at sea level will fly, and even bounce, differently.
“At 1,500m the ball will fly further than at sea level, so you have to adapt your length,” Stéphane Barras tells me. Another weather wrinkle to factor in is the dryness of the Valais region, as a whole. “The course is generally not very wet, so balls will not pitch on the green, but they will tend to bounce and roll. So there are often long putts to be played on the Ballesteros – it requires a lot of precision, and a bit of luck.”
The experts know that you shouldn't attack the greens, because the terrain goes downhill after each hole
Don’t Go For The Flag
Barras warns that if you fail to adjust for the altitude, then the Omega European Masters, Ballesteros course is likely to punish you. Not only will you make the results of any bounce and roll more extreme, but you may be caught out by the courses’ general typography.
“The experts know that you shouldn't attack the greens, because the terrain goes downhill after each hole,” says Barras, who is also the founder of Caddie Player. “So you have to avoid going for the flag, and be very precise about length.”
Avoid A Soaking
Unsurprisingly, Barras says it pays to study the course beforehand to become aware of the various obstacles. Fortunately, he doesn’t see these obstacles as necessarily decisive, although he does note a couple of possible dangers: “The water on holes 12 and 14, are particularly difficult to avoid.”
While we’re talking about hole 12, Barras says this one in particular is often underestimated, and can catch players out for another reason, especially if they have taken on board his previous advice: “Often players take a wedge, a club that brings a lot of spin and backspin to the ball.
“But the tricky thing is that the green on no.12 slopes slightly down to the water just before it, and players get hung up. So this is perhaps the only green where you have to be rather long.”
Out Of The Woods
The Ballesteros course starts off in a forest of conifers, which shelter the first section. “The first six holes are in the forest, and then it opens up,” says Barras. This makes no.7 hole a key milestone on the course.
“It's a very short Par 4, where you can get to the green in one shot, but there's an important factor to take into account: the wind.
“At the start, you’re protected by the larch trees, and you don't necessarily realize that as soon as you leave the forest everything is open and there is often a side wind.”
No.7 is a determining hole on a psychological level – after having held the shot on the first six holes in the forest, players often slack off
The benefits of mental focus are key to a good round of golf, and you set yourself up for a resilient mindset if you prepare for, and capitalize on the shift in the character of the course at the no.7 hole.
“It's a determining hole on a psychological level, because after having held the shot on the first 6 holes in the forest, players often slack off. But if they stay focused and play well on hole 7, they get into an interesting dynamic for the rest of the course,” says Barras.
Sometimes it’s beneficial to know what the pros are shooting for on a course like this, to give you context for your own progress: “In terms of score, ideally a professional player should come out of the forest with -1, be 1 or 2 under on no.7, as that gives you confidence.
Barras knows where a pro would look to go from this foundation of confidence, “You have to hold on to no.14-15 and score a birdie or eagle on each of those holes. That's about -5 on the course, and if they can do that four days in a row, then they win the Omega European Masters!”
Hold Your Focus
Playing 18 holes of golf at high altitude, in the crisp, clear air of the Alps will be more physically taxing than usual, so it’s imperative that you hold your focus going in the last section. In addition, Barras says you need to factor in how the challenge of the course tends to stiffen once you’re out of the sanctuary of the trees, and evaluate how the strengths and weaknesses of your own game will interact with this.
“There are two Par 5s at the end of the course with the long 14 and 15 holes. So that's where it can all be down to the wire and the scoring can change very quickly, either positively or negatively.”
“In practice, it’s difficult to have a real experienced caddy with you. But in general, everyone has a smartphone,” says Barras, who has teamed up with the golf app Hello Birdie. He recommends using this, or another GPS-enabled app, to help you analyze the elevation, distance and wind strength so that you can bring science to the art of knowing which club to reach for.
However you approach a round of golf in Crans Montana, seeing your golf ball soaring across the high alpine blue sky, while breathing in the crisp mountain air and being surrounded by some of Switzerland’s most imposing peaks, is bound to inspire you to greater heights.
How To Experience The Severiano Ballesteros Course
If you’ve been inspired to test your golf skills in the venue for the Omega European Masters in Crans Montana, on either the 18-hole Severiano Ballesteros course, or the 9-hole Jack Nicklaus course, then you can book your tee times directly with the Crans-sur-Sierre Golf Club. Professional lessons are also available at the Golf Academy, year round.
The best way to get to Crans Montana is to fly or take a train to Geneva, and then take the train to Sierre, where you can catch the super-convenient funicular (mountain train) up to the resort itself.
Photos: Crans Montana, Olivier Maire, Deprez Photos, Francois Panchard