Interview Sabine Riezebos, Bernardus Golf

Picture of Michael Althoff

Michael Althoff

Autor: Der Mann hinter dem Bericht

Interview Sabine Riezebos, Bernardus Golf

?          Looking back at the KLM Open: what have been the most important outcomes for Bernardus?


SR        The first edition of the KLM Open was really hard as we just came out of Covid. Therefore, we had to size it down a bit and look at a lot of extra stuff regarding health issues. But we managed it very well and it was a great success, to which the nice weather in September contributed as well. The players were a bit unsecure as it is still a young course and they didn’t know what to expect. But after the first edition they were blown away! They called our practice facilities “Disneyworld” for them, because they had never seen something like this in Europe before. It has also been a really relaxed atmosphere. All this helped us to create an experience, players were talking to others about at other tournaments and highly recommended playing at the next KLM Open. They also supported us via quotes and statements which we could use for our promotions.


?          How important was tv coverage?


SR        People where like “wow, what a place!”. We did have enquiries even from Australia and New Zealand after the broadcasting.


?          How did it continue?


SR        In year 2, the tournament moved from September to May, so we had to host two European tour-events within almost half a year. This required a great, great effort especially from our greenkeeping team. Marketing-wise we already saw that hosting the tournament was really paying off. More people, also from Germany and Belgium, were interested in attending the event. Many golfers also wanted to play the course after they had seen it for the second time on television. So it takes more than one contact to make them book their own round with us. With the playoff for the win, the second edition of the tournament at Bernardus was really special seeing Victor Perez winning in the end. Kristoffer Broberg’s win in the first year was “sports and emotion” pure. People could see how hard golfers have to train and play at this level plus how much impact injuries have. In 2023, European tour asked us to add another year, we hosted it for the last time and were really lucky with the weather – it was another fantastic event. So after three years our marketing mission via the tournament has been successfully completed as well.


 ?         How did the decision to host the Solheim Cup came up?


SR        Robert van der Wallen, our owner, is an entrepreneur through and through and always looking for new opportunities. Also, the Dutch Golf Federation NGF was looking at new events to gain attention, but the Ryder Cup seemed to be a bit too ambition. Interestingly, our course has not been built as a championship course, it is more like a boutique course. By that, capacity for spectators is limited. So three years ago, Jeroen Stevens from NGF and Robert considered hosting the Solheim Cup as more achievable. On ladies’ golf level, this is the highest achievable level globally! It also fits perfectly in the association’s strategy to put a strong emphasis on women’s golf. So we came in contact with the promotors of the Solheim Cup, which is IMG, and introduced them to the Bernardus experience and our efforts on and off the course. Former Captain of Team Europe, Catriona Matthew, was also very impressed by our venue.


?          And how did you manage to win the election process?


SR        I love to tell the joke that this was because we were the only venue with a female general manager (laughing). But in fact, we are promoting a lot of ladies’ golf. We brought up network groups such as our business ladies who came up with wonderful ideas for the future event. We also focused on the question how we could use the event to bring more women into the game – and not only focus on those who already play golf. So our vision is to make this event more than just golf. But of course, golf will be the main ingredient. But our approach will include aspects such as fashion shows or female artists. For instance, we have the best DJ’s in the world, so let’s use them. We are still in a process of brainstorming to create the “unexpected event”, where people want to be part of.


?          How did your experience from the KLM Open help?


SR        You cannot compare it one to one. KLM Open is singles and strokeplay, while the Solheim Cup is team sports and 2 days matchplay and on Sunday Singles. So logistic-wise, it is completely different. The atmosphere is completely different as well, as there are two contintents competing with each other. When I attended this year’s Solheim Cup at Finca Cortesín in Andalucía, I was overwhelmed by the huge crowd showing up at 07:30 in the morning, being dressed up and starting singing and cheering.


?          So you took more input from this year’s event in Spain?


SR        Yes, spending the week at Finca Cortesín was really helpful. But we were also lucky to host multiple Solheim Cup player Anna Nordqvist and asked her, what players are missing at the current setup of such events or don’t like.


?          Can you tell us a bit about her feedback?


SR        Yes, of course. One aspect she mentioned was the sponsors dinner. Of course, such dinners are part of the deal. But she missed interaction during those dinners. Although we highly praise and appreciate the contribution of the sponsors, we are convinced that the players should be in the focus of the event. So one plan is to have these fantastic ladies more involved. We do not want these fantastic sportswomen to be decoration during dinner events and other activities, but to be part of such offers and bring them into the focus. Therefore, we will also try to introduce them more to sponsors and spectators on a personal level. And of course, as with the Ryder Cup, we will also consider how to include their partners and families into the activities around the event. Furthermore, we want our city and neighbors to be involved as well. E.g. the opening ceremony should be a big party for all stakeholders, not just for a limited number of invited representatives and guests.


?          Does this also include the Junior Solheim Cup?


SR        Of course! In Spain, all these fantastic junior players have not even been brought on stage during the opening ceremony! We also want them to be part of the event as well.


?          Are there already other ideas on how your event will differ from previous events?


SR        Of course, but as I mentioned we are still in a brainstorming process. But, for instance, we can imagine to have the teams design their own dresses for the event – not only on-course, but also for the more festive dinners. That’s where our ladies business network comes into play – we have many ladies who e.g. create shoes especially for women, so we could help the teams to manufacture their own designs. I am sure the players would wear those outfits with even more pride than they do with their current outfits. Our main ambition is that the Solheim Cup 2026 shall be about the players, especially off the course.


?          Will there also be some special course set ups for the event?


SR        We will change the routing: current hole #3 will become hole #1. This also guarantees that most matches should make it to the hospitality areas. Most matches finish on 16, sometimes 17 – we want this to happen close to the clubhouse and the visitor areas. So logistics and hospitality will be more and of course more challenging as during the KLM Open. We will do this in close cooperation with IMG, who also did 2019 at Gleneagles.


?          How about sustainability with regards to the Solheim Cup?


SR        We set ourselves a goal that we want to be one of the most sustainable events in 2026! This has to do a lot with necessary permits and stuff as well. One example is nitrogen, where requirements in the Netherlands are much stronger than in the UK. We look further than just golf. If we have a look at the Formula 1 in Zandvoort, they have a great mobility plan, as the host venue is part of a small village. We are in contact with people who have been part of the mobility planning team of this event. We are famous for our bikes. So one option could be that people come by train and then can take a bike for the last mile to Bernardus. We can also imagine using electrified buses or something like that. We are also looking at this aspect on our premises, e.g. regarding a more efficient use of water and the application of solar panels around the golf course.


?          Have there been other venues from the Netherlands applying as host venue for the Solheim Cup or was it straight Bernardus from the beginning on?


SR        NGF was convinced from the very beginning that it must be Bernardus to bring the event to a higher level – which is also the intention by LET and LPGA. Also our location is fantastic, as e.g. some airports are all reachable within half an hour.


?          Are there any plans to build further accommodation for the event?


SR        Even Amsterdam is only one hour away. Eindhoven is only half an hour. There will be a new hotel just five minutes away from Bernardus with 30 rooms. There is enough accommodation within one hour’s distance for sure.


?          What is the roadmap for Bernardus until the Solheim Cup?


SR        We will see some changes on the course, not just the routing. We also have some changes on some holes in mind. Promotors were a bit surprised that e.g. we cannot simply remove trees from the course, as this would require a permit by the local government. For us, it is important that such changes are not just for the event, but will bring us an advantage after the event as well. We had Kyle Phillips, our architect, here recently. Due to Covid he hasn’t been here for four years! He was looking at his course and bring in new approaches to e.g. make it more fun or make it a bit easier. We also consider natural routes people take when playing our course. So we now have IMG’s comments on the course and Kyle’s comments, we will look if this goes together or whether we shall try to find a compromise. Our ambition is to make this course a bucket list course such as Kingsbarns, another Kyle Phillips design. We do not only think 2026, we think 2027, 2028 and beyond.


?          Can Bernardus bring in own partners and sponsors for the Solheim Cup or is this solely up to IMG?


SR        Ping and Rolex are global partners of the event. But we are considering to bring in local partners from the Netherlands as well. We also look at other sport events and ask ourselves “what do people find attractive”? One consideration is bringing in more activity and not just food and drinks. This can be a pro am, but also clinics. We are trying to think out of the box. IMG is very open and happy about suggestions from our side.


?          Will you also have a Solheim Cup edition of your fantastic Bernardus wine?


SR        (smiling) Of course we would love to have one! But it will be a little bit complicated as the Solheim family are Mormons and are not allowed to have alcohol. So maybe we will have a special edition like an alcohol-free wine for the event. Of course there are some additional opportunities for us, but we will have to find out what will work and what will not work. We want to promote the brand Bernardus via the event, not just the golf course.


?          Has the date for the event already been defined?


SR        Not yet. We are dependent on many aspects such as other sports events and broadcasting rights. It will be in September for sure, but the exact date might be published in early 2024. As heather is in full blossom at the beginning of September, we hope it will be in early September, as the course really looks beautiful at that time of the year.


?          Thank you so much for these amazing insights!