British expatriates created the original sporting facilities at Golf de Biarritz Le Phare in 1888, establishing an 18-hole golf course for gentlemen, a 9-holer for ladies as well as a croquet lawn, cricket pitch and a number of tennis courts.
The following year, Tom and Willie Dunn were asked to modify the golf courses and their improved design lasted just over thirty years, until Harry Colt was called in to add bunkers and extend the length of a number of holes.
A large portion of the Colt layout was lost during World War II so, unfortunately, the present day course bears little resemblance to the one that was once in play. Measuring a modest 5,400 metres in length, Le Phare is now rated as a par 69 track.
Tree-lined fairways occupy two separate tracts of land, with holes 4 to 9 located on a separate parcel from the remainder of the property and it’s on this slightly detached acreage that you’ll find one of the toughest holes on the card at the 203-metre par three 8th.
The template hole “Biarritz” originated here in France before the ravages of war destroyed it. Known as the “chasm”, the green came into play at the original long par three 3rd hole where a menacing swale dissected the putting surface. Charles Blair Macdonald coined the name Biarritz and the first template copy was built at Piping Rock and replicated in various guises at a number of courses in America, including Yale and Fishers Island.
Le Phare is a coastal course but there’s nothing links-like about the conditions – it’s parkland golf all the way on a tight track that extends to less than 5,400 metres from the back tees, with half a dozen par threes in play, three on each nine. Most of the fairways are laid out within one large property but holes 4 to 9 are located across the main road in their own little compartment.
I really liked the uphill short hole on the 5th, followed by a devious short par four with a couple of bunkers placed well in front of the green to try and fool you into thinking the hole is even shorter than you might think. The long uphill 8th was a rather bland par three (even with its delightful half-moon-shaped bunker to the right of the green).
Architect Stuart Hallett, who has been working on the course for several years now (filling in waste bunkers, cutting down trees and planting others) has told me there are plans to remodel holes 8 and 9, “with the addition of a Biarritz green to reclaim some lost history” – and that feature alone would make it well worth returning to see!
Back into the main parcel of land for the remainder of the round and things really step up here. There’s a really unusual big pit to be carried in front of the 10th, followed by a cracking, newly upgraded par four hole at the 11th, which now boasts a wonderful two-tiered green with new bunkers etched into the front of the putting surface.
I also liked the unusual par threes at the 14th and 17th, played close to each other across the same little land depression, but in opposite directions. The round then concludes with a solid par four back to a slightly raised green in front of the magnificent old clubhouse, with a sneaky, long coffin bunker at the back of the putting surface to prevent over-hit shots ending in the hedge that runs along the back of the home green.
I’d wanted to play the course at Biarritz for a long time as one of my golfing heroes, Arnaud Massy, learned to play the game here. Unfortunately, there’s not much of the course remaining from the 1890s when the great man was starting out in the game (nor is there a lot left of the Colt-designed layout from the 1920s, either), but it’s still a thrill to tee it up at such an historic old club.
Coming from old, compact, hemmed-in golf courses in London, I felt at home at once when I played Biarritz the first time. As is the case with many clubs in such settings, “Le Phare” as the locals call it, has lost out to urban developments, but somehow manages to hold on to two pieces of ground barely big enough to squeeze in 18 holes. When you see old photos from before WWI you appreciate that this was once, at least partly, a seaside links course. Today, it is surrounded by the city of Biarritz on all sides and with tree-lined fairways it is managed more as a parkland course. Therefore, the sandy nature of the ground that Harry Colt wrote about 100 years ago (the club proudly quotes from his letter on its home page) is no longer apparent. What is very apparent is that neighbouring streets quickly come into play if your aim is wide and you take leave of your senses. We quickly abandoned driver and 3-wood, just as you are obliged to do if you visit the small practice ground beforehand.
Leaving the big stick in the bag most of the time is actually a great idea, because the course rewards brain over brawn and placing your tee-shots not only avoids the bunkers but enables your approach, putting and recovery play to be up for scrutiny with a score still to play for. Despite this, most people in our group were surprised at the grim reading of their scorecards afterwards.
By the way, if you come to see the original “Biarritz” style green (a concept better known in the U.S. than in France) you are too late. The original par-3 3rd hole by the ocean is long built over.