Lying in the shadow of Mont Blanc, the original 9-hole layout at Golf Club de Chamonix was inaugurated in 1935. It then took almost half a century before Robert Trent Jones finally expanded the course to an 18-hole track in the early 1980s.
“In the Rhône-Alpes region, architects have also brought their imagination to courses in the mountains,” wrote Jean François Lefevre in France’s Most Beautiful Courses. “Skiers and snowboarders schussing down the mountains in winter have no idea that their acrobatics are describing the generous lips of a bunker covered with thick snow.
Building a course on slopes of such impressively varying heights may appear an impossible task. The first person to take up this challenge in France was the Englishman Henry Cotton, who created the Mont d’Arbois course in 1964 at an altitude of almost one thousand three hundred metres. Then it was the turn of Robert Trent Jones, who built the Chamonix Golf Club in the magnificent setting of Mont Blanc and the Aiguilles Rouges.
It was quite a task – and still is – given the very short period in which work can be carried out (June to October) and the short period in which the complex can make an income (at best, three months a year)… The course is quite flat and is used for cross-country skiing in the winter. In spite of these limitations mountain golf courses have proliferated.”
Chamonix Golf Club sits in the shadows of Mt Blanc and thus, is used to playing second fiddle. I was originally scheduled to play first thing in the morning the day after our arrival. We had planned to take the gondola to the peak of Mt. Blanc, but alas, we were told the peak was overcrowded and there would be no more inbound passengers that afternoon. Quickly shifting gear, we headed back to our hotel, Chalet Hotel le Castel, which abuts the golf course on the southwest side. The hotel parking lot is across the street from the course. I parked the car, kissed my wife goodbye, grabbed my clubs and trekked across the road. Left my clubs at the first tee and arrived at the pro shop at 2:50. I explained the situation and the staff was very accommodating. They cancelled my tee time for the next morning and asked if a 3PM tee time would work? The correct answer, of course, is absolutely. I arrived at the first tee and the starter gave me the dos and donts and introduced me to my playing partners. Two were welcoming and the older guy, Gerhardt, was not. They were all bi-lingual. Which was good, unfortunately, the languages were French and German. Not so good. My linguistic repertoire includes beer and cuss words.
The first hole is tough. I cannot think of another course where the opening hole is a par 4 that has two water hazards that must be carried. The first is a river that cuts across the fairway at about 150 yards out and the second is a stream right in front of the green. The par 4 2nd hole is a wee bit easier. You still must carry the river and the green is surrounded by 5 bunkers. The short 3rd hole is a Florida par 3, water in front to a green flanked both sides with bunkers. The 4th hole is a tight par four. Slight dog leg right, there are woods left and tall trees on the right segregating the 5th hole. Favor the left side off the tee to ensure not being blocked out. The par 5 5th is a definite birdie oppty and reachable in two. Favor the right side off the tee to avoid the 3 fairway bunkers left and the green is protected by bunkers on the left and right. The 6th is also a par 5. It also has 3 fairway bunkers left that can come into play off the tee. Interestingly, they are similar in configuration to the 3 bunkers on the previous hole. I do not advise going for this one in two as the green is protected by a brook in front. The 7th is the number one handicap hole. A long dogleg right, you must be left off the tee to give yourself a chance. Best not to miss the green right. The 8th is a picturesque short downhill par 3. Due to the language barrier there had not been a lot of banter in our group. That was about to change. How do you get a curmudgeon to smile? Have him get a hole in one. Two bounces and in, high fives all around and Gerhardt was now euphoric. It would be short lived. The 9th is a long par four. Off the tee you must carry the river and there is a small pond about 100 yards off the tee right that should not come into play. Of course, after a hole in one, anything is possible. Sure enough, Gerhardt plunked it right into the hazard. I tried to console him. I said that the toughest shot in golf is the one after a hole in one (followed by the shot after a shank). Turns out what he was really miffed about was that he had not taken the hole in one ball out of play. Let that be a lesson. Things would go from bad to worse.
We get to the 10th tee and the foursome ahead of us had 3 guys who had already teed off but were waiting for the 4th, who was in the bathroom. Gerhardt went right to the tee and teed off, words were exchanged in multiple languages. I did not say anything, as I was having a hard time following the conversation, other than noting everybody seem pissed. The 3 guys turned to me for input, I shrugged and said I am just an ugly American. This seemed to diffuse the situation, they laughed and gestured us through. The 10th is a slight dogleg left par 4. Your approach must go over the river to an uphill narrow green that is protected with a bunker front left. The 11th is an extremely short downhill par 3, looks easy, but we only made one par. The narrow green is protected by a stream in front and two bunkers in the rear. At least one club less and plays under 100 yards. The par 5 12th is reachable, but not if you are in one of the fairway bunkers on the right. The green is also extremely well guarded by bunkers. The 13th is the easiest hole on the course short par 3 with two bunkers on the left and right. The 15th is a non-reachable par 5 dogleg right. It has a stream in front and with a table top green middle of the green is the smart play. A slight dogleg right, the 16th is a short par four. Decent drive will set up a flip wedge, but be wary of another table top green. The 16th is a long demanding dogleg left. It is also protected with bunkers left and right. The last par 5 is certainly reachable, On 17 favor the left side of the fairway to give yourself the best angle. The fairway bunkers really should not come into play but there are two bunkers to the right of the green. The finishing hole is a longish par 3 protected by three front bunkers.
This is an eye candy course. It is easy to be overwhelmed by the breathtaking awe of Mt Blanc and the Alps. The course is pedestrian, but if you are in the area I recommend it.
As a regular visitor to Chamonix on mountaineering trips (golf is my #2 hobby!), I appreciate Colin's review of the golf course since I have never played golf there. However, just to say that there is no cable car to the top of Mont Blanc (the cable car goes to the very impressive Aiguille du Midi which is on the Mont Blanc massif but is not near the top). Getting to the top of Mont Blanc is tougher than playing Carnoustie!