Golf de Chantaco golf club was founded in 1928 by René Thion de la Chaume and the great Arnaud Massy marked the occasion with an exhibition match along with fellow countryman Jan Gassiat and a couple of Jersey professionals, brothers Aubrey and Percy Boomer.
Simone Thion de la Chaume, the 13-time French Ladies Amateur champion, accepted the presidency of the club from her father in 1930, holding the position for 44 years until handing over to Catherine Lacoste. She then guided the club for a further 35 years before passing on the presidential baton to her niece, Camille Lacoste, in 2009.
She in turn was replaced in 2013 by Veronique Smondack, Catherine’s daughter, so the club has always been managed by a member of the Lacoste family. As of 2019, the new president is Jean Marie Lacoste, the grandson of René Lacoste, and he has exciting plans for the future of the club.
The course lies just outside the little fishing town of St Jean de Luz, a short half an hour drive south of Biarritz, and it’s one of the most celebrated golfing layouts in the Basque region, largely through the charming ambiance both on and off the course that’s been cultivated over many years by its owners.
Designed by Harry Colt, the course consists of two distinct nines, with tree-lined fairways wandering through woodland on the front nine and water coming into play on the inward half. Five of the holes are configured as par threes and three are set out as par fives.
Extending to 5,833 metres from the back tees and playing to a par of 70, Golf de Chantaco hosted the Open de France Dames for professional women from 2012 to 2017 and the French Open for their male counterparts was also held here in 1970, an event won by Australian David Graham.
Chantaco is a little gem designed by Harry Colt in the 1920´s. It is located on the outskirts of Saint Jean de Luz, a charming town in the French Basque Country, a few kilometers away from the Spanish border.
The first thing that catches your attention when entering the club is the stylish clubhouse and the access to it, through an arch that links the 28 restaurant (for the year the club was founded) with the proshop.
The course itself makes perfect use of the terrain topography, especially the first 9 holes, with constant ups and downs that lend to a couple of blind drives, a tough par 3 (the 3rd hole) whose green is located on the shoulder of a hill, and some drives from elevated tees.
The back 9, on the other hand, especially from the 11th hole, are located on flatter ground, and take advantage of occasional creeks and ponds to add interest to the game. In my opinion, the best holes are 15th and 16th, this being a reachable par 5, but able to break any card if you fail to manage correctly its traps, in the form of water hazards.
The finish, however, is somewhat disappointing, as holes 17th and 18th are flat and lacking interest. Plus, I always prefer that the last green is next to the clubhouse, and not on the other side of a busy road.
On the other hand, I must emphasize that, when we visited the course, the greens were in perfect condition, except perhaps for one or two, and the fairways, unlike other courses in the area, had not been overwatered, allowing the ball to roll and bounce.
Finally, and also on the positive side, I must highlight the club's traditional, elegant and welcoming atmosphere, without being elitist, and the friendly attitude of its employees, something inherent to the Basque people.
I was lucky to get a game here back in April as the course was closed for a big refurbishment and not due to officially re-open until the following day, when local golfing hero Jean Garaïalde, now in his 80s, would cut the red ribbon before hitting a ceremonial drive off the 1st tee.
I was also fortunate to speak to the CEO, Jean-Marie Lacoste, whose family has been steeped in the club since its inception almost a hundred years ago. Jean-Marie is very much a “hands on” person and is probably more likely to be found digging drainage ditches out on the course then directing operations from the clubhouse.
A lot had happened over the last couple of years, with architect Stuart Hallett overseeing the remodelling of the front nine holes (which were the ones to be unveiled the next day) over the preceding winter months, with the back nine to follow this winter.
Many of the tees, greens and bunkers have been renovated on the outward half, along with the installation of new drainage and paths, and these improvements to both the infrastructure and the aesthetics will obviously enhance the playing experience going forward.
Looking back on photos that I took on the day, I’d forgotten just how good looking the trees are on the rather undulating front nine , with many different varieties of well-maintained, mature arboreal species adding great character to the wonderful parkland landscape.
The back nine starts with a couple of transition holes at 10 and 11. The first of these is a very short and narrow uphill par three, followed by an even narrower downhill par four that snakes downhill before doglegging sharply right and up to a raised green – it was one of the strangest holes I’ve come across in a while and I’ll be interested to find out what becomes of it when the inward half is revamped.
Holes 12 to 16 lie along a small tributary of the Nivelle River and this water course has been enlarged to form an attractive pond in front of the par three 12th, which is played downhill from an elevated tee position. Similarly, there’s a smaller pond protecting the front of the green at the par three 14th and this short hole also requires a downhill tee shot from a terraced tee box.
The final two holes are located across the road on the floodplain of the aforementioned Nivelle River, where the ground is a little bit flat, and the club is concentrating efforts to upgrade drainage in this area (which also includes a practice facility) and give the holes greater definition.
When work on the back nine is completed next year, it will be a case of “awakening the sleeping beauty,” according to Jean-Marie Lacoste, and such a substantial investment in the course will obviously leave the club well placed to face the future going into the 2020s and way beyond.