Pete Dye courses in Europe are very scarce but Domaine Impérial is one such rarity and it is one of a select few that were created on the continent by the acclaimed architect in the late 1980s – others being Franciacorta in Italy (with Marco Croze) and Barbaroux in France. The course lies just outside Nyon (headquarters of the UEFA football authorities) on land by the banks of Lake Geneva, between Lausanne and Geneva.
The property has quite an important historical pedigree. It was part of a larger estate owned in the 17th and 18th centuries by the Barons Guiger of Prangins before Joseph Bonaparte, elder brother of Napoléon Bonepart, acquired the land. Joseph then sold around 750 acres to his nephew, Prince Jérôme Napoléon, in 1859 and he quickly constructed La Villa Prangins, now used as the very impressive clubhouse.
After the demise of his cousin Napoléon III in 1870, Prince Jérôme split the estate and sold the villa to an Englishman, Charles Lucas. When ground works were carried out over a hundred years later, several tees and greens were discovered and these were attributed to him! The property changed hands several times over the next 80 years before Ernest Morf bought it in 1953.
Victor Morf inherited the estate in 1971 and four years later engaged an architect and property developer to fulfill his dream of creating a top-flight golf course. However, it took ten years of patient negotiation with the local authorities before planning permission was granted. After a further two years of construction – during which over a half a million cubic metres of earth were moved – the front nine was ready for play in the summer of 1987 when Seve Ballesteros teed up the inaugural drive on the 1st tee.
A feature hole at Domaine Imperial is the 589-yard, par five 4th which doglegs right and is very narrow at the bend in the fairway. A long, narrow bunker must be avoided further along the fairway before reaching a green that is well defended with small pot bunkers.
Pete Dye said of Domaine Impérial at the time, “it is the first time, in this part of the world, that I have the chance to design such a unique course.” He continued, “when I design a hole, I want the par to be the necessary exam for all good players… I think I managed to find a good cocktail of different approaches, making the course more difficult than meets the eye.”
Imagine for a moment, if you will, that you've just had a lovely, filling and tasty meal: maybe something Italian. Sweets followed and now you've retired to a comfortable leather-upholstered seat with your favourite after-dinner drink. It's cool outside, but a fireplace is radiating warmth and you might even be wearing your favourite slippers. Everything is 'just so'. Well now you know what it feels like to be playing golf at Domaine Imperial: delightfully comfortable.
From the manicured surrounds of the clubhouse and the wonderful views of Lake Geneva (or to be more correct Lac Léman in this francophone region) there is an almost surreal feeling of calm around this wooded-parkland golf course: it is not one for striding boldly down fairways, but rather for wandering between shots, looking at the dappled light on the surrounds, listening to the bubbling of the stream flowing through the front nine and inhaling deeply of the spring, or summertime scents of the surrounding flora. It really is quite wonderful. And there is some seriously good golf here too. Don't be too distracted by the beautiful surroundings because you'll need to thinking about where to position your shots, especially your angles into the green and how best to minimise the risks from the hazards. This course requires thought, but is not overly penal. Plan and execute your shots well and the perfect conditioning will yield the expected results, especially on and around the greens.
Based on the best of German engineering found in the car-park and the elegance of the club and course surrounds, this is clearly where 'the 1%' play their golf. And yet, as a visitor, I had contacted the club beforehand to organise a tee-time, presented my national golf handicap credentials on arrival and paid the rather steep green fee and was permitted to play. What a pity that there is not more like it on the other side of the Atlantic.
I can see why this course is ranked number 1 in Switzerland: delightful golfing experience.
Decent Dye-course, kept in very good condition April-October. Fabulous clubhouse terrace on the lake. Downside: overloaded and subject to severe pace-of-play issues. Plan a five hour round and you might get lucky; typical Swiss golf etiquette does not include letting faster parties play through, so... be warned. I’ve played the course 100+ times.