Willie Park Junior is credited with laying out or redesigning a number of French courses around the turn of the 19th century (including Dieppe, Evian-les-Bains and Monte-Carlo) and he was also responsible for remodeling the original La Vallée course at La Boulie.
Owned by the Racing Club de France, a club that offers its members the opportunity to participate in sixteen different sports, La Boulie is a historically important golf site as it was the location for the first French Open championships in 1906, won by Arnaud Massy.
Indeed, a total of twenty national titles have been decided here and more recent winners include Peter Oosterhuis (1973), Nick Faldo (1983) and Seve Ballesteros, who claimed his fourth and final French Open victory in 1986, the last time the event was held at this venue.
In 1963, the 11th edition of the Canada Cup – the precursor to the once-prestigious annual World Cup of Golf tournament – was also contested at La Boulie, the first time the event had been played on the continent of Europe, with the two-man team of Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus winning the competition for the USA.
The American team of Todd Demsey, Allen Doyle, John Harris and Tiger Woods also triumphed at La Boulie in 1994, holding off a strong challenge from Great Britain & Ireland to win the 19th edition of the Eisenhower Trophy, the biennial world amateur team championship for men.
Today, the Vallée course extends to 5,995 metres, which is actually shorter than its sister course, the Forêt, which opened for play in 1968. Not only is the newer course longer, it’s also rated the tougher of the two tracks, with a slope index of 141 (against the 138 of La Vallée).
Still, there’s nothing to beat walking the tree-lined fairways of the older course and thinking about the greats of the game – such as JH Taylor, James Braid and Walter Hagen – who all managed to win the French Open here during La Boulie’s earlier golfing heydays.
The book 500 world’s greatest golf holes by author George Peper and the editors of GOLF magazine features the 213-yard par three 10th hole on La Boule’s La Vallée course: “The gorgeous countryside of the French Racing Club near Versailles provides a splendid palette for this artistic hole. From a tee that sits nearly thirty feet above the green, the player is able to see a nearly uninterrupted forest of pine and oak trees, along with the large but well-guarded target. A phalanx of bunkers, their edges flowing upward to the fringe, surrounds the green almost completely. The slick putting surface slopes from back to front, ringed by fringe and rough reminiscent of US Open courses.”
La Boulie is located on the southwestern outskirts of the capital, less than five kilometres from Le Golf National as the crow flies. So near, and yet so far away in terms of the way golf is presented at either location. It’s more old school here with the atmosphere of a traditional club, as opposed to the brash, corporate modernity of the nearby Ryder Cup venue.
And yet, they’re inextricably linked by the Open de France, the oldest national tournament on the continent of Europe. The very first event was held at La Vallée in 1906 (it would host twenty Opens in total) while 26 of the last 28 editions of the competition have been played at Le Golf National. Prize money has certainly increased over the years but today’s golfers still play for the same silver trophy that was introduced by Edward George Steiber more than a century ago.
There are two 18-hole layouts and a short 9-hole course at La Boulie but La Vallée was the course I was keen to see. Not only has there been a score of national Opens held here, the club also hosted the Canada Cup and Eisenhower Trophy, making it one of the most historically important venues in the world for both amateur and professional golf.
The course is set out on really hilly terrain, with narrow, tree-lined fairways leading to relatively large, but heavily sand-protected greens. It’s such a shame that today’s course is too tight and too short to attract top flight professional tournaments the way it once did as the green complexes here are formidable. Then again, build modern stadium courses like L’Albatros at Le Golf National and there’s bound to be casualties along the way, I suppose.
On the front nine, the 3rd and the 7th are lovely little short holes, with cavernous bunkers guarding the putting surface to the front, right and left sides on both holes. On the shorter back nine, which is configured with three par threes, three par fours and three par fives, the holes occupy the most northerly part of the property, with a steep uphill finish at both the 16th and 18th – at least the home hole is a short par five, rated stroke index 18.
I noticed there were various framed items hanging on the walls around the clubhouse, including a portrait of Willie Park Jnr, Seve’s course record scorecard of 61 during a pro-am in 1986, and the signatures of most of the teams that took part in the World Amateur Championships in 1994 (the winning US team included Tiger Woods). Sadly, there was no pictorial tribute to the man who did so much to put French golf on the map, Arnaud Massey, the club’s first professional – quel dommage!