The 1,400-acre Les Bordes estate lies in splendid isolation within the massive Sologne Forest in the Loire Valley. Established in 1987 by Baron Marcel Bich, the property originally boasted an 18-hole layout designed by Robert von Hagge, the flamboyant Texan architect renowned for his artistic flair. It wasn’t long before his course (now known as the Old) was regarded as one of the best in Europe.
Several different owners were involved in running the estate during the first thirty years of its operation, before an affiliate of RoundShield Partners took over in 2018 with a plan to develop another 18-hole course which would complement the existing highly ranked golf layout. Other non-golfing activities – such as an equestrian centre, swimming lake – were also introduced to keep members and their families occupied off the course.
Gil Hanse was chosen to design his first golf project in continental Europe, using land to the west of the existing layout that had housed a 27-hole setup. Some of the playing corridors from the former course have been integrated into the new design, albeit in a significantly widened format. Holes flow seamlessly from one to the next, with some of the tees an extension of the fairway cut next to the previous green.
Great emphasis has been placed on the ground game and the ability to shape and control the ball along the playing surfaces on what is essentially a heathland-style layout that’s highlighted by large waste areas, formidable bunkering and captivating green complexes. Firm and fast playing conditions ensure it plays shorter than the official yardage might indicate.
Configured as two returning nines, the New course features four engaging par threes which measure between 131 yards at the 7th and 230 yards at the 14th. Other highlight holes include short par fours at the 9th and 15th, along with engaging par fives at the right doglegging 612-yard 6th and the 541-yard 18th, where the final fairway skirts past water on the left on its way to the home green.
The Wild Piglet short course has also been fashioned to bring an extra dimension of fun and entertainment into proceedings at Les Bordes. Similar to the Cradle short course that Gil Hanse built at the Pinehurst resort, it’s chock-full of interest with items such as multi-tiered putting surfaces and even a bunker in the middle of one of the greens – all in keeping with the architect’s stated philosophy of “golf should be fun, it shouldn’t suck.”
Les Bordes is one the verge of becoming one of the most distinctive 36 hole golf clubs in the world, with its two courses providing such an astonishingly different playing experience between the two. The Old and New are different like night and day. I'm curious to hear anyone come up with more examples this extreme.
As far as a golf course can be another course's opposite, I'd say this is the case for the Old - 100% man-made and not afraid to show it: 'moving dirt', polished, soft turf, American target golf, penal design school with heroic elements. Picture perfect. The motto was 'Great courses are beautiful courses'. Von Hagge liked to 'enhance beauty where it exists, and create beauty where it doesn't. The New on the other hand, can be summarised with the following buzzwords: Neo-classic, rugged, sandy soil and firm and fast running fescue turf, highly strategic holes with plenty of ground game options. Holes were all 'discovered' rather than created. The motto is 'Golf should be fun, it should not suck'.)
That does not sound like a particularly high standard for a currently top 3 golf course architect, but the New Course definitely is fun. Who would have thought that so close to the original lay-out, on the same property, a piece of ideal ground for golf in the purist, classic sense existed already, whereas allegedly Von Hagge had strongly advised Baron Bich not to choose the Loire Valley for the construction of his unlimited budget magnum opus, mainly due to the flatness of the region. Instead of this part of the site, he apparently preferred the swampy part of the property, maximising of the potential of this site in his own way while leaving the most promising piece to an architect more familiar with such sites. Well, in 2021, we can all express our gratitude for this series of events, as the New Course is by no means a second course to the original. Apart from the turf conditions, the course looks like it's been there for years. Personally, I think it is significantly better than the Old Course and it's not close...It's a matter of personal tast above all, but I think the New is visually stunning, great fun to play, as natural as they come and most importantly, it has strategic dimensions that the Old Course simply doesnt't have, which makes the New Course more sophisticated and more fun than the Old Course, while also providing a stern challenge for the better player. Then again it almost makes no sense to compare the two given their completely different natures.
The scale of the New Course is gigantic. A source told me that Gil Hanse initially submitted 50 potential routings. The final routing consists of two 9 hole loops entirely separated but nearly attached, like two 'lungs'. The right lung is a figure 8 with hole 1 starting from the middle of the 8. The back nine is a counterclockwise circle with some of the shorter holes playing in the opposite direction, to return in the right direction the next hole. The front nine is laid out on open land, while the back nine is carved through a dense part of the Sologne forest. The property is gently undulating, is full of native vegetation such as needle-leaved trees, broom, heather and ferns. The knee high deep rough had flowering purple and yellow flowers in abundance. The course, refreshingly is walking only and this also resonates in the routing. I found it impressive how naturally the greens and next tees were connected with an extension of the short grass on the side or back of the greens, or with a grass path. It not only looked beautiful but will undoubtedly be very functional in keeping the duration of a round acceptable. The holes even looked connected as one long story told by Gil Hanse, rather than a series of separate entities somehow forming a unity.
Gil Hanse has stated that his main inspirations for the New Course were Tom Simpson's GCA philosophies, and that as an architect he's always on the background inspired by Pine Valley, where Hanse is also a member. On the one hand, that's a fine example of name dropping ideal for marketing purposes, but admittedly it's not without merit, at least the Tom Simpson part (please DM for invites to Pine Valley). The New course is blessed with a state of the art collection of strategically placed (cross) (fairway) bunkers, the division in compartments of some of the holes, and the visual deception deliberately caused by the fairway undulations, bunker placement and green placement. I have to say I was very pleased my recent visit to Tom Simpson's open-air museum at Royal Antwerp immediately paid dividends, as I was able to recognize such features. Nevertheless, it is also clear that we're dealing with a modern course. If I'm being critical, Hanse overdid it just a little in some spots. The rugged fairway bunkers on the par 4 9th with just about three layers of revetted grass in parts of the edges come to mind. The Devil's asshole replica (or Advocate if we're being politically correct) on the long par 3 14th also struck me as gimmicky. If I'm being a real pain, I'd say it could be seen as the less cliché equivalent of building an island green as a nudge towards TPC Sawgrass, which, in case you didn't get the memo, in most cases isn't cool anymore either.
Then onto the actual golf holes.
The set of par 3s is outstanding. They play in different directions, have different lengths and characters. The longer par 3s are playing to huge greens with false fronts and run offs, made for ground game approaches, while the shorter par 3s are heavily bunkered with smaller undulating targets and visually distracting and manipulative green complexes.
The short strategic risk reward par 4s will be discussed individually below (spoiler: I love them!)
The set of par 5s is also particularly incredible. To have an exceptional par 5 might be the most difficult to achieve for an architect (please correct me if you think otherwise), as there are 2,3 or 4 shots needed at least for different levels of players to reach the green in different fashions. Each of these shots should be interesting. The first 3 par 5s at the New Course are all exceptional and very different, while the 18th is a good hole as well. It is an exciting finisher though that will create plenty of drama. However, I'm not a fan of the big water hazard on the second half of the hole, as it could be argued that it does not really fit the rest of the course and looks less natural. The green is exciting and tilts from back to front and right to left. which does provide a safe back stop and also comes in handy for the running approaches from the right side. The same hazard also comes into play on the elevated teeshot of the par 4 tenth hole, which is actually a very good hole because the approach is very interesting, the bunkering is superb and the green complex looks like it's always been there.
Next, I'll discuss my pick of the bunch of the individual holes. I've picked them because they are as good as it gets and are worth studying.
Hole 2 - Par 5 (539/491 yards)
This par 5 is stunning. The drive looks intimidating as you know there is a dogleg to the left, but you can only look until the far end of the fairway 300 yards ahead. The left and right side of the wide fairway are both skirted by enormous high edged fairway bunkers. Behind the bunker on the left, the hole opens up as there is plenty of room. However, the second shot looks intimidating again. You're deceived into thinking that it is wise to lay up to the part of the fairway that you can at least see. Counterintuitively, one is better of hitting a longer shot, since when one clears the hump at about 100 meters from the green, it turns out that you have plenty of room there. The part of the fairway that was visible on the second shot was actually the most narrow part. the highlights of the hole however has yet to come. There is a large flattish valley on the right side of the wide fairway, that will provide you an even lie for your wedge approach into the green, although the angle will be a bit awkward depending on the pin placement, because the green is gently crowned on the back end only, deep and narrow with significant slopes and has runoffs on all sides. the front entrance however favours a running approach and is relatively easy for shots played from a straight angle. A par 5 that has everything. I could never tire of this hole.
Hole 8 - Par 4 (442/425 yards)
A wonderful long two-shotter with another daunting tee shot. It's played from a low point, over a natural water hazard up to a fairway you can barely see from the tee. The left side of the fairway is fairly flat and provides a good view of the green while the right part of the fairway dips severely to the side and results in a restricted view for a long approach into a green with a very deep greenside bunker on front right side of the green. Plenty of room on the left though, but it's too tempting to be aggressive... Simple, but genius.
Hole 9 - Par 4 (312/269 yards)
One of my new all time favourite holes and definitely my favourite at the New Course, has to be a short par 4. This one is very beautiful and I'd describe it as a modern interpretation of Riviera hole 10, but with the green turned a quarter and it's even a little less receptive on drives than its Californian ancestor. It's very strategic and very tempting because it looks like the green is such a small distance from the tee, while in fact hitting the green will be near impossible. Best case, you'll hit in in the nearest green side bunker with a driver or 3 wood and have a chance for an up and down for birdie. But most likely, you'll have one of those 30 yard bunker shots to a very small target and play back and forth between bunkers. The hole is so short that you almost can't rationalize not going for it. The hole is straight, but is characterized by a row of cross fairway bunkers from left to right, concealing that there's plenty of room for laying up. both left and right depending on the distance. The A1 position after the teeshot would be to hit a hybrid or wood in the back right corner, in order to have the easiest roll-out pitch to the green, which is shallow, raised and also guarded by big bunkers in front and back of it. If you overcook your draw from the tee, you'll be playing your next shot over a row of trees from the deep stuff to this shallow bunker and will be on the verge of making a big score. I predict a big future for this golf hole (it's a thing). I'm comfortable to call the 9th at Les Bordes New is going to be a modern classic!
Hole 13 - Par 5 (590/545 yards)
Another par 5 in the list of favourites. This one has the most pronounced set of cross bunkers perched into the top of the hill over the entire width of the fairway. It looks like you can't carry it, but you probably can.The more aggressive the line one takes. the longer the carry becomes. The approach gently swings left and the flattish green placed slightly uphill and guarded by enormous bunkers that must be 5 meters high. Due to the scale of the course and the individual holes, this is not too noticeable from a distance or from the pictures.
Hole 15 - Par 4 (308/271 yards)
The other short strategic par 4 on the course. This one has a broad fairway with a couple of large center bunkers some 40 and 60 meters of, in cards jargon, 'spades'-shaped green with a narrow back stop bunker, tilted towards the green, which will provide awkward recoveries. Off the tee, one has to choose to go left or right while the right side provides an even lie albeit from a lower level. Parts of the green can be reached with a running shot / aggressive drive. Very intruigeing hole.
It is such a cliché, but I hope many of you will eventually get to experience the New Course at Les Bordes despite its exclusivity. Though one thing is certain. The New course is an amazing addition to the Les Bordes Estate and golf in Continental Europe in general, which until today is represented in rather meagre quantity (only 4 in the World Top 100). I myself would be surprised (and a little upset) if the New course would not become the 5th. It's a masterpiece and I'm confident it will become even better as it matures. I hope I can return when both myself and the course are older and wiser, to see if it merits the full 6 ball score.
Great review. I played the course a couple weeks ago and I really can’t think of an inland course with similar raw quality and scale in Europe and have to believe that it will mature into a very special course not only within the European landscape but also on the global stage. I wanted to point out that the less severe “devil’s asshole” at National predates the one at Pine Valley. Raynor/Macdonald also built one at Westhampton and Gil built a modified version at Streamsong Black. In my opinion, the 14th bunker at Les Bordes New should not be viewed as a replica but rather a wonderfully positioned bunker which the green feeds if the golfer takes an aggressive trajectory for a left positioned pin or pulls their tee shot. It’s not nearly as penal as the one at Pine Valley but still makes the golfer think twice about their line of attack.
Thanks Jeff, appreciate the feedback and the education on the history of this historic bunkertype. I must agree the way the green feeds the balls to this bunker with its contours is quite spectacular and that the 14th is indeed a great par 3. I do feel the bunker's shaping and the addition of the staircase in it are not an ideal match with the style of the rest of the course.