If you can recall the opening credits to The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, then fast forward 30 years, and that’s how this William felt arriving at the entrance gates. I’d gotten into one wrong flight, and my Mom got scared, so sent me to... Les Bordes to get a better golfing education.
Truth be told they were so welcoming it was mildly disarming. Maybe they’d mistaken me for someone else. Not necessarily a reaction I’d expected at, if not the Augusta National of French golf, then perhaps the Pine Valley. You see, one other preconception I had was that this haute bourgeoisie member of French golf might actually be a Euro comparison for the New Jersey golfing aristocrats. After all, Les Bordes is a course, whilst difficult to access, is also renowned for its difficulty and nerve wracking demands of hitting from Island to Island. Apparently the original remit was for a design to test the very best French players.
And so it transpired that the course was very... playable. Much to my relief because I’d only brought 26 balls with me. This happy fact is patently due to definite changes brought to bear upon the holes - primarily reducing the rough so that you can now find your ball. A good friend who played it 10 years ago had painted a very different picture (proud of the fact his name was on their honours board for breaking 80 off the back tees). How I only lost one ball will remain a mystery though. There is a premium on tee shot placement to give the easier approach, but if often felt about the second shot to me. The greens - and missing in the right spots near them - was a big test.
A final preconception was that the course would be pure target golf, yet this also wasn’t the case. There was some roll on the fairways - for better or worse in my case - and it was only really hitting up to back to front greens where my ball might sit next to it’s pitch mark and make me feel, momentarily, like a stalwart of the PGA Tour.
The most striking element of Les Bordes is the setting - how the course sits so easily within its forest sanctuary. You of course know it’s not been just carved out of the woods, yet it belongs. It brought to mind those stunning Mayan ruins uncovered in Central America - you know it’s the work of man, yet it somehow fits in and enhances the natural beauty. I’ve not seen anything quite like it and it’s must have been a fine balancing act to pull it off. Perhaps the nearest thing I’ve witnessed is Loch Lomond Golf Club. Either way, it’s a meaningful riposte to the fashion of minimalism in golf design (and those who would have all golf courses looking the same).
Having said this, not many courses could choose to be like Les Bordes. They don’t have the land or the money. The construction here is consequently very good and not heavy handed. The presentation/conditioning is the best I’ve seen so far. Neither are ostentatious. The routing is excellent (as it should be considering the lack of restrictions) - with only one switchback feeling awkward. It’s a real journey of 2 anti-clockwise loops that explore the forest, where each hole is revealed to you on the tee box. From memory, 2 of the Par 3’s Parky in the same direction, if you want to be a Fussy Fred about it. The framing on each tee shot is almost perfect and let’s you choose your spots. And then there’s the tranquility. It’s so quiet you can hear a pin. Or a ball drop. You enjoy birdsong throughout your round. Billionaire’s Golf. Why isn’t this in any of the seminal architectural texts?
Of course, ignoring the idyllic setting, the other side to this argument is that’s it’s quiet because it’s very private. And it is a shame that most golfers will not experience this course. US golfers tend to accept this. British golfers don’t. Both likely understand it. It is what it is.
Several aspects of the course are already excellent but what about the actual golf holes? A few that stick in my mind:
Hole 1: A gentle-ish handshake dogleg right, with a striking green surrounded by a single encircling bunker. It’s a great start because most golfers should get a chance at hitting this green in regulation. But I am not most golfers and it took 3 shots. This was perhaps the only hole where the mounding (on the left) feels a little unnatural - a minor shame to have it on the first hole as it’s not really present on the rest of the course.
Hole 3: Fantastic 369 yard Par 4. You must drive as close to the fairway bunkers as you dare in order to get the best angle in. The angled green is a picture postcard and is the first time you notice how well the course sits with the forest.
Hole 4: Great little short hole where you are introduced to the water front first time (it won’t be the last). Almost an island green, but with a bail out area left. I aimed for the middle and pushed it right, where coincidentally the pin was on the day. My ball settled 4 feet away from the pin (and water). My playing partner may at this point have thought me a maverick talent - until I missed the tricky putt.
Hole 7: Dogleg left Par 5 where on consecutive strokes you need to choose how much water to involve in your ball’s fate. Billy, don’t be a hero. Good players may go for it in 2, but my heart rate was up, and I was very satisfied with my concentration & execution to get on in regulation with 3 good shots.
Hole 8: Stunning Par 3. You don’t always get strategy on a short hole - it can be a case of ignoring intimidation & distraction, enjoying the view, and then hitting the middle of the green. One of the more memorable Par 3’s I can recall playing.
Hole 14: Meandering 534 yard Par 5 where the landing area for the second shot is hidden if you go up the left side as I did. An Island green where I’d like to see someone get on in 2 shots. I nervously pitched on in 4 and bit the holes’s hand off for the bogey it offered up.
Hole 17: Another pretty dogleg right Par 4 where left off the tee - this time threatening a walk in the woods - gives the best angle to attack the thin sliver of a green that runs away from you left to right. It’s also protected by a huge bunker running along the right side, so the second shot is progressively difficult depending on the flag location on the day.
Hole 18: It wouldn’t be Les Bordes if it didn’t finish with a water carry. This Par 4 has an interesting 2 tiered green that I didn’t notice on the approach shot. Ensured I finished with a 3 putt bogey and left me wanting to play the hole again.
As mentioned above, the greens are the real test at Les Bordes. They have a fair bit of contouring and come in all shapes and sizes. And as you might expect, they are quick (by European standards). The water also cannot be ignored and requires significant concentration. But if you don’t get too Marvel Avengers about it, you can humbly plot your way around. The variety of holes matches the variety of greens, and good players will have fun with the various shots demanded of them. For me it simply ensures a better experience.
I’ve not played enough courses in France, but if considering rankings, this can’t be far off a World Top 100 spot? I imagine courses in the 80-150 range are splitting hairs to some extent and Les Bordes is at home amongst them. A course ranked 6th in Europe has to be in the conversation. That’s for others to decide though. My own rudimentary ranking system is a display case on my desk with 30 logo balls from my favourite golf courses. Les Bordes as a golf course has made the cut (relegating Walton Heath Old - which was admittedly on borrowed time because of that opening hole). In truth it probably rivals De Pan as the best non-links I’ve played. It also inspires me to visit other Robert von Hagge courses, to see if this is a one-off or if he had something.
They are also investing in a second track here, designed by Gil Hanse, which is almost complete. This should appease the minimalists and those who like big name designers (guilty). And of course it may be even better than this one (I didn’t get the feeling these guys here settle for the concept of a “second course”). Good news then for the members and twice as many reasons for everyone else to be envious.
I came in here expecting to feel like a social imposter who would have his game exposed, but both were far from the truth. The staff were as welcoming as the course. Yes, I had feared it might dish out the Royal Treatment (i.e. Louis XVI) but instead I felt like Napoleon. But as well as I felt my round went, you are often just one moment away from Waterloo on the course. I could play Les Bordes every day without being beaten or bored into submission. A huge treat for the lucky few who get to tee it up here.
Date: August 29, 2020