By the time I teed off at the Old Course, paired last moment with two fine French gentlemen, I’d had a few moments to process my initial findings of the New Course played in the morning, reliving it over the delightful ‘Gil’s Philly Cheese Steak Sandwich’ on brioche bread on the elegant terrace overlooking a lake followed by the first fairway and next tot hat the practice green and a glimpse of the 18th green. Gil Hanse apparently is a man of many talents and even managed to make his mark in the french kitchen. I bet Doak, Coore & Crenshaw or even Alister Mackenzie could not say the same about themselves.
A man of refined manners and tastes himself, Robert von Hagge must have been over the moon to be handed the opportunity to build his masterpiece at Les Bordes, given an unlimited budget, which he famously still ‘somehow managed to exceed’.
That’s one of many cool stories and urban legends surrounding Les Bordes. A person who knows them all happened to be in my flight and it made my round that much more memorable. It was staff member Michel, who is not only a walking Les Bordes encyclopedia with an impressive 29 years of employment, but also displays an amazing short game with just one arm.
The first couple of holes of the Old Course, I was still in awe with the quality and experiece of the New course. Because everything is relative, to be honest i was not too impressed with the first couple of holes of the Old Course. This is where I’ll promise to stop comparing these utterly different golfcourses that have little in common, except their exclusivity and their tranquility. So let me just get it together and start again.
The 1st hole is nice but I came prepared regarding the island green. To quote David Davis: it is indeed ‘relatively unique’ but the sand is flat and lies only about 30cm below the green the green and the green as well. Unless you hit a duckhook, big slice or a $H4NK and leave, you’ll have an easy bunkershot to one of the flatter greens. It’s not that challenging but that is quite welcome given what’s to come.
the 3rd hole is where things start to get serious with one of the best and most characteristic holes on the course, followed by a lovely little one shotter with a small green guarded by water in front and on the right of it.
The entire course is basically a shaping masterclass. It is a statement what can be done with an unlimited budget. Everything is constructed and has matured so well that it blends in with nature in almost spiritual harmony, as described comprehensively in BB’s review. Plenty of features were arguably overdone and it might not be everybody’s taste, but it certainly is easy on the eye. Minimalism was never the objective here and Von Hagge was not your guy for any of that. So all in all, there are some bunkers one wouldn’t have missed in terms of strategic interest - or where 2 would have been sufficient instead of 7 - but they were probably not intended to be there in the first place, other than for the purpose of providing definition to the holes and green complexes, to create and enhance beauty and increase the intimidation levels and force the player into making dumb choices. That’s also a more than justified purpose.
I can’t help but write down the analogy of Von Hagge as a cosmetic surgeon of golf courses, squirting some botox and applying some fillers here and there to make sure that the Old Course would redefine the modern beauty ideal of golf. And then he couldn’t resist to use photoshop for some last tweaks. What’s impressive is that it stayed within the boundaries of elegance, but the operations also inevitably caused some questionably-formed unnatural humps and mounds.
‘Pete Dye’ like bunkers of TPC Sawgrass proportions can be found at 6, 12 and 17. They’re penal in the sense that they penalize wayward shots, but not in the sense that it’s hard to hit from them. I especially liked the one at 6, which is very much visible on the teeshot as it walks parallel to the fairway for what must be about 100 meters long until the green. That side of the fairway ends abruptly where the bunker starts 150 cm sharply down the surface of the fairway. You’re not dead from there but your view of the elevated green will be compromised and all you can see is sand until the green.
The raised and tilted fairways featured on some of the holes actually reminded me a bit of the turns in a NASCAR track, best demonstrated on the par 4 11th. The teeshot is played to an elevated fairway. The right side has a sharp edge that you do not want to be on the wrong side of, but the left of the fairway is lower and slopes towards the water, which guards the left side of the hole all the way to the shallow but wide green, which slopes back to front and requires a forced carry over water. Be conservative from the tee and you’ll have a difficult second which poses another dilemma. But you’ll feel even more stupid if you’re too greedy off the tee. That my friends, is Les Bordes in a nutshell!
Is the course really that difficult? Yes it is. but neither is it impossible to score well. You just need to have a very good day of ballstriking, be patient, extremely disciplined and not let the fact that you’re having a good round at Les Bordes (!!!) in your head. That’s so much more difficult because the build-up of the course is just so good. Hole after hole, you are bullied, tempted, rewarded, impressed, stimulated, intimidated and challenged. It feels like you’re working towards a climax – which ultimately is the feeling of accomplishment and a cold beer (or champagne if you care to fit in).
The course demands respect and very good golf from begin to end. It will reward you for sticking to your game plan and the ability to recover from disappointment and heartbreak you will inevitably face at some point during the round. In that respect, I found it to be truly unique and I haven’t experienced this anywhere else. Maybe at Von Hagges other creation Golf National, but that lacks the mesmerizing aura of Les Bordes. I doubt any other place doesn’t.
It’s one thing to design and maintain a difficult course, but it’s endlessly more difficult to make it playable nonetheless. There’s plenty of relief and opportunity to be found throughout the layout, but it’s easy to fall in their traps:
- The course is not that long for modern standards:
The par 3s are pretty short and the par 5s are all reachable (but beware);
- Some holes look more intimidating than they actually are. There might be room to miss where you don’t expect it from the tee;
- There are few relief holes which are relatively gentle (1, 5, 10 and 15). They’re wider, have no water coming into play significantly and might be shaped favourably to keep your ball on the course;
- Good shots will usually be rewarded.
Les Bordes Old provides a continuous challenge not letting loose for the entire round. There’s something in the air which makes it welcoming and intimidating at the same time. It’s the strange course of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. It may be beautiful and inviting but it will bite you and you are fully aware it can and will happen any moment. But when it does, you know you can only blame yourself.
Date: July 28, 2021