The Loire Valley has many a romantic pseudonym, including the Valley of the Kings and the Garden of France. It’s certainly an enchanted and historical region with its vineyards and chateaux. Set in the middle of this Renaissance is the beauty and the beast that is Les Bordes.
Les Bordes was the brainchild of Baron Marcel Bich (the man behind Bic pens) and his friend Yoshiaki Sakurai. Together they committed to paper (presumably by biro) the wooded masterpiece that is consistently ranked as one of the Europe’s greatest courses.
Designed by Texan, Robert von Hagge, on a day when he was at his most wickedly creative. Les Bordes opened for play in 1986 and it’s a supreme challenge. The likeable Jean Van de Velde holds the current course record of 71 (one under par) so don’t visit Les Bordes expecting to play to handicap, this monster layout stretches to 7,062 yards from the tips. It really is as difficult as its reputation suggests.
La Sologne occupies an area of approximately 1,500 sq kilometres and the region offers tranquil walks around lakes and woodland and von Hagge has utilised some of Sologne’s lakes to dramatic effect with island greens and water coming into play on no less than twelve holes.
Les Bordes has a slight American feel to it, both in terms of design and conditioning but there is no doubting that you are in France. There is more style here on this tournament condition layout than just about any other course in France. And what’s most impressive is that visitors can actually stay and play here these days… what sheer unadulterated delight.
Gil Hanse fashioned a new 18-hole course to the west of the existing 18-hole von Hagge layout, which officially opened in July 2021. Playing corridors were previously carved through the trees for a second course when the original course (now called the Old) was constructed, but the latest design (named the New) pays scant regard to what was done before.
The old adage of never judge a book by its cover also applies to golf – never form an opinion of a course by its opening hole. I know everything is big in the Lone Star State of the US of A, but Texan architect Robert von Hagge went WAY over the top with his design on the first hole at Les Bordes when he constructed an island green, almost completely encircled by a huge waste bunker.
Here we go, I thought as I stepped off the green across its sleepered exit , is this going to be some Disney-type “golf on steroids” imported into the heart of France by some American madman designer? Thankfully, the answer to that was no; the architect has made many bold, brash and basically ballsy statements around the property, but somehow – incredibly - most of them actually work!
The estate is enormous, as is the course itself (with many long walks from green to the next tee) but the von Hagge layout matches everything to scale.
Water fronts three of the four par threes to great dramatic effect and lakes also threaten approach play at a number of others, particularly at the par five 7th , the favourite hole of myself and its joint creator, Baron Bich. My playing companion and I played after some very heavy rain (and the course held up remarkably well considering) but it played very long - as if it’s not tough enough with the clubhouse noticeboard containing names of those who have broken 80 numbering less than 80 (and two of these are Darren Clarke and Ronan Rafferty!)
I think what redeemed some of the outlandishly huge bunkers, the (in places) excessive mounding, elevated fairways (yes, some were constructed four or five feet above the level of the surrounding landscape) and pneumatically-jacked up green complexes was the understated nature of the tee boxes (no flashy signage here), the carpet-like putting surfaces (which were a delight to putt on) and the solitude of playing in such a vast arena.
Locker rooms and open plan clubhouse (complete with wood-burning fire) were also out of the top drawer, so it must be said that a green fee for less than that paid at many top parkland tracks in the UK is well worth the money spent.