Golf de Morfontaine dates back to October 1913 when the Duke of Guiche obtained permission from his father to transform an old polo pitch in the park of Vallière into a 6-hole golf course for the pleasure of the Duke and his friends. He liked Tom Simpson’s taste for natural landscapes and his sense of aesthetics so he was later commissioned to re-design the original 9-hole Vallière course.
At the opening ceremony, professional James Braid teed it up with French champions Jean Gassiat and Arnaud Massy. After the First World War, the Duke decided to open the course more widely, and, in 1927, created the Golf Club Association that is still in existence today.
Tom Simpson designed a new 18-hole layout at Morfontaine (now called Le Grand Parcours) and the British Ladies Amateur Champion of 1927, Simone de la Chaume (later to become Mrs Lacoste), struck the first tee shot. Simpson’s design was immediately applauded and his work at Morfontaine is still highly regarded and bracketed alongside many of his other great achievements, including Royal Lytham & St Annes and Ballybunion.
In 1930, 350 people from different nationalities were registered club members. The Duke died in 1962 and in 1987 Morfontaine finally became the property of its members, remaining perhaps the most exclusive club in France with its doors remaining firmly closed to visitors, except if you’re lucky enough to receive an invite from one of its 450 current members.
At some point after the course was laid out, the original par three 3rd was taken out of play (the green was then used for the 9th hole of the Vallière course) and a new par three hole (today's 13th) introduced between the old 13th and 14th holes. The holes were also resequenced, so that the old 1st and 2nd became the new 9th and 10th, with the old 4th becoming the new starting point at today's hole number 1.
Kyle Phillips has recently made some minor changes to holes 10 and 12. The par four 10th has now been lengthened by 50 metres and the par five 12th has also gained a similar length. Further changes were also made to holes 6 and 14 to add a little more length, in an attempt to keep Morfontaine as challenging as it was in Tom Simpson’s day.
At 6,001 metres from the back tees, par 70, Morfontaine is not the longest course in France. Few fairway bunkers really challenge your club selection on the tee, but what the course lacks in difficulty in that respect, it more than makes up for with its strategic approach shots. Most of the big and undulating greens are well defended by bunkers ready to gather balls if the wrong club has been selected. Factor in the ever-present trees and you have a stern test.
After a gentle but long opening par four and two par threes at the 2nd and 4th, the magic really begins and the 7th, 8th and 9th holes are an especially formidable trio. The back nine continues the high quality theme, with the 13th being one of the loveliest short par threes we’ve ever seen.
The book 500 world’s greatest golf holes by author George Peper and the editors of GOLF magazine features the 430-yard par four 7th on Morfontaine’s Grand Parcours layout: “The terrain dictates the challenge on this hole, as boulder-strewn tall grass gives way to an uneven fairway lined by white birch trees. First up is a semi-blind tee shot, played over a rise that slopes from left to right. On a hole that doglegs left, this toughens the drive considerably, as drives are often kicked into the right rough. Though the green is large, its undulating surface leaves few safe places for an approach. A deep bunker guards the left side, and a false front sloping back to the fairway must be carried.”
The original 9-hole course, Le Vallière, is still a gem in its own right and despite being short it is nonetheless a real challenge. Both the 2nd and 4th are cracking short downhill par threes and the 5th is a great two-shotter. These three holes are as good as any that you'll find on the “main” course.
Few will ever get the chance to play this heathland paradise. But, if you happen to befriend a member, make sure you treat him well and then get set for 27 holes of sheer golfing pleasure.
So ... one usually wonders if Morfontaine is one of those places that gets higher votes because the experience is enhanced by how fortunate one if to play? To my eye and criteria, it is no let down and it is every bit the retreat I expected it to be. A very nondescript gate belies little of what lies ahead.
We played last autumn on a misty day which gave way to a simply glorious golf episode. So well routed over near ideal golf land, my usual arthritic early morning limitations were non-existent, such were the endorphins of what defines ideal golf, one clever surprise after another. Plenty of trees in the forest (and this is FRANCE!) but never claustrophobic. I saw McCabe's complaint (?) of the tree on #13 - it was the right quirk at the right time -Triskaidekaphobia be damned (Ever notice how often #13 is a Par 3? Disproportionately) - hit the green and parred. [If one wants a tree on their Par 3, I recommend Girvan south of Turnberry - the 18th. That's a tree in the way!)
As for playing Morfontaine, it is such a setting without any sense of artificiality. Such a wonderful routing without any compromise. The 15th has stones in the fairway but it must. Each hole is memorable, unique and there is none of that nonsense signature hole business. One flows to another effortlessly. There is no weak hole, perhaps a less challenging one or three, but it is ensemble.
The course is a fine example that width does not provide ease of play and forgiveness, it is utilized repeatedly to provide strategy as the greatest courses do.Hills and rises with the bends of the holes are perfectly matched to provide potentiative challenge. The greens are well and thoughtfully contoured without any sense of repetition or artificiality.
It is over all too soon. It is a blessing to the course that it has its private, nearly inaccessible location so that there is not that absurd pressure to accommodate the freaks of professional golf, adding yardage continuously as the lords of golf do nothing about the length the most skilled can hit the ball. It is very egalitarian, golf for every player. An unskilled player with have the greatest time ever not breaking 100 where a similar occurrence at Pine Valley or Winged Foot is but mere torture. It is not a course to embarrass your guests ala Oakmont; it is great ideal golf.
It is also very welcoming - members, golf staff, food and drink operations - everyone here is having a wonderful time and whether it's a one-off or if you have friends who frequently allow you to come and visit - one cannot have a bad day.
This is that absolutely perfect marriage of truly enjoyable yet challenging golf, in the most pastoral of settings simultaneously with an unmatched club experience.
Sadly, the mere closet of a professional's shop didn't have one of the exact souvenirs that I had hoped to take home. The most glaring weakness.
Liberté, égalité, fraternité
- that's a day at Morfontaine
I became the latest member of the Top 100 Team to tee it up here a couple of months ago and, on reflection, I can only think how privileged we are to have been able to play private places such as Morfontaine. My one genuine disappointment is that not enough passionate golfers ever get the opportunity to play here and find out just how phenomenal the club’s two courses are.
Our 3-ball set out on the Grand Parcours on a gloomy, leaden-skied morning which didn’t really brighten up throughout the round so my photos are far from the best that I’ve ever taken on a golf course. That’s a real pity because if ever a golfing location deserved to be captured on camera in its full glory then this was it.
The rocky outcrops dotted around the first tee surprised me (and I’d see more of them during the round) but what struck me most on the first hole was the generous width of the fairway – you have to be seriously off line to end up in the heather – and the array of ragged-edged bunkers protecting the flanks of a rather large putting surface.
Those design traits would be repeated at every hole, of course, but perhaps my overriding memory of the round is the way the trees have been managed around the property. What a fantastic backdrop they provide to each and every fairway, framing every hole beautifully – except on the par three 13th where a tall pine tree controversially blocks the way to the green!
Other clubs could learn a lot from looking at how Morfontaine allows light and air into the playing corridors, promoting good agronomy and giving golfers glimpses of other parts of the course through the trees. I like the feeling of seclusion on every hole of a woodland course but having the chance to have a little peek at what lies ahead from time to time is an added bonus.
The sequence of six par fours from the 5th to the 10th is sublime, with the severely left doglegged 8th my favourite on that particular stretch as it plays round the side of a hill then drops down to the green, with two strategically placed fairway bunkers on the right forcing a tough approach shot over them to the putting surface.
The long 12th hole is a beast of a par five, bisected by an area of rough (replicated at the 15th and 16th), which plays to a terrific Kyle Phillips green that now lies fifty metres beyond its original location, though you’d never know it.
The aforementioned tree on the short 13th irked me a little on the tee but I forgot all about it when I reached the putting surface on the hole – what a green! It must measure all of fifty metres in length, with a pronounced back to front tilt of several feet, and any of three or four different clubs might be needed to reach the correct portion, depending upon the pin position.
Three demanding par fours kick in towards the end at holes 14 to 16 (stroke index 7, 5 and 3). The fairway on the first of these holes has a pronounced left to right slope, the second hole doglegs downhill and left to the green, with the third hole climbing back up the slope. Net pars marked on the card at this juncture will go a long way to preserving a good score if you have one going at that important stage of your round.
All too soon, four hours of golfing bliss came to an end, but the day was far from done. After a very pleasant lunch on the terrace, I then spent another couple of hours on a now sunny afternoon playing the sensational 9-hole Vallière course, which is blessed with the same firm and fast heathland playing characteristics as the Grand Parcours but a lot shorter, with wilder greens.
Honestly, most of the greensites on this little track have to be seen to be believed – talk about putting the fun back into playing golf!
Sometimes you get the chance to play a famous old course like the Grand Parcours (or visit a modern new layout that’s been hyped to the heavens) and it turns out to be a bit of a let-down for whatever reason. Well, there was never any chance of that happening at Morfontaine as it’s an extraordinary club with a brilliant set-up both on and off the golf course and my guest experience here was one that I’ll treasure for a very long time to come.
Morfontaine is built in a forest and has an abundance of heather, reminiscent of the heathland courses outside of London, such as Walton Heath. The soil is naturally sandy and thus ideally suited for good golf, and there are ferns growing vigorously all over the property. It is a good walking course since almost all the tee boxes are near the previous greens. Simpson designed large greens at Morfontaine and left many of the natural rock outcroppings in place, which adds to the character of the course. Morfontaine is an absolute treasure and work of art; it has that certain something the French call je ne sais quoi that sets it apart from anywhere else I have ever played golf. Similar to Yeamans Hall, which is set on a 900-acre former plantation site in Charleston, the entire atmosphere and sense of isolation at Morfontaine envelops you.
John Sabino is the author of How to Play the World’s Most Exclusive Golf Clubs
My favourite course continental Europe by far. My top 20 in the world, hands down. If Morfontaine is a New York area golf course it’s a world top 20 course in every ranking and would have hosted a few majors by now
Morfontaine is an hour north of Paris, and if you are lucky enough to play it, you should make a day of it. Plan on playing the 27 holes .
A few years back the president of Augusta came to play Morfontaine : at the end of the day he said that Morfontaine is a fantastic course, no ifs and buts … and the 9 hole course, Vallière is the name, is one of the best 9 hole course he has ever seen…if not the best (I’ve played Augusta’s 9 hole course …Morfontaine’s is way way more beautiful)
The thing is, originally Morfontaine was only 9 holes. And of those 9 holes, 7 are still on Vallières. Holes 1 through 5 holes are incredible. You can see that they didn’t move any land around and just placed the greens in the most unbelievable places. A must see for any golf connoisseur.
Now for the 18 hole course.
Over the last 10 years the course has been vastly lengthened and has gone from a par 72 to a par 70. The committee is made up of France’s most enlightened and traditional golfers and they are the rare breed to understand that sticking to a par 72 is an outdated discussion.
What could I possibly say about the course that would not sound like I’m rambling on and on. It’s not just a masterpiece to the eye, if you like heather and forest courses, but it’s also a fantastic test of golf. There are no stereotypes in attacking the greens, and that goes for the driving as well. Shaping shots, lob wedges and chip & run … you need to be able to play all shots here.
As for the clubhouse : everything is home made (a rarity for French clubs) so it’s just a delightful lunch. At the bar, order a CHANTACO (alcohol free) a refreshing drink made up of freshly squeezed fruits and Perrier
I felt very privileged to play at beautiful Morfontaine on a lovely summers day in June. Expectations were understandably high visiting the No.1 ranked course in Continental Europe and after playing Chantilly Vinueil a couple of days earlier I wondered how the two would compare. As you would expect, both courses are superb with high quality greens, Chantilly being much the tougher course and Morfontaine, which is simply stunning throughout, the better manicured.
There is a relaxed and tranquil feel here, both on course and in the wonderful but understated old clubhouse. Our day began on the 9-hole Vallière, a Tom Simpson original and built before the main course. I have played one or two courses over the years that lay claim to be the best 9-holes in the world but in my humble opinion this beats them all. Some might say it's a little short, measuring under 3,000 yards, but the routing is incredibly good, rolling through the forest to some of the most interesting and undulating greens I've ever seen.
This was the perfect introduction to Morfontaine and after a traditional lunch on the terrace it was on to the Grand Parcours. The first thing to impress was the magnificent bunkering and with few being on the fairways, the vast majority are laid out to protect the greens. They are strategically excellent, visually stunning and comparable to what you see on a few of England's finest heathland courses.
This applies in particular to the five par 3's, all beauties with the 4th and 13th being my personal favourites. There are no poor holes but the 3rd, a short par-5, with no bunkering around the green is perhaps a little bland.
The 5th, a beautiful short par-4 which requires a well positioned tee shot gives us the first taste of the unusual rock formations which appear mainly in the trees but occasionally on or close to the fairways. More stunning bunkering on the 6th and a couple of excellent dogleg holes on the 7th and 8th continues the run of magical holes
The variety in Simpson's routing continues to impress throughout the back nine although I believe the wonderful green complex at the 12th is down to Kyle Phillips. A large rock has been left in the middle of the fairway on the 14th, followed by two strong par-4's, the downhill dogleg 15th and the difficult uphill 16th which at over 450 yards is probably the toughest hole on the course.
An attractive par-3 and a par-5 offering a genuine birdie opportunity bring the round to a close in a stunning little spot beneath the clubhouse.
A class act and one of my best experiences in golf.
Strange enough, I rarely comment on these things but a review of Morfontaine needs to include the entire package to demonstrate what an amazing day of golf and the other things that make it so special.
In terms of the golf, fortunately it too is top notch. Think London Heathland courses like Sunningdale and Swinley. There are in my view several added bonuses at Morfontaine that puts it ahead of any other heathland course experience I’ve had. First of all they have 27 holes. The first 9 and original design, called the Valliere course, was Simpson’s very first project in France and I’m not going out on a limb in saying that it’s certainly his best. Even stronger, 9 of the best golf holes I’ve ever experienced together and perhaps shows what a genius architect can do when they receive carte blanch and a great site with sandy turf.
The main course really has an excellent routing with a fairly gentle start on flattish terrain that just keeps getting better. A great mix of short and long holes, blind shots and excellent one shotters. I must admit to being sceptical about the par 3, 13th and facing a tee shot over a large tree on a relatively short par 3, however, even this really does work at Morfontaine. I can’t say there is much I’d change about the course. Again one of the best days of golf I’ve ever experienced.