Bordeaux and Biarritz – bright golfing beacons in southwest France
The historical Aquitaine region sits in the sunny southwest corner of France, stretching from the foothills of the Massif Central in the north to the Spanish border in the south, a distance of more than three hundred kilometres. It’s a territory blessed with a beautiful Atlantic coastline, known as the Côte d'Argent, which runs along the Bay of Biscay, and many of the best golf facilities are strung out along this wonderful sandy coastline.
Aquitaine extends to just over forty thousand square kilometres and a population of more than three million people enjoys a strong golfing heritage that dates as far back as the middle of the 19th century. Pau Golf Club was formed in 1856, making it the oldest golf society in continental Europe, and golf is still played on the same layout that was first fashioned by British visitors all those years ago.
Tom and Willie Dunn helped establish the original course at Biarritz Le Phare in 1888 and this layout was subsequently improved upon by Harry Colt, whose design company was also involved in golf projects at Hossegor and Chantaco in the late 1920s. When you consider that Tom Simpson was busy working on an 18-hole track at Chiberta around the same time, you’ll realise there are quite a few courses in the area with outstanding design pedigrees.
And for those who are more interested in modern golf course architecture, three highly-prized layouts from well-respected American designers all debuted in the late 1980s: Moliets with Robert Trent Jones, Seignosse from Robert von Hagge and Ron Fream’s Arcangues.
So much to choose from so where to begin?
Well, it seemed logical for us to fly into Bordeaux then progress south from there. Our hosts were Sylvie and Lucius McPhilemy from Greens & Grapes, who provide a wide selection of itineraries for people visiting the wine-producing regions in southwest France and into northern Spain.
Sylvie and Lucius offer a very personalised service, having personally hand-picked accommodation, tested recommended restaurants and met every wine producer that they feature. They’ll also arrange preferred green fees and tee-time bookings so everything’s taken care of for you. For our short 2-night stopover in Bordeaux, we stayed at La Villa Verte, a small Aparthotel set next to St. Andre Cathedral, which was perfectly adequate for our needs.
Cité du Vin
Pairing golf with wine is a great idea so the first place that has to be checked out is Bordeaux’s ultra-modern Cité du Vin museum and cultural centre, which is a fantastic multi-million euro attraction that opened to the public in June 2016. You’ll have to set aside at least a full morning or an afternoon for this visit as there are so many wine-related things to see in this spectacular modern building.
About fifty kilometres east of Bordeaux city centre lies the small commune of Saint-Émilion in one of the principal red wine areas. Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it features steep and narrow streets, with Romanesque churches and ruins accessed via underground catacombs dug into the hilly limestone. Again, it’s worth setting aside some time to have a look round this little town.
Continue driving another twenty minutes and you will arrive at the rather unassuming Grand Saint-Emilionnais Golf Club, where the Mourgue d’Algue family recently appointed Tom Doak to design his first course in continental Europe. Set within a gently rolling landscape, the fairways weave their way unobtrusively around a gorgeous property, blending effortlessly into their surroundings.
The Golf du Médoc Resort is located just half an hour’s drive north of Bordeaux and it boasts a pair of 18-hole layouts which were designed by another couple of North American architects. The main attraction is the Châteaux course, a Bill Coore and Rod Whitman co-production completed in the late 1980s when both men were just making their mark in the design game, with the Vignes course – a solo design from Whitman – playing a supporting role to its slightly older sibling.
The Châteaux layout is the highest ranked course in our South West France regional chart and it also occupies a very prominent position in our Continental Europe Top 100 so perceptions of the Vignes course probably suffer when direct comparison are made between the two – make no mistake, though, the Médoc resort is a strong 36-hole golf facility overall.
Situated to the south of Bordeaux, Landes is one of the original eighty-three departments that were created in France at the end of the 18th century and it’s characterised by huge pine plantations running along its sandy Atlantic coastline. Here, you’ll find a wide variety of accommodations; from hotels to bed & breakfasts; vacation rentals to campsites – and you’ll also come across three great golf facilities in among the trees.
Moliets (Forêt & Océan)
The Forêt & Océan nines at Golf de Moliets comprise a 30-year-old Robert Trent Jones Sr. layout that operates within a big coastal golf and tennis complex. The fairways start out in forested terrain then head towards the sand dunes shortly after the turn to give golfers a little taste of linkslike playing conditions before returning back to the tree-dominated interior.
The course at Golf de Seignosse is a Robert von Hagge design that opened around the same time as Moliets in the late 1980s and it too is routed through a heavily pine-clad environment, with water coming into play at a handful of holes. New owners have started renovating the course and there are plans in place to do a lot more in the months to come.
Golf Club d’Hossegor’s course dates back to the 1920s, when Arnaud Massy helped John Morrison – one of Harry Colt’s design partners – to lay out the holes across a gently undulating property. Cabell Robinson has been working here since the start of the new millennium, mainly improving the playability of the course with modifications to both fairway and greenside bunkers.
Continuing further south, across the Adour River which marks the boundary between Landes and the Pyrénées-Atlantiques departments, there’s another cluster of first-class courses to be discovered in and around the elegant seaside town of Biarritz.
We were based for the last part of our trip in the comfortable Mercure Biarritz Centre Plaza Hotel, an exceptional historic establishment with listed architecture as recognised by Monuments de France, and its recently restored antique furniture are an absolute delight for lovers of Art Deco architecture. From this location, the remaining courses on our schedule were never more than half an hour away.
Tom Simpson set out the course at Golf de Chiberta during the Golden Age of Golf in the 1920s and this rather unique part links/part heathland track is as relevant today as it was back then, thanks largely to the efforts of another British architect, Stuart Hallett, who deserves great credit for his work at the club over the past decade, preserving Simpson’s design intent by restoring bunkers and carrying out other course improvements.
Biarritz Le Phare
The initial eighteen holes at Golf de Biarritz Le Phare were date-stamped “1888” but a large part of that Tom and Willie Dunn layout (which was subsequently remodeled by Harry Colt in the 1920s) was lost after World War II. Unfortunately, there’s not much left of the old course but hats of once again to French-based architect Stuart Hallett who is actively involved in a long term upgrade project at the club.
The Golf d’Arcangues course occupies around a hundred and twenty acres of the historical Arcangues estate which has been in the hands of the family since the middle of the 12th century. Designed by Ron Fream when he worked with Golfplan, the layout is routed across rolling terrain, with three holes on the back nine set out in a loop around the old ancestral home, Châteaux d’Arcangues.
The Golf de Chantaco course at St-Jean-de-Luz is another Harry Colt design from the 1920s that has just undergone an extensive renovation by... yes you’ve guessed it – that man Hallett once again! The front nine was totally revamped this year and the back nine is due to go under the knife this coming winter so don’t be too surprised if the Open de France Dames tournament for professional ladies returns here sometime thereafter.
A golfing trip to Aquitaine wouldn’t be complete without venturing one hundred and twenty five kilometres inland to where it all started in Pau, the Cradle of French Golf. The course is laid out on the northern banks of the Gave de Pau river, with six par threes on the scorecard contributing to an overall length of just under 5,400 metres from the back tees.
The club’s first course consisted of nine holes and this was extended to 12 holes by Willie Dunn, the Royal Blackheath professional, in 1860. Fifteen years later, further land was acquired and a new course of 18 holes was fashioned. It’s been lengthened a little since then but it still feels very much caught up in a time trap – don’t miss a trip to Pau as it’s something of a golfing shrine.
Top 100 Golf Courses