Fabulous France – where golf is fantastique!
From time to time, members of the Top 100 Team receive invitations from PR companies and media organizations to visit a variety of European countries. Sometimes it’s to sample the golf product that’s available in mature tourist destinations such as Spain or Portugal, while other times it’s to see what’s happening in fledgling markets like the north of Poland or Flanders in Belgium.
The articles that follow such excursions are intended to give a little insight into what the game is like in those particular parts of the globe.
In addition to these sponsored outings, a few of the UK-based Top 100 Team members have chosen over the last couple of summers to meet up with correspondents in other countries, arranging completely independent trips to places that might not necessarily feature high on a typical “must visit” list.
In 2016 we were in the south of Sweden, when our Nordic correspondent Jan Nordstrom arranged a splendid golfing itinerary near the city of Malmö. Last year our travels took us close to Amsterdam in The Netherlands with our International Consultant David Davis, where we played some terrific highly-ranked courses.
The month before last, our man in France, Nicolas Aubert, set up a week-long tour of top tracks in and around Paris, with a cast list that included half the national Top 10 – all of which reside inside the Top 15 of our Continental Europe listings – along with another four 18-hole layouts that were just a notch below that standard. Here’s how events unfolded when we set out to play this stellar roster of French courses…
After flying into Charles de Gaulle airport, the natural start point for the trip was Golf de Chantilly, situated half an hour’s drive away. The club lies less than a couple of kilometres from the magnificent Domaine de Chantilly and its beautiful Château, which is the work of Henri d’Orléans, son of the last King of France, Louis-Philippe. When driving slowly past the mightily impressive castle and gardens on one side of the road, with Chantilly racecourse on the other, you know you’ve arrived at a very special location.
Chantilly golf club dates back to 1909, three years on from the first Open de France, and the club has hosted eleven editions of this international event down the years, with 1990 being the last time it was held here. There are two 18-hole courses laid out within a large, forested estate; the Vineuil, which Tom Simpson designed in the early 1920s and the more modern Longères, which Donald Steel redesigned in the late 1980s.
Unfortunately, we only played the Vineuil course as our next game on day 2 was scheduled for close to Orleans so we’d barely time for a quick look at the Longères course before the lengthening early evening shadows indicated it was time to set off on the 180-kilometre drive to the other side of the capital. It was with more than a little reluctance that we slipped away from the seductive charms of Chantilly and onto the second leg of our golfing adventure.
Les Bordes has attracted only one review on this website in the last four years, probably because it had become increasingly difficult to get a game on it. Somewhat surprisingly, the course dropped a few positions in both the French and Continental Europe Top 100 charts when they were re-ranked at the end of last year and that can only be down to the lack of access in recent times, preventing golfers from discovering just how good this course is. Laid out within a tranquil 1,400-acre wooded estate near the small town of Saint-Laurent-Nouan in the Loire Valley, the 18-hole layout at Les Bordes is a thirty-year-old Robert von Hagge creation that’s rightly regarded as one of the Texan architect’s greatest designs.
Looking at the property via the satellite function on Google maps, it clearly shows that there’s a second course lying in wait to be developed immediately west of the existing layout and the website for Les Bordes now mentions the intention to open a “Les Bordes New Course” in the near future. Perhaps the time isn’t too far off for the status of this venue to soar even higher should it become a 36-hole golf destination.
Les Aisses Golf is situated half an hour away from Les Bordes, close to the small town of La Ferté-Saint-Aubin, and it proved to be the biggest surprise of the trip. The 27-hole layout at the club was originally designed by Olivier Brizon but a change in ownership brought Martin Hawtree’s design company right into the picture. Concentrating on two of the three 9-hole circuits, Hawtree and associate Russell Talley set about the redevelopment of a new 18-hole layout in the style of a Surrey heathland course.
Tees and greens have been remodelled and new fairway bunkering introduced. Narrow, tree-lined playing corridors were also cut back, promoting heather regeneration along the edge of the fairways. It’s an ongoing project that will take some time until all the benefits are fully realized but there’s absolutely no doubt the club is heading in the right direction. Don’t expect the course’s inexplicable recent fall in the national rankings to be repeated next time the chart is re-evaluated.
Day 3 arrived and next up on the schedule was Golf de Fontainebleau, a course that was first laid out by Julien Chantepie when the club was formed in 1909, before it was redesigned a decade later by Tom Simpson. Fred Hawtree is credited with making some modifications in the more modern era but it’s essentially a 1920s Simpson tour de force. Brilliantly routed to make the most of the site’s challenging topography, the fairways weave around rocky outcrops and large swathes of heather in two returning loops of nine holes.
A major criticism levelled at Fontainebleau is the extent to which the trees now encroach on many portions of the course but we understand that, like Saint Germain, the course is situated inside a protected area which doesn’t give the club much scope for appropriate arboreal management within the property. Hopefully, this pressing problem can be resolved in collaboration with the national forestry commission office, or relevant local authority overseeing the estate, as proper tree pruning (and removal) would have such a positive impact on the course aesthetics.
In the afternoon, we moved closer to the capital, following a 1-hour drive to Courson-Mandeloup, where Le Stade Français sports club has operated the 36-hole Golf de Courson complex since the early 1990s. The four distinct nines allows golfers to play six different 18-hole combinations and one of the two courses in use when we visited was the Noir and Orange configuration, located next to each other in the southern half of this sporting campus.
Robert von Hagge designed all thirty-six holes at Courson and it’s obvious a fair amount of earth was moved to shape the fairways, with several sizeable lakes created during the build providing a sufficient volume of material for fairway contouring. It’s a well-constructed, very modern layout featuring attractive water hazards, large bunkers and rather unique, crater-shaped grass mounding. Judging from the large numbers who were playing that mid-week day, it’s a very popular and well supported facility.
The dawn of a new day in the northwest of Paris on Day 4 brought the realization that the highlight of the trip was close at hand: a 27-hole full day (with lunch, of course) at Golf de Morfontaine, the current number 1 course in Continental Europe. Overcast and slightly misty weather conditions during the morning round were merely a background irritation as absolutely nothing could dampen the spirits when playing at such a sublime location.
Tom Simpson fashioned the 18-hole Grand Parcours masterpiece in 1927, fourteen years on from when he laid out the 9-hole Vallière course for the Duc de Guiche. Wide fairways are cut through stands of pine and birch trees across gently undulating terrain, with heather fringing many of the holes. In such surroundings, you could easily be forgiven for thinking you might be playing one of the famous heathland courses close to London.
After lunch on the clubhouse terrace, it was time to tackle the sensational 9-hole Vallière course, which must surely lay claim to some of the most unique putting surfaces ever built on any golf course. The bold internal contouring on some of the greens was simply breathtaking and if ever there was a layout that puts fun back into the game then this is it. If a World Top 100 chart for 9-hole courses existed, then Vallière would be a certain contender for the top spot.
One might wonder how it’s possible to follow a day’s golf at Morfontaine. Well, our host Nicolas is a member at Golf de Saint Germain and he somehow managed to secure a very early 4-ball tee time before a club competition got under way the next morning (a Saturday) – now how many members of a prestigious club would ever contemplate trying to pull that little rabbit out of the hat at their club?
The Grand Parcours course at this 27-hole facility is a 1922 Harry Colt classic which has hosted the Open de France on nine occasions, the last time in 1985 when Seve Ballesteros set the course record mark of 62 on his way to winning the tournament. It’s a heavily bunkered layout, with an old railway bisecting the property, so that holes 4 to 6 then 12 to 16 are played on the other side of the line. Tree-lined fairways offer seclusion from the outside world on fairly flat terrain which is a very easy walk and an absolute delight to play.
Following yet another terrific lunch in the lovely old clubhouse, we bid adieu to Monsieur Aubert and set off for an afternoon round at nearby Golf de La Boulie, which is owned by Racing Club de France, an old sporting institution that allows its members the opportunity to participate in more than a dozen different sports. There are forty-five holes in play at this golf facility but it was the historically important La Vallée course that we were most interested in.
Designed by Willie Park Jnr at the start of the 20th century, the course hosted the first Open de France in 1906, which was won by the club’s professional, Arnaud Massey. The layout was damaged during World War II but renovated in 1951 and it went on to hold important international events such as the Canada Cup in 1963 and the Eisenhower Trophy in 1994. No fewer than twenty national Opens have been held here, with winners including J.H. Taylor, James Braid and Walter Hagen.
It’s a lovely parkland track with narrow, tree-lined fairways, many of which have to negotiate steep gradients between the tee box and green. Greens are relatively large but they’re defended by deep, menacing bunkers so it’s a real pity the modest length of the course is a real drawback, preventing modern day professionals from competing here in major competitions.
Le Golf National
Day 6, and the final day of the trip ended on a yet another high with our group teeing it up near the new town of Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines on the outskirts of Paris at Le Golf National. Like Golf de La Boulie, there are two 18-hole layouts and a 9-hole course available for play here but it’s L’Albatros that everybody wants to test themselves on before the Ryder Cup matches are played next month.
Co-designed by Robert von Hagge and Hubert Chesneau in the late 1980s, it’s where all but two Open de France tournaments have been held since the year after it debuted in 1990. L’Albatros is a big, bold and brash design with plenty of water in play and the overtly corporate nature of the place might not sit easily with everybody, but there’s no denying the challenging nature of this modern design will serve up pure match play theatre when the American and European professionals face each other next month.
Our week-long sojourn was memorable in so many ways: the outstanding quality and value of the simple hotel lodgings, the excellence of the Parisian motorway system, the very high standard of the (mainly clubhouse) cuisine and the marvellous conditioning of all the courses we visited. Every club was very welcoming and we really couldn’t have asked for a better golfing experience.
Apart from Morfontaine and Les Bordes, all the other courses we played are accessible on a week day without a member. All you need to do is make the necessary arrangements beforehand and you will be treated as if you were a long-standing member, from the moment you arrive until the minute you leave. All of these clubs are private but the hospitality afforded to visiting golfers is unsurpassed.
To everyone who crossed our path – especially our correspondent Nicolas Aubert, who spent a lot of his spare time in advance setting up such a fantastic programme – we say “merci beacoup” for all your efforts in helping us sample and savour some of the very best grounds for golf in all of Europe.
Top 100 Golf Courses