Golf in France: a Sampler

“You know, golf originated in France, not Scotland.”

When 19th hole golf talk lags, I like to drop this verbal bomb, knowing it’s akin to saying that cowboys originated in Japan rather than the American West. In truth, it’s quite possible that golf (and a number of other stick-and-ball sports) evolved from croquet, a game practiced widely as jeu de mail in France since the 11th century. As the instigator of this heresy, I also know how to end the turmoil. The Scots were the first to incorporate a hole into their game. Enough said. My playing buddies settle back into their chairs. Any duffer knows golf is all about getting the ball in the hole, with a one-foot putt counting the same as an heroic drive.

The purpose of my mischievousness is always to open the subject of golf in France. While American golfers continue to wear a groove in the ocean between the U.S. and the British Isles, Europeans quietly (perhaps secretly) also recognize France as a delightful golf destination, rich in a different sort of history, cuisine and ambiance. The country, which is almost twice as big as Colorado, has about 600 golf courses. In Golf World‘s ranking of courses in continental Europe, France has more courses in the top 25 and the Top 100 than any other country.

With only two weeks to spend and a desire to play golf, see some some sights, and sample lots of wine and cheese, my photographer and I chose carefully. We would play Les Bordes, ranked in the country’s top five (frequently No. 1) since its opening in 1986; Royal Mougins, also ranked in the country’s top five; and two exciting Dave Thomas courses at the Four Seasons Provence at Terre Blanche.

Our selective quest involved a north-south trek through the country. To spice up the road trip, we recruited as our traveling companion Rick Baril, lead architect for the Texas-based design firm of Von Hagge, Baril and Smelek. Four of the top five courses in France are the work of the firm, including Les Bordes and Royal Mougins. Rick is the man responsible for the hands-on work on the firm’s European designs, speaks passable French, and knows his wines.

Les Bordes

Les Bordes

Les Bordes

We reconnoitered with Rick in Paris and made our way onto one of the country’s fine motorways (what we would call an interstate). Les Bordes lies 90 minutes southwest of Paris, in the Loire Valley near the town of Orleans. We stopped to explore Orleans, where the striking Gothic Cathédrale Sainte-Croix overlooks a community rich in galleries and historic sites. It was here that Joan of Arc broke a siege by the English in 1429.

A winding country road led through the ancient forest of Sologne to the gated estate of Les Bordes. Deemed unsuitable for agriculture in medieval times, the Sologne was a hunting preserve for royalty, who traveled from the palace at Versailles to their grand chateaus along the Loire River.

As the estate’s automatic gates glided shut behind us, a twilight magic set in. Ancient oaks and pines shadowed the narrow drive, which ended in a grove of trees next to what appeared to be a hunting lodge, its buildings of wood, stone and stucco mellow in the waning light. Inside the lodge (the heart of the golf club), we warmed ourselves before a great stone fireplace spanning one end of the room. A bar runs the length of the room, facing windows overlooking (we would discover in daylight) a patio, practice green and lake. Deep leather chairs and couches make up a sitting area beneath arching beams recovered from ancient chateaus and secured with hand-driven pegs. Hunting scenes and stags’ heads decorate the walls. Heavy doors handmade in the 1800s open into a cozy dining room serving fresh local meats, fish and produce. Our wine of choice from the extensive cellar was a lusty St. Emilon red that was bottled for the club and labeled Chateau Ferand-Baron Bich.

Over dinner Rick recounted the story of how Robert von Hagge got the contract for the Les Bordes course. It started with a call from Baron Marcel Bich informing von Hagge that he and his Japanese business partner, Yoshiaki Sakurai, had chosen him to be their course architect. A first class ticket in von Hagge’s name was waiting at the Houston airport. Could he come to Paris at once? Intrigued, von Hagge flew to Paris. The Baron explained that he felt there were few top golfers in France because there were no courses of international caliber. He and Sakurai wished to build such a course. Bich began to sketch a rough layout, using a disposable ballpoint pen. When von Hagge pulled out his Parker pen, the Baron asked that he use one of his instead. It was only then that it dawned on von Hagge that the Baron was the French entrepreneur who parlayed inexpensive pens and razors into the BIC empire. Thus began a long and cordial relationship.

When we stepped from the club’s warm interior into the dark chill of an autumn evening, we heard the strident bugling of stags so close that we peered into the darkness, trying to see the big beasts. The mating serenade continued into the night outside our cottage, a cozy room with stone floors, canopied wooden beds and oval-topped wood doors with big cast iron locks. The rusticity was, of course, softened by amenities such as cable TV, electric heat and modern bathrooms with Hermes toiletries.

Les Bordes statue

Les Bordes statue

The next morning we walked to the clubhouse through a shroud of fog, but we could see the aftermath of the stags’ evening activities—cloven hoofprints on the practice green. It was here, on this magnificent, rolling green, that I got my first insight into the nature of the man behind the club. Beneath flags of France, Les Bordes, and the countries of guests in residence, stood a statue of a life-sized nude male grasping his forehead (Rodin’s 17th-century “Age of Bronze”).

When I asked Jim Shirley, the club’s resident American advisor, about the sculpture, he said that the Baron felt it captured the agony of the missed three-foot putt. Ah, yes. I understood only too well. An interesting footnote: In 1877, when the original plaster statue was cast in bronze, a fig leaf was added. Baron Bich ordered his copy of the sculpture sans fig leaf.

“With the Baron, it was all about realism and naturalness,” Shirley explained.

Very shortly we understood the depth of the Baron’s commitment to the natural. The Les Bordes course is devoid of the trappings American golfers expect, such as restrooms, drinking water, ball washers, trash bins, yardage markers and refreshment carts. There are carts, or “buggies,” as Europeans call them. About 40 percent of the players ride, for the course is quite spread out, with holes screened by deep forest.

“The 150-yard markers and yardage books are conveniences added after the Baron’s death,” Rick told us. “He felt you should figure out distances on your own. To preserve quiet on the course, he and Mr. Sakurai bought extra equipment so that all the mowing would be finished before play began. They shared a vision for this place; they were kindred spirits.”

From the first tee to the last green we found ourselves in a world of pure and extraordinary golf. Measuring 7,062 yards, the par-72 course carries a slope of 148 (average is 113, maximum is 155). The setting is visually stunning—beautifully groomed fairways bordered by mature oaks and birches, and accented with wild, yellow-flowered genet bushes. The layout is riddled with lakes, so that a dozen holes have carries over water or are bordered by watery hazards. In many instances the fairways are elevated to avoid marshy areas, dropping off into trouble on each side.

Les Bordes #18

Les Bordes #18

The course begins with a lake carry off the back tees and ends with an approach shot over water to a green supported by a four- to six-foot wall of oak timbers. The 18th green is severely tiered, so that a ball putted from the upper level will roll well past a pin in the lower tier and perhaps fall into the water. It is a fitting end to a round demanding sound strategy and a bit of luck.

On the patio after our round, director of golf Mark Vickery told us the story behind the stone cross rising from a waste bunker on the sixth hole. “The cross marks the place where the 17-year-old son of the Duke of Org fell from his horse and died while stag hunting,” he said. “There’s a date on the back—1864. Descendants of the family still live in the area.”

There’s no escaping the hunting legacy of this land. The Les Bordes crest is a stag with a cross framed by his antlers. This, explained Jim Shirley, is based on the legend of St. Hubert, whose passion was stag hunting. One Sunday morning the hunter was on the point of killing a magnificent stag when a cross suddenly appeared over its head. He never hunted again, and devoted his life to the church.

Le Bordes is not a resort. The focus here is golf—pure, simple and sublime. But there are plenty of diversions nearby. Le Bordes is just a few miles from the Loire River, an area rich with chateaux, vineyards, cathedrals and small towns such as Beaugency, a charming village with shops, restaurants and historic structures.

My favorite excursion was to Chambord, a royal hunting chateau that is one of the best examples of Renaissance architecture in the Loire Valley. Completed in 1660 by Louis XIV, the castle contains 440 rooms and 13 grand staircases. It’s an easy place to get lost, but the view of the gardens and countryside from up in the turrets is lovely. The estate (now government owned) covers more than 13,000 acres, surrounded by a high wall about 20 miles long. Da Vinci visited the chateau during its construction, and the influence he wielded is obvious, especially in the central double spiral staircase, a unique feature.

There are a half dozen golf courses within a few miles of Les Bordes, including the 36-hole Ganay Golf Club, on the estate just outside the gates. Jim Shirley designed the two courses for the Baron as less punishing (and less expensive) alternatives to Les Bordes. Routed through the rolling meadows and wooded copses of the Sologne countryside, both courses are scenic, easy to walk and a delight to play, with enough trouble to keep you on your toes.


Royal Mougins

We arrived in Cannes on the legendary French Riviera at dusk, having spent the day driving from Orleans south through the heart of the country. At a market along the way we purchased crusty baguettes and wines and cheeses from a vast selection, which we consumed at a scenic roadside pique nique area. Motorways are well marked with signs for countless historic points of interest, enough to fill weeks of sightseeing. We chose to stop at Avignon, an ancient city with an array of churches, forts, museums and bridges. It grew from a quiet village into a thriving city when a 14th-century French Pope chose it as the new home of the Papacy. For 68 years the “French Vatican” was based here, in the Palace of the Popes, the largest Gothic palace in all of Europe. Today the palace has minimal furnishings, but the architecture is impressive, well worth a ramble.

Approaching Cannes, we turned away from the city (and a vast selection of luxury hotels), continuing 10 minutes uphill to the medieval town of Mougins, home to the late Pablo Picasso and one of the most desirable addresses in the Cannes area. During the annual film festival, film stars and cognoscenti flock to the town, especially the Moulin de Mougins Restaurant made famous by restaurateur Roger Verge’.

A pair of stone doves atop a wall marked the location of our bed-and-breakfast, “La Colombe,” (the doves) operated by the vibrant Hortense Albrecht, a Swiss widow who speaks impeccable English and knows the town inside-out. Our simple rooms overlooked enclosed gardens and a swimming pool, with the lights of Cannes shimmering in the distance. It is one of many B&Bs, inns and hotels in tiny Mougins, the fanciest being the Le Mas Candille, a refurbished 17th century mansion with 40 rooms and a fine restaurant.

Royal Mougins #18

Royal Mougins #18

The next morning we played the semi-private Royal Mougins Golf Club, one of the finest courses in the Cote d’Azur and ranked in the county’s top five. It’s also a von Hagge layout, so we had the advantage once again of Rick Baril’s insight.

The club is at a marvelous turning point, with ownership having passed to a man of infinite resources and a passion for the club. A member since the club’s opening in 1993, Indian-born Dutch citizen Rattan Chadha is the founder of Mexx International, a major European clothing line. He has invested heavily in Royal Mougins–upgrading the maintenance, improving the landscaping, redecorating the clubhouse and adding a spa and  a boutique hotel.

The layout occupies most of the small Vallon de l’Oeuf (Valley of the Egg), ringed by ancient stonewalled terraces and dotted with revered olive trees (it’s against the law to cut one down). Royal Mougins skirts along the ridges, dipping frequently into the valley for forays around and across eight lakes joined by waterfalls, streams and wetlands. Twelve holes involve water, and the elevation changes give constant reason for pause and reflection on one’s course strategy. The course signature is the second hole, a par three dropping over a succession of waterfalls to a green fronted by a pond.

A railway runs alongside the course, carrying fragrances from the village of Grasse, the perfume center of the world. Somehow the infrequent distraction seems worthwhile.

After our round, we walked the cobblestone streets of Mougins with our hostess, Hortense, stopping for dinner at the busy Resto des Arts, where tables spilled out onto the street and the ebullient owner, Gregory, bussed Hortense on both cheeks before seating us. As I slurped fresh oysters and listened to the ebb and flow of several conversations, I watched a cat sitting patiently in a kitchen window across the street until his dinner was served. Though the glamour of Cannes nightlife would lure us another time, I fell in love with Mougins vignettes such as this.

Four Seasons Provence at Terre Blanche

Baril dropped us off at the Four Seasons, 25 minutes from Cannes, and continued on into Italy to check on course projects there. We settled into a luxurious suite with the Four Seasons trademark bathroom—big, with a deep soaking tub, a separate oversized marble shower with a powerful spray of hot water, and enough light in the double sink area to put on a stage show. We had enough closet space for a month’s worth of clothes, and the sitting room had all the technological bells and whistles.

Four Seasons Le Chateau #11

Four Seasons Le Chateau #11

Our private patio overlooked a valley with the medieval towns of Fayence and Seillans clustered on a far slope and the Southern Alps in the distance. Tucked into the heavily landscaped hillside of the resort were 115 suites like ours. Stone walkways connect suites and villas to a large, heated infinity swimming pool and the hotel central, with its restaurants, bar and meeting rooms. Exposed wood and rough stone was used throughout, blending beautifully with the rugged landscape.

We had one delicious seafood dinner in the bar/lounge area and a most memorable evening in Faventia, the gourmet restaurant, where the food was perfectly done in classic Provencal style and the waiters were attentive to every detail. We also took great pleasure in our sumptuous room-service breakfasts. No matter what the main course, it came with an overflowing basket of melt-in-your-mouth pastries.

Though European accommodations can be charming and elegant, many Americans love the Fours Seasons’ predictability. As expected, the resort ranks at the top of the comfort chart. Also highly regarded are the resort’s two golf courses, Le Riou and Le Chateau, designed by Dave Thomas. A European Tour standout in the Nicklaus era, Thomas has many famous designs to his credit, including the De Vere Belfry, venue for four Ryder Cups.

Thomas minimized tree removal and took full advantage of the topography and natural foliage of the site. As a result, in a short time both courses will no doubt give the impression they have been there for decades. Le Chateau sits lower on the hillside that Le Riou, and therefore has fewer extreme elevation changes. Having played Le Riou first, we noticed immediately the wider, more level fairways and subdued mounding of Le Chateau. Designed for tournament play, it is almost 700 yards longer than Le Riou, with more lake encounters and heroic carries over trouble. That said, Le Riou was our favorite. Its tight, innovative and diabolical layout had us grinning in admiration (though our scores suffered). We had the distinct feeling that the architect cut loose on this one, giving his imagination full play. Both courses have panoramas of the valley and the distant Alps.

Four Seasons Le Rieu #18

Four Seasons Le Rieu #18

The 600-acre estate has an interesting history, told to us by the director of golf. The property was once a present given by Napoleon to one of his generals, who built the chateau overlooking the Le Chateau course. Though it seems a generous legacy, the director points out that it would have been “like being buried alive” in Napoleon’s day to inherit a post so far from Paris, on a forested hill unsuitable for agriculture. No such downside existed when actor Sean Connery owned the property and commissioned Jack Nicklaus to build a course there. Nevertheless, the timing wasn’t right and the project failed.

There are many good golf courses in Provence and the French Riviera, along with the diversions of Cannes (film festival, beach, sailing), Monte Carlo (casinos, car races), Antibes (Picasso Museum), Nice (Roman ruins, Chagall Museum) and the famous beaches of St. Tropez. The region is easily accessed by direct flights to Nice from New York and other major cities.

Predictably, a sampler only whets the appetite. We now want to play more courses in the Loire Valley, the Cote d’Azur, the Paris area, and in the growing Normandy and Burgundy regions. No matter where we play, we know we can expect good food and wine and good challenges in this unexpectedly golf savvy country.

Particulars

On landing in Paris, we chose to sleep off jetlag in the Sofitel Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport, one of the high-rise hotels just minutes from the arrival terminals and car rentals. The executive floor of the hotel provides amenities that are a cut above the norm, plus blessed peace and quiet. There’s a small private lounge for check-in and complimentary breakfast and cocktails, dominated by a large-screen TV tuned to CNN—in English. France’s high-speed train system is superb and faster than driving, but we enjoyed the opportunity to explore  by car. The Nice airport is convenient to the Four Seasons, Royal Mougins and other courses and attractions on the Cote d’Azur.

* For more information on travel and golf in France, see www.francetourism.com
* Four Seasons Provence at Terre Blanche – www.FourSeasons.com/Provence
* Les Bordes Golf Club – www.lesbordes.com
* Royal Mougins Golf Club – www.royalmougins.fr

About Dale Leatherman

In the course of her life she has exercised racehorses at New York’s Belmont Park, showed jumping horses on the A Circuit, driven a race car with the late Paul Newman and played the world’s most famous golf courses.

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