23rd July 2018

A wonderful day at the 2018 Ryder Cup course

The 18th hole

I could be on a links in Ireland.
In fact I'm on the 7th tee of a magnificant golf course - the Albatross course (l'Albatros) of Le National golf complex, 20 miles west of Paris, on the edge of Versailles.
A 17th century gatehouse, visible on the course, marks the beginning of Louis XIV's vast domain. 
The gatehouse is not the most surprising feature of the 2018 Ryder Cup course. Even more surprising is that thirty years ago this was all farmland. Le National's three courses were created from scratch. 
Three hundred lorries per day for three years carried soil and rubble from house-building in the area to landscape the three courses. The lakes on the course are part of a drainage system which allows fast, links-style drying-out after rain - which can be plentiful in this part of France. 
Le National golf Complex is the brainchild and design of a former director of the French Golf Federation and golf architect - Hubert Chesneau. His dream was to create French champions, and a permanent home for the French Open. For the creation of champions he set up a Golf Academy. For the French Open championship course, l'Albatros, he brought in the world-renowned golf architect, Robert Von Haage to make the final touches.
The course is visually striking from the start. The first two holes - a par 4 and par 3 - wrap around a lake. 
I stood on the first tee with Le National golf professional, Jean-Pierre Marzelle, coach to the French national team, and my husband, Richard - for whom a round on the Ryder Cup course was a surprise birthday present from me. 
On the par 4 first, Richard's drive landed in the middle of the fairway. Jean-Pierre nodded approval. Richard's second ball landed in the water. Jean-Pierre made him take the shot again. The second ball landed in the water.  
I realised why the friendly and enthusiastic assistants in the pro-shop - all fluent in English - sell packs of 12 lake balls (pristine). Why they suggested taking a second pack "just in case." And why one of them, Nelson (a 3-handicapper on work experience from school in Paris) said "you play this course for the experience, not for the score."
Richard's third, successful, shot left a difficult downhill put towards a lakeside flag. The ball dropped into the hole. Huge relief. What a start!
The second is a par 3 across the lake to a green well-guarded by bunkers. Richard's ball flew over the lake to land in a bunker at the back.  Bogey.
At the third, the course turns away from water, allowing the nerve-shattered golfer to re-gain confidence. The course was bathed in sunshine. There was almost no wind. 
"Perfect conditions," I said, as we reached the fourth.
"This is a monster when the wind is blowing," said Jean-Pierre cheerfully. (Watch the weather forecast for the Ryder Cup weekend!)
Jean-Pierre is charm and patience personified. The round was, in effect a lesson. He described Richard's fading of the ball as a positive. "You see. You know how to do this. Now you can do it only when you need it." He gave both of us tips for playing from the thick fringes to the greens, and from bunkers. And exercises to hone the golf swing.  
A par 5 and a series of long par 4s wind through undulating mounds, past bunkers to difficult, domed greens. There are few trees. Occasionally, the land rises to give a view of the surrounding farmland, flat as far as the eye can see, a reminder of just how much earth was shifted to create this course, and its sister courses, L'Aigle and l'Oiselet, 30 years ago. There is water everywhere, though not necessarily in play, a clue to the complicated drainage system that gives these courses their linksy feel.
On the 7th tee, I look right. Cornfields stretch towards woods. Forest and farmland as far as the eye can see.  
I look left. Undulating dunes, waving grasses, thick rough. Hard to believe I'm twenty miles from Paris and a long way from the sea. 
Le National complex was a game changer for France. It opened an elite sport played at private clubs such as Chantilly, Fontainebleau and Morfontaine - the latter built by a Duke, designed by Tom Simpson (Ballybunion and Lytham St Anne's). 
"Golf was the preserve of the rich," says the Director of Le National, Paul Armitage - born and educated in England but based in France since 1991.  "They brought in great architects. They built fantastic courses. All private. Then, in the 1980s, EU subsidies meant a lot more courses got built. But there weren't enough golfers. Tourism didn't promote French golf. The image of France was still the beret and the baguette. Golfers flew over France to play in Spain and Portugal. The boom in golf courses came too late for France." 
That has changed. While I was chatting to Paul Armitage, officials from French tourism offices all over the world were at the complex discussing promoting France as a golfing destination.  Later, I met a three-ball from Louisiana, and a four-ball from Yorkshire. A first-time golfing break in France for all of them.
The complex is owned by the French Golf Federation. It's pay and play on all three courses - L'Albatros (Albatross), the less difficult L'Aigle (Eagle), and the 9 hole Oiselet (Birdie). (I played L'Aigle with Richard on the following day. It's terrific, but not terrifying, like l'Albatros.) 
Le National is public. There are no members. But there's a golf academy with 100 teaching bays a huge practice area (4,000 square yards of short game plus driving range), and an amphitheatre for seminars and lectures. 
Paul Armitage came to Le National in 2014 when it had already won the bid to host the 2018 Ryder Cup.  
"We had to avoid what happened at Celtic Manor in 2010 when they had to play on the Monday," he said. "We absolutely have to avoid closing for rain. So we re-did the drainage and irrigation - especially the drainage - in 2015-16. We made architectural changes as well. Two greens weren't set up. You need more than 5 or 6 pin positions.  You need different ones for the practice days and the days of play.  Two each for the Friday and Saturday when you have play in both morning and afternoon. Then there are the logistics of modern tournaments - spectator amenities, cabling for television, toilets, car parks. We made the course more fluid for spectators with 12 kilometres of paths. We put in drinking water and fibre optics."
The hard work paid off. It's a great spectator course. The man-made, undulating hills and dunes provide viewpoints on every hole - as I noticed when scrambling up them to help find lost balls. 
There are several holes on l'Albatros where the choice between safety and glory will add drama to the matchplay format of the Ryder Cup. The 13th is a par four dog-leg with an approach to the green over water and through a narrow gap in the trees. From the back tee it will be a fairway wood and a mid-iron onto the green. But the tee positions range from 425 yards to a mere 340. From the forward tee it could be bash and splash.  
The 15th heralds a dramatic run of holes to the finish, a long par four along a lake with an approach to an island green. A clue is in its title - "Le Juge" (Judgement). 
The 16th is a 180- yard par 3 along and across water, the drama changing with both designated tee box and pin position. 
The 17th may appear to offer some respite, but at 480 yards with no bunkers this is sure to encourage some Tiger-line driving. 
The 18th is of similar length, but with water everywhere and an island green. 
Heroics expected. 

Details of how to play Le National, (with, or without professional help) at golf-national.com 
 

 

 

Richard and Jean-Pierre Marzelle