Paris Match Play: Why You Should Golf in France

The connoisseur's guide to the golden age of golf in France. 

It can be difficult to make an argument for playing golf around many European capitals. Rome, Berlin, and Madrid, for example, all come to mind as places where you’d probably be best leaving your clubs home. Paris, on the other hand, is sneaky good as a golf city, despite the fact that the game isn’t generally popular in France. Its appeal here is largely the legacy of a pair of British architects, Harry S. Colt and Tom Simpson, who crossed the English Channel a century ago and seeded the Continent with courses of enduring style and playing appeal. Colt was a Cambridge Blue who ditched a promising legal career for the Scottish game; Simpson, an independently wealthy sophisticate who gained notoriety for arriving at work sites in cape and beret, from a chauffeur-driven Rolls. Today both are considered among the greatest artists in golf history, and several of the finest Parisian clubs bear the mark of one or the other. Unfortunately, the best layouts are scattered all over the Île-de-France rather than clustered together, but it’s still possible to fold a couple of memorable rounds into a traditional Paris itinerary. If time allows for it, tack on a trip to Normandy’s Côte d’Opale, where a pair of Colt-Simpson gems have recently been polished to a high shine. 

Perhaps the best place to start, due to its proximity to Charles de Gaulle Airport, is Chantilly Golf Club (greens fee from $135; Allée de la Ménagerie, Vineuil-Saint-Firmin; 33-3/44-57-04-43; The approach to this club is memorable, to put it mildly. Passing through a forest that was once a royal deer park, drivers emerge on the manicured grounds of the Château de Chantilly. The complex features a pair of museums: the Musée Condé, with its collection of Old Masters; and the Living Museum of the Horse, housed in a working stable of startling opulence. There’s also 
an elegant hotel nearby, the Auberge du Jeu de Paume (rooms from $320; 4 Rue 
du Connétable, Chantilly; 33-3/44-65-50-00;

Chantilly has hosted the French Open ten times and is well-known as a training ground for tournament-caliber golfers. There are two courses here—the Longeres, a modern Donald Steel design, and the Vineuil, a Simpson creation completed in 1920. Choose the latter. The greens are the strong suit of this tranquil parkland layout; they are beautifully shaped, with subtle folds and wrinkles, tilts and terraces. Course maintenance is excellent where the club wants it to be—the fairways firm and bouncy, the greens smooth and true.

That’s the rub, though. Perhaps driven to reinforce its image as a club for strong players, Chantilly’s fairways are often choked by thick meadow grasses. Searching for wayward shots that have missed the playing corridor by only a yard or two is frustrating—one does not feel a sense of pleasurable freedom here. It’s tempting to say better golfers might not notice this as much, but even the skilled will occasionally find that the approach angles by which they might accept risk in exchange for better position are buried in impossible rough. The MO is simple: Keep the ball in play. Still, the Vineuil has some very good holes—the ones that stick in the memory, the 7th, 8th, and 13th, all use old-school cross-bunkering that challenges the golfer to either lay up or make a bold aerial sortie into a blind landing area.

Not far from Chantilly is the course that’s considered not merely the best in France but in all of Continental Europe. That would be Morfontaine Golf Club (private; Mortefontaine; 33-3/44-54-68-27). Hidden deep within a dense old-world forest, Simpson’s masterpiece is the domain of an exclusive club that does not accept visitor play, so we won’t spend much time on it. It’s a special place, though. Broadly speaking, Morfontaine is reminiscent of London’s heathland courses, but it stands out for its property management—its immaculate vistas almost make one want to trade the golf bag for an easel and brush—and its truly elite greens. The club offers 27 holes, with the main 18 dating back to 1927. The Vallière nine, however, predates it by 16 years, and those fortunate enough to pass through the gates should not miss it. Simpson’s putting surfaces at the Vallière are some of the wildest creations in golf. The eighth hole features a Biarritz putting surface (two high sides bisected by a six-foot-deep swale—picture a skate park’s half-pipe) turned 90 degrees from that green style’s usual axis. Playing it will leave golfers convinced that they just don’t make ’em like they used to. 

Set in horse country some 40 miles south of Paris, Fontainebleau Golf Club (greens fee from $125; Rte. d’Orléans, Fontainebleau; 33-1/64-22-22-95; makes for the longest day out of the city, but it’s worth it. (Nongolfers, too, have a reason to tag along: the nearby Château de Fontainebleau, a magnificent 1,500-room palace where Napoleon abdicated his imperial throne before shipping off to Elba.) Fontainebleau’s course dates to 1909. It is an eccentric beauty, yet another Simpson design. The routing explores a rolling swath of forest studded with boulders great and small. The par-four first is a terrific opener, as the approach plays to a green neatly benched against the slopes of a high, rocky hill. After playing a par three around its side, the golfer then climbs the same hill to play a downhill par five. The rugged landscape is used even more creatively at the very short par-five 12th. The green is reachable in two shots, provided one can carry a boulder-strewn field—anything less than a great drive and one must lay up short. The putting surface itself features a pimple that can kick approach shots in all directions—it is almost surely another rock that has simply been turfed over. If there’s a knock on Fontainebleau, it’s that it is badly over-treed in places, which leads to spotty turf conditions and less-interesting shot making. But that also means there’s room for improvement on an already excellent course.

Golf de Saint-Germain (greens fee from $135; Rte. de Poissy, St.-Germain-en-Laye; 33-1/39-10-30-30; is Harry S. Colt’s most notable contribution to Paris golf. Colt is best known for such legendary links as Northern Ireland’s Royal Portrush and London-area heathland standouts like Sunningdale (New), but not all his commissions offered such promising natural canvases as those. Indeed, the true test of a great architect is how he or she responds to less-interesting ground. On Saint-Germain’s flattish property, Colt created interest by pushing up mounds and ridges, then building fortress-like greens or carving bunkers into the sides. Sand is flashed high up the bunker faces, making the hazards plainly visible from a distance. The ground beyond them is obscured, however, letting the architect play little depth-perception tricks. It’s not the most natural-looking style, but the golf is of a very high caliber. In a way it’s more reminiscent of the handful of understated layouts that Colt and his partner, Charles Alison, built in the United States. Compared with Morfontaine or Fontainebleau, Saint-Germain may not wow the first-timer, but it’s the kind of course where one’s appreciation deepens with each go-round.

Côte d’Opale, some two-and-a-half hours from center-city Paris, is where Dutch golf architect Frank Pont and his French design partner, Patrice Boissonnas, have spent the past few years rejuvenating a pair of golden-age gems. Their work is nearly complete at the Pines course at Golf d’Hardelot (greens fee from $85; 3 Av. du Golf, Neufchâtel-Hardelot; 33-3/21-83-73-10;, and the result is a revelation. Les Pins looks so fresh and new that it’s tempting to say it feels like you’re playing it on ribbon-cutting day, except that the earliest version of this course had an opening hole unlike any other before or since. Hardelot was founded at the turn of the 20th century by John Whitley, an English developer with a bit of a Barnumesque streak. Envisioning a resort that would promote friendship between England and France by virtue of its location midway between their capitals, Whitley wanted an attention-grabbing start to the round, so he placed the first tee atop the turret of Hardelot Castle, a fortress said to have been built by Charlemagne. 

The Hardelot we know today comes from a 1929 Simpson plan that (sadly, though perhaps not unwisely) did not involve the famed par-three shot launched from the castle tower. As its name suggests, the layout plays through pine forest, but the underlying soil is a sandy loam, so bounciness prevails. It’s not a long course—just more than 6,400 yards—but its jagged-edged bunkers are real hazards rather than eye candy. Pont and Boissonnas filled them with local beach sand, which in this case is fluffy stuff that’s known to produce the dread “fried egg” lie. One particular standout hole is the par-four 15th. A dogleg right that plays down into a valley and then uphill to the next dune ridge, the fairway is divided by a tree cluster. On the tee shot, the golfer can choose to thread the needle on the right, thereby shortening the approach, or play safely to the left and take the long way home. Hardelot is pure fun—challenging without being exhausting and with visual appeal; it’s the type of course one could happily play every day. 

A half hour south of Hardelot is another John Whitley development, Le Touquet. The original Paris-Plage, or Paris-by-the-Sea, Le Touquet in the 1920s was roughly equivalent to St.-Tropez in the ’60s in terms of fashionable appeal. The Westminster Hotel has a photo collection of celebrities—some of enduring fame, others now amusingly obscure—at play on the Côte d’Opale. The Colt-designed Golf du Touquet (greens fee from $85; Av. du Golf, Le Touquet; 33-3/21-06-28-00; was their stomping ground. The Prince of Wales (later King Edward VIII) played one of the first rounds, while P. G. Wodehouse lived and wrote in the village in the 1930s. Unfortunately, Le Touquet was heavily damaged in World War II. Pont, who made his name in the mid-2000s for his restorations of several prominent Colt designs in the Netherlands, was an ideal choice to bring one of Le Touquet’s two courses, La Mer, into the new century. 

La Mer plays across linksland, though its forays into overgrown areas can sometimes make it seem as if one is playing the course next door to the world-famous links. Pont and Boissonnas are now at work clearing away these areas. Using aerial photography from between the wars, they are also correcting some misguided 1990s-era renovations. While a few holes, like the ridge-hopping par-three tenth, are exposed to the wind, Le Touquet primarily plays through the dune valleys, which lends a nice feeling of isolation. One of La Mer’s most interesting holes is the par-five 17th. At 498 yards from the tips, it looks short on the scorecard, and there isn’t much to worry about on the tee shot. But the approach tracks dead uphill, leaving longer hitters with a gambler’s dilemma: hit a low-lofted club high and hard enough to get home in two, with a trio of punishing bunkers waiting below the green, or lay up and play for an easy par. 

The crisp air gives golfers a reminder that the ocean is close, but we didn’t see it until the 18th tee, the highest point on the grounds. The hole itself plays inland and is nothing special, but at last one gets a clear view of the dunescape. Arriving slightly winded on that pinnacle tee, we encountered a quintessentially French summer scene. A group of club members had set up a Champagne bar high in the dunes. The men wore jackets and ties, the ladies light sweaters and summer dresses. Waiters milled around with flutes on trays. Our underdressed golf party stopped and made small talk over glasses of bubbly. When it was time to go, with heads fizzing and Le Touquet’s elegant gallery looking on, it was all we could do to just hit the ball hard…somewhere, anywhere. It was a fine way to end the week in and around Paris, a city that, for all of its cosmopolitan allure, has even managed to save a few distinctive treats for the golfing set.