Although France now boasts more golf courses than Scotland (nearly 600), its citizens don't seem to care much for the royal and ancient sport—in a country of 58 million souls, only 300,000 people admit to playing it, according to the French Golf Federation. The running view is that the French consider golf an elitist game. Whatever the reason, that translates into some mighty appealing factors for American golfers: an abundance of new and classic courses that are seldom crowded, almost always accessible, and invariably a bargain to play. With that in mind, I decided to go to Paris for a romantic golf holiday with my girlfriend, Wendy.
The prestigious Golf de Chantilly is one of France's greatest layouts and a mere mashie-niblick shot from the arrivals lounge at Charles de Gaulle airport in the rolling countryside of Picardy. En route to our hotel, which was located near the medieval village of Senlis, we spotted the private club's modest sign and drove up a narrow, tree-shaded lane to the Victorian clubhouse.
Site of ten French Opens and home to an extraordinary Tom Simpson golf course, Chantilly sits like a golfer's vision of paradise amid the vast surrounding forest. Amazingly, nobody appeared to be about on the Friday when we arrived. There sat one of the great golf courses of Europe, with its rolling fairways and only two players anywhere to be seen—sacrebleu! So we paid our 400 French francs and made our way to the open first tee of the famed Vineuil Course, the old championship course, grinning like we'd cheated Old Man Par. It was like walking up to Merion or Winged Foot and getting on for 80 bucks.
Tom Simpson, who created Chantilly around the turn of the century, is one of the great lesser-known figures of golf—a crusty, beret-wearing British aristocrat who earned a law degree from Trinity Hall, Cambridge, but practiced only his short game. His acknowledged masterpieces at Chantilly and Morfontaine in France, Antwerp in Belgium, and Ballybunion (the Old Course) in Ireland, secured Simpson's rank in the golf-course-design pantheon.
Simpson loves lethal cross bunkers, a lesson that I relearned straight off the tee, after driving my opening shot into a deep fairway hazard every bit as physically beautiful as it was ruthless. "It looks like a divot left by a giant sand wedge," mused my companion as she watched me wiggle my feet in the sand trying to figure out a way to get my ball on the putting surface. "A divot of the gods."
Indeed it was—and the gods won. I walked off the first green with a painful double bogey. Par didn't come until the difficult fourth, and not again until the majestically cross-bunkered par-five eighth. The pretty tree-girdled ninth, another testing five-par (back-to-back par fives being very rare), concludes the front nine. Wendy, a relative newcomer to the game, had coaxed her ball round Chantilly in a highly respectable 54 and was ready to tackle the back side. I, however, had already spent my full USGA handicap of six and was thinking about a drink in the bar.
As the sun began to set we pressed on. The beauty of Chantilly in the late afternoon alone was worth the price of playing there, and almost without noticing it I began to play the course as Simpson intended—avoiding his menacing divots and pitching careful approaches to the classically open-fronted putting surfaces that left me several opportunities for birdies. Luckily I made a handful of good putts, and very nearly had my heart stop when I carved my third shot from 100 yards away in the rough directly into the cup for birdie at the extremely difficult par-four 13th—a scary "blind" drive over yawning cross bunkers and a sharp dogleg left followed by a long approach. Wendy slumped to a 60 and finished with 114. I managed 35 and broke 80 by a single stroke.
After totaling our scores, we stuck our thirsty heads into the clubhouse bar to see if any staff was still about and discovered a table with six chaps rolling dice and drinking pastis. We managed pathetic French; they spoke little English. The group cheerfully directed us to a bistro in Chantilly, then joined us there with their wives an hour later. Several bottles of chilled white Sancerre made the rounds, along with gorgeous platters of asperges blanches and filet au poivre. Amid laughter and charade-like conversations about golf and life, we spent a glorious evening, made all the more special when one of our new friends graciously offered to give me his golf beret.
Allée de la Ménagerie, 60500 Chantilly; 33-3-44-57-04-43; fax 33- 3-44-57-26-54. For nonmembers, Golf de Chantilly is open only on weekdays. On weekends, visitors must be accompanied by a member. The club is closed on Thursdays.
Perhaps the most notable trend in French golf courses is the transformation of several of the nation's great châteaux into luxurious boutique golf hotels. Two of the better ones are found on the periphery of Paris, Domaine et Golf de Vaugouard and the better-known Domaine de Bélesbat.
As the authors of the Peugeot Millennium Golf Guide gently complained about Bélesbat, "With another 25 acres and a little more imagination, this could have been a masterpiece." True enough, when I first glimpsed the gorgeously manicured golf course set tidily inside the ancient stone walls of this highly regarded hotel and conference center, I feared that we might be in store for a jog around a cute little executive course.
Well, I'm happy to report that this first impression was dead wrong. Architects Fromanger and Adam covered only about 120 acres on the ancient estate, but they worked magic in weaving the 6,642-yard course through remnants of a mature forest. Unfortunately—and this is my only gripe—they employed bunkering that was much too large in places on the front nine in order to give the opening side both definition and greater technical challenge. The fourth hole, for example, confronts you with a dauntingly narrow driving corridor over a large fairway bunker. If you manage that feat, your next shot is to a flagstick scarcely visible over a small pond of sand. The green turned out to be huge, but a first-time player had no inkling of that, and judging from the beaten-up condition of the front bunker, that's where most of us invariably wind up.
After a succession of lovely holes along the rear stone walls of the property, the only other funky hole was the short but difficult eighth, a dogleg right which featured a grossly oversized sand bunker that lay rutted and hard as a rock from recent downpours, a true maintenance nightmare.
Bélesbat's tight, leafy back nine wanders around a series of small ponds and natural trout streams that cross the preserve. The best holes are the gorgeous downhill par-five 12th (featuring a third shot over twin streams) and the wonderful short 14th, a medium-length par three necklaced by sand, streams, and forest. The driving lines are tight and the hazards dangerously close at hand on the back side, but the overall experience is that of playing through a medieval forest that feels almost enchanted in places, especially as you wind up the final fairway toward the château's moat and magnificent 14th-century gate.
As we departed, our only wish was that we had stayed in the main château rather than the more contemporary adjoining wing of the property. But that was really a tiny quibble. Given the superb warmth of the staff, excellent golf, and serene beauty of Bélesbat, we could happily have stayed a week instead of two days.
Courdimanche-sur-Essonne, 91820 Boutigny-sur-Essonne; 33-1-69-23-19-10; fax 33-1-69-23-19-11; For members and nonmembers alike, Bélesbat is open daily. www.belesbat.com.
As fog lifted the next morning, with the indispensable Peugeot Millennium Golf Guide in hand, we rambled down the road to pretty Apremont Golf Club. If Chantilly represents the best of classic French golf with its brilliant technical subtlety, Apremont, with its large, plush, American-style clubhouse, friendly pro-shop staff, and meticulously groomed fairways, symbolizes France's determination to cash in on the golf boom that lures thousands of foreign golfers to neighboring Britain.
Built in the early 1990s by a Japanese investment firm and managed by an international company that has upscale golf properties in Britain and throughout the Far East, Apremont won't make you forget the clubby charms of Chantilly or overwhelm you with its challenge, but famed British player-turned-designer John Jacobs used a gorgeous estate's meadows and woodlands to full effect here, routing his course engagingly around small lakes and through the quiet forest of Halatte, with a decent quotient of demanding shots.
Apremont is a particularly agreeable course to walk, traversing the gentle ridges of wooded grasslands, with cuckoos calling languidly and gorgeous flora. In addition, it is a superbly fair course for women. Encountering, as we finished, a small armada of Parisian business execs heading en masse for the first tee in their electric golf carts was a bit of a jarring sight. Still, as Wendy pointed out over lunch in the attractive dining room after our round, there was much to commend Apremont: a memorable course, wonderful French cuisine and wine, and those dreamy cuckoos.
60300 Apremont; 33-3-44-25-61-11; fax 33-3-44-25-11-72. From April through October, Apremont is open daily. From November through March it is closed on Mondays.
The next day we rolled into the pretty rural village of Civry-la-Fôret, west of the city, and found our way to the lovely Vaucouleurs Golf Club, where the enthusiastic co-owner, Jacques Pelard, agreed to show us around. The club, an easy jog from Paris or Versailles, offers two distinctly different courses, each with its own sets of challenges: the links-style Les Vallons and the more traditional woodland La Rivière, spread across 2,500 acres of a former grain farm.
Les Vallons is a handsome tribute to seaside golf a hundred miles from the nearest ocean-rolling sand hills. It offers knee-high waving fescues, tricky greens that encourage the clever roll-up shot, and even the odd sod-walled bunker. By American standards the par-70 course is short, just a whisker over 6,200 yards, but it looks and plays longer, which may be why so many regional competitions are conducted here.
The adjoining River Course (La Rivière) is a tad longer and less bunkered, a more traditional parkland track. It meanders gently through terrain that is reminiscent of the watercolor vistas around Claude Monet's beloved Giverny, which is nearby. Wendy loved this course, which had almost no menacing hazards outside of a few water shots; judging by the number of lady players on the day we visited, La Rivière seemed to be the hands-down favorite among women.
Afterwards, over beer in the clubhouse (a lovingly transformed ancient stone barn), Pelard explained that places like Muirfield, Troon, and Gleneagles were the inspiration for the creation of his golf club. "The French are only now beginning to discover golf and realize this is a game for every man and woman," he said with an evangelistic fervor, then admitted, "but it has taken some time--and a new generation of public clubs such as Vaucouleurs--to convince them of this."
Rue de l'Eglise,78910 Civry-la-Fôret; 33-1-34-87-62-29; fax 33-1-34-87-70-09; Closed on Wednesdays.www.vaucouleurs.fr.
On our final morning I treated myself to another Tom Simpson treasure, following the leaning signpost toward Milly-la-Fôret and, just beyond, the Fontainebleau Golf Club, another of France's great classic private courses, set on the edge of the largest forest in Europe.
The caretaker, who spoke no English, led me up a set of old stone steps to another magnificent green-and-white Tudor-style clubhouse with pavilion-style windows overlooking one of the most inviting first fairways I've ever seen. As it was still a weekday, when the ultraprivate course is accessible to outside guests, I was urged to head straight out and play golf and settle up my modest 350-franc greens fee later.
I hurried to the first tee, dying to have another crack at Simpson's brilliant cross bunkering and his tiny murderous greens. Apparently, according to Peugeot, some of the putting surfaces at Fontainebleau, which they call "one of those great bastions of the British golf tradition," have been altered a bit over the years. The only flaw I witnessed was the lone footsteps of a fellow dew sweeper who'd managed to get out ahead of me. I finally spotted him from the tee of the spectacular third hole, a sweeping par five which begins high on a hill among towering pines, dewy ferns and ancient rock outcrops, recalling geologic elements of both Pinehurst and Pine Valley.
With the sun warming and the mist rising, I birdied the hole, then caught up with my unknown forecaddie, who introduced himself as Michel Martens, a French screenwriter. Martens welcomed me to join him and we played along in exquisite solitude, hearing only sounds of the forest and our own pleasant conversation—a lengthy discourse that touched on his years as a Hollywood screenwriter, the state of French film, American politics, New York City women, and the misery Jean Van de Velde brought upon the heads of his countrymen with his historic free fall on the final hole of the 1999 British Open.
This sort of delightful unexpected encounter often happens when you play golf in Britain and France. I fell into a kind of altered state of sheer contentment—walking one of the great golf courses of France with a brilliant conversationalist for a golf partner, striking shots that seemed to be going exactly where I intended them to go, through narrow fairways flanked by mature trees, onto greens that were as beautiful and true as crushed velvet. The par-five eighth had an ingenious "blind" approach—a devilish gem of a hole that forced you to trust your swing as your ball sailed over a scallop of earth to an unseen green.
Afterwards, Martens and I shook hands and he invited Wendy and me to meet him for lunch in the city at La Closerie des Lilas, Hemingway's old lunch haunt in Montparnasse. I walked to the clubhouse feeling as though I'd had a stroll through heaven. Better yet, when I totaled up my score I'd shot 75—one of the most memorable "unconscious" rounds of my life.
Route d'Orléans, 77300 Fontainebleau; 33-1-64-22-22-95; fax 33-1-64-22-63-76. Fontainebleau is open to nonmembers on weekdays; on the weekends you must be accompanied by a member.
To be honest, for me the golf journey around Paris could have ended right there in the forest of Fontainebleau. That afternoon, after a visit to Versailles and the Trianon Palace, we drove over to the popular Albatross Course at Le Golf National in Guyancourt, Europe's first "stadium" course and the venue of several Peugeot French Opens. All I could think when we first laid eyes on the place, and later attempted to play it with sinking enthusiasm, was "Get me back to Fontainebleau or Chantilly!" I've seen places like Le National popping up everywhere—vast, impersonal, overbuilt, American-style golf complexes (I call them "factories") designed to appeal to the traveling golf junkie or groups of businessmen who want a taste of what the pros play.
Admittedly, this one is better than most. Designed by Von Hagge and Chesneau, two of Europe's top architects, the championship Albatross course, clearly intended to host professional tournaments, roams out over a series of large artificial dunes with artfully mounded "links" fairways that appear wholly out of place in the flat topography of the region. The player's main challenges are large, tricky greens and brutal water hazards on 11 holes, the kind of unforgiving modern "target" golf experience that either beats your brains out or delights you with its bold contours. Albatross looks and feels like any one of a dozen Tournament Players Clubs in the United States. If that's your kind of golf, you'll love Le National. If it isn't, you'll wonder why you came so far to play a course you could play in South Carolina or New Jersey. I had difficulty remembering we were even in France, which seemed to rather defeat the whole point.
2 Avenue du Golf, 78280 Guyancourt; 33-1-30-43-36-00; fax 33-1-30-43-85-58; Open daily. www.golf-national.com.
Our final loop was a memorable visit to Saint-Nom-la-Bretèche, on the outskirts of Versailles, home of the Trophée Lancôme. Opened with great fanfare in 1959, Saint-Nom quickly gained a reputation as the suburban golf club of Paris, which is why it boasts a closed membership of over 800. It can be nearly impossible for an outsider to get on; weekdays (and calls to the club's secretary well in advance) are your best hope. It's an effort well worth making, because as the Bleu and the sister Rouge courses wind up and down gentle suburban hills, the demands on your shotmaking skills, particularly putting and pitching, do a complete examination of your game head.
The starring holes on the Rouge Course were the ninth and 18th, which share a beautiful dark pond near the foot of the spectacular ancient stone clubhouse. The ninth, routinely the most difficult at the Trophée Lancôme, is a long, demanding three-par that plays sharply downhill and demands a surgical three- or four-iron shot to the safe part of the green, while the shortish par-four 18th neatly reverses the approach line. The rest of the red course meanders delightfully up and down easy-to-walk hills, with few or no punishing hazards, perfectly maintained greens, and shot values that ring true but test every club in your bag. I found some of the grand country homes along the Rouge slightly distracting, in the nicest possible way—tucked-back mini-estates.
The surrounding gardens and the plowman's lunch afterwards in the dining room of the beautifully restored barn at Saint-Nom were a serene respite. We totaled up our scores over Brouilly and superb local foie gras—the perfect way to prepare for our final two days of sightseeing in the city. One does not live by golf alone, especially in a place as rich in treasures as Paris, although in my circles everything always somehow finds its way back to the auld game.
Hameau de la Tuilerie Bignon, 78860 Saint-Nom-la-Bretèche; 33-1-30-80-04-40; fax 33-1-34-62-60-44. For nonmembers it is difficult to get on Saint-Nom-la-Bretèche; on weekends you have to be accompanied by a member. The club is closed on Tuesdays.
James Dodson wrote on the best California golf courses in the October 2000 issue of Departures.