As France awaits the Ryder Cup spectacle, Kevin Markham visits Le Golf National.
It was one of the most romantic moments I had encountered in recent times… even if my companions were all men.
The restaurant was full of golden light as the sun slid down into the ocean behind us and, as we reviewed the menu, fellow passengers crowded the deck outside to take sunset photographs and selfies. We snapped a few ourselves but we weren’t prepared to leave the table.
There was too much fabulous food and wine on offer.
The Pont Aven is a modern Brittany Ferries ship that travels between Cork and Roscoff.
Considering the food, the restaurant ambiance and that setting sun it was more akin to a luxury cruise liner. This was not what we were expecting… but if this was my route to play the Ryder Cup course, outside Paris, then I was all for it.
There’s little doubt that this year’s Ryder Cup will put French golf on the world map. There’s a ferocious sense of expectation flowing through the sport as the biennial match – some might say grudge tie– returns to European soil. But, Ryder Cup aside, what does French golf have to offer? If you had to guess the number of French courses it is unlikely that you would pick 750. This is a big golfing country with as many as 700,000 playing regularly, but it still trails in behind Spain and Portugal when it comes to the destination of choice for Irish golfers. Considering the quality of courses (10 are ranked in Europe’s top 25), the country’s proximity to our own and the fact you can carry clubs, gear, food, golf buddies and even small children in your car, should France not top the list when it comes to golf holidays? (And let’s not forget the wine you can bring home with you!)
As one of the approved operators of Ryder Cup Travel Services, Brittany Ferries sees the match as an ideal opportunity to boost this way of thinking. The company offers numerous golf packages across the courses of Brittany, and all the way down to Paris itself. Not surprisingly, the package everyone has been focused on in recent times was their offering for Le Golf National.
The starting price for a return ferry trip (two nights) with your car, five nights’ B&B at Hotel le Versailles, and three rounds of golf, including one on the Ryder Cup ‘Albatros’ course, was €1,013. It should also be noted that the Hotel le Versailles, where we stayed, is opposite the Palace of Versailles, and falls into that boutique hotel category. Comfort is not an issue, nor is the selection of restaurants and bars and leafy cobbled walks around the town.
Versailles lies to the south-west of Paris, which makes it extremely accessible. It is five hours from Roscoff port, where the Pont Aven docks, but by avoiding Paris it makes the journey far easier.
The road from Roscoff heads east, skirting around the town of Le Mans. We stopped for lunch at the Golf des 24 Heures Golf Club. Perhaps the name should have been our first clue as we found ourselves driving the 24 Hours of Le Mans race circuit. The golf club lies right alongside and the first hole, loosely translated, is named Pole Position. The race has been held here since 1923, making it the world’s oldest sports car endurance race.
“How was it out there?” we asked the three men who had just struggled into the bar of the Le Golf National clubhouse. We had to shout to be heard over the rain driving into the clubhouse windows. Our tee time had been and gone but we remained hopeful that the rain would ease.
“We played two holes but it is too wet and too cold for us,” one of the men replied, peeling off his wet gear.
“Where are you from?” we asked.
“Northern Finland,” he said.
Instinctively we reached for the warmth of our coffee cups.
Fortunately, our trip included two rounds at Le Golf National, and the weather Gods were much kinder on the second day. Warm sunshine greeted us as we headed for the first tee.
The Albatros course was designed by Robert Von Hagge and Hubert Chesneau, and opened in 1990. It is one of the most manufactured courses you can imagine and it took TPC Sawgrass as its design template, with a focus on a ‘stadium’ course feel.
Over a period of three years every building site around Paris sent its rock and its earth to Le Golf National. These were the foundation for the ridges that rise above you and cascade along the horizon as you play the course. For the Ryder Cup, these same ridges will be home to some of the biggest stands ever seen at a Ryder Cup event. For example, the stands around the first tee will have a capacity for 6,800 fans… compared to the stands at Gleneagles which held just 2,300.
Yes, this course was designed with big tournaments in mind and, apart from 1999 and 2001, it has been the home to the French Open since 1991.
Graeme McDowell won here twice and Pádraig Harrington was runner-up in 2006. Alex Noren, one of Europe’s Ryder Cup team, won here in July.
Visually, the tall swaying grasses, the lack of trees and the ridges suggests links golf but of course it’s not… and the Albatros course defies traditional definitions.
It is an intriguing beast with beautiful shapes and avenues and it calls for a lot of intelligence.
Off the tee, your driver is not always the answer. There are several holes where caution and strategy will be better rewarded than a booming drive.
No doubt the fourballs on Friday and Saturday will see some risk-taking but if there’s one thing the teams will know it’s not to go into the rough.
This stuff is impenetrable and one of our group lost eight balls during his round. The water on 10 holes tells its own tale and the closing stretch will deliver the biggest drama of this event… and possibly in the history of the Ryder Cup.
Put it this way, there’s more water than fairway and there are two island greens.
The USA team may have the dominated the Majors in recent years and may look the better team on paper, but the European team are far more familiar with Le Golf National.
There wasn’t a huge level of interest in the Ryder Cup when France won the right to host the event eight years ago… at least not until captains Bjorn and Furyk hit balls off the Eiffel Tower, in October 2017. That caught the nation’s attention. As part of the bid, the French Golf Federation committed to building 100 new golf facilities around the country. These ranged from golf courses to practice ranges. As of April, 93 of these had opened successfully and, unlike Ireland, Germany, Spain and the UK, the number of golfers in France has fallen only slightly.
The number of golfers visiting Le Golf National, on the other hand, has increased tenfold as many want to experience what the professionals will face later this week.
As many as 61,000 fans will arrive per day, with 40 per cent of tickets assigned to French fans, 15 to 20 per cent acquired by Irish and UK golfers, and triple the number of American fans attending since Gleneagles, four years ago.
A €10m revamp last year has got the course ‘Ryder Cup’ ready, with 17 new bunkers, four back tees and two lakes built for the showpiece.
The greens on the first and 16th have been enhanced to offer more pin placements, and the par three 11th has been remodelled to introduce new bunkers along with a small lake in front of the green.
There’s no doubt, having played it, that this course is ready for the biggest golf event on earth and, with one of the toughest – and wettest – closing stretches waiting to devour the wayward or timid golfer, there will be a lot of drama come Sunday Singles.
When it comes to water, I prefer mine under the ferry.
Jon Rahm: “It’s a great design; challenging in every aspect. You do hit almost every single club in the bag. When you miss the green, you have many opportunities. It leaves a lot more to the imagination, especially around the greens. I can’t think of anything bad to say about the course. It doesn’t get boring. I can’t hit driver on every hole because I’m going to be in deep trouble. Being able to hit 5-woods, 3- irons off the tee makes it fun.”
Martin Kaymer: “You need to drive it well. If you hit the fairways, you should create chances. You just need to keep the ball in play. You know par is a good score on 60/70 per cent of the holes.”
Thomas Pieters: “It’s a second-shot course. If you can just place it in the fairway; you don’t need to be very long. But if you don’t hit the fairway, you’re looking at bogey or worse.”
Rory McIlroy: “If you start to hit it off-line, it really does punish you. There’s a few holes where you have to be conservative and try to take your pars. I think you can be a little aggressive on the par 5s. And those last four holes will bring quite a lot of excitement.”