Saint Emillionais

Saint Emillionais

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There are a handful of architects whose work will be of interest irrespective of its location and the promise of the site. Tom Doak is indubitably one, so his first design in Continental Europe was always going to be intriguing.

His charismatic presence was not the only compelling ingredient in the making of Saint Emilionnais though. The course is also the realisation of a dream held by France’s first family of golf, and is close to captivating town Saint Emilion.

It was however so nearly a different story, because Doak was not the owners’ original choice of architect.

The owners are the ludicrously talented Mourgue D’Algue family. Gaetan is the figurehead (his father was a scratch player too), and he dominated French golf as an amateur and founded the Trophée Lancôme.

He married Sweden’s national champion and their daughter Kristel was good enough to play on the European Tour. Their son Andre is sufficiently formidable to have halved with a young Tiger Woods.

Having been involved in many course projects in France, the Mourgue D’Algues longed to build their own in the south west of the country and after Gaetan and Andre found a wooded site on the outskirts of the little town of Gardegan in 2003, they secured permission to build a course there.

The club is six miles from Saint-Emilion, a medieval town that is a Unesco world heritage site of timeless allure.

David McLay Kidd was to be the architect but before work started the family sold it to a developer. However the global financial crisis saw the buyer unable to proceed and when the Mourgue D’Algues bought it back (one imagines at a good price), this time they chose to engage Doak as their architect.

The club is six miles from Saint-Emilion, a medieval town that is a Unesco world heritage site of timeless allure. The ancient but intricate stone buildings, the cobbled streets, and the monolithic church are an elegant trip to a bygone age. Fabulous restaurants, along with one of the wines from this world-famous wine region, complete the experience.

The course sits in a valley on undulating terrain dissected by natural streams and populated by stout oaks and slim pines.

“My goal was to make the most out of this magnificent site without ever changing its inherent beauty,” says Doak, and even to the untrained eye it is clear there was minimal earth movement involved in the making of Saint Emilionnais.

The ruins of an ancient castle and barns as well as stone walls give further character to the promising site, which is surrounded by meticulously tended vines.

The perfect beginning

The routing flows beautifully; it’s why the family will have paid for a designer of Doak’s calibre. Even when awkward land provided a problem to solve, it has been done so effortlessly you have to look to find how the solution was implemented.

The playing corridor is always wide and the bunkering neither heavy not severe, so the most exacting aspect of Saint Emilionnais are the green contours, which are notably severe right from the very first one.

There is an uncommonly idyllic ambiance here, helped by things such as tee markers insouciantly being nothing more than small vines in the turf. Saint Emilionnais is all about the course; it needs no superfluous fanfare, which is evident as early as the entrance ‘sign’ being nothing more than a plaque the size of a chequebook reading simply ‘golf’; the antithesis of huge billboards seen at brazen resorts of much less appeal.

Many will decide the middle section has the strongest golf but surely all will already be seduced after the first three holes.

Saint Emilionnais begins from an elevated position – giving an outstanding panoramic view over the course from the clubhouse – then dives around ridges and streams in the middle section before steadily climbing back to the finale.

Many will decide the middle section has the strongest golf but surely all will already be seduced after the first three holes.

The 1st is so pleasing, starting with the perfect opening scenario – the downhill tee shot. These opening trio are built  on clay – from the 4th it is more heathland – and gets very bouncy in hot spells, so you can get close to green with a good drive. However, typically, your job is only starting, because this is one of the funkiest greens you will ever have been flummoxed by, with hardly any totally flat sections to aim for.

From there you cross the road to the 2nd and another elevated drive. You can open your shoulders here too, and once again the second shot is to another small, contoured green – this time sitting in the folds of the land, with an apron at the front and tiers in it.

A third downhill tee shot follows, this time on a par 3 that plays over a stream to a green with slopes so pronounced you can see them from the tee.

The strong par-5 5th – defined by a cross bunker and pines – takes you into what most will regardas the strongest phase, where the green complexes might get even better.

The 6th plays up and over a ridge with plenty of room again off the tee and then you approach a green that sits downhill in a snug, where the bank that cuddles the green comes all the way round from the left to create a horseshoe effect.

The next plays back in the other direction over the same hill and you get a great view of your target from the top.

Many will decide the middle section has the strongest golf but surely all will already be seduced after the first three holes.

A bunker on the left means a drawn approach is the ideal one and when it is firm and fast you want to run your shot in, in a links fashion. The green is small, tiered, with a little knuckle from back right to front right and evil run-offs; just so much fun.

It now occurs that while the course is visually similar, the holes all feel so different and pose different questions.

The last of this epic hat-trick of holes comes with a sporty par 4 at 8. Again the direction changes and, with all the land sloping left to right and a bunker on the right, you’ve got to feather your drive up the left and let it tumble down.

But be too cautious in line and length off the tee and you find the bunker front right of the green is an awkward obstacle, especially because the slightly elevated approach means you only just see bottom of the pin. A great hole.

Two hints of Augusta National

The nine closes with a hole that will catch a photographer’s eye but you can imagine Doak having it long down his list of favourites here.

This par 3 plays over a lake – which was necessary to irrigate the course – to a funky green and while it might lack the nuance of other holes it will grab your attention.

Holding the beautiful, crumpled green that falls off all around its circumference is no easy task because you need a long club to cover its 200-plus yards.

While the front half features a solitary three-shot hole, the back nine has three of them, starting with the first distinct dog-leg at 10. It follows a stream that runs up the left, leading to a small three-tier green. Everything feels pleasingly natural.

There are back-to-back 5s at 15 and 16. The former begins with arguably the blandest-looking shot on the course, running down the outside of the property as it sweeps slightly right to left. But at the green it turns brilliantly funky, with low mounds on the right akin to Roman trenches and a large mound on the left that extends in front of the green to obscure your view of pins on that side. It is not unlike the protection afforded to Augusta’s 8th.

The kidney-shaped green is two tiered and slightly sunken. Other than all that, pretty standard stuff…

This nine’s two short holes are contrasting. The 12th is 228 yards and feels more while the 14th is only 135 and impossible not to love. Played slightly uphill, there are large bunkers set in mounds right and left.

Doak’s first continental design – a course that doesn’t just live up to weighty expectations, it surpasses them.

They guard arguably the funkiest green on the course; large and wide – it must span 100 yards including the fringe – three tiers blend smoothly into the surrounds. The potential for tasty pin positions feels limitless.

The par 4s are strong and varied. There is the fabulous 11th over a ridge, just 362 yards but awkward enough to be SI 5. After a drive to the hill’s crest with the rest of the hole blind, the second is hit towards a shallow green down a tumbling hill akin to Gullane’s 17th. You almost feel you want to putt it.

It’s highly entertaining, and so is the 13th. It plays left to right and sits casually by a creek in a beautiful natural green site. Miss it and you’ll enjoy trying to salvage par because the complex demands creativity and thought.

There is another hint of the Masters venue at the 17th, which mimics the 13th in Georgia, complete with creek. The green here is brilliant, almost two greens dissected by a ridge.

Then it’s back up the hill you drove down with such eagerness three hours earlier for the finale to Doak’s first continental design – a course that doesn’t just live up to weighty expectations, it surpasses them. Chris Bertram



Tom Doak

+ 33 (0) 5 57 40 88 64

172 Lieu-dit Goffre , Gardegan-et-Tourtirac , France , 33350