Golf in Normandy
Note the date: September 2018. For that is when the greatest show on earth is going to take place at Le Golf National. Make no mistake, if you thought that Gleneagles was big, this is going to be bigger.
The French are expecting 60,000 fans per day and are determined to get it right, with the European Tour’s Ryder Cup admin team already ensconced in the clubhouse, enormous car parks, two railway stations by the course, extensive spectator facilities in specially built “villages”, new spectator mounds on what is already a stadium course and 15km of new paths.
More often than not, as I stand on some sunny fairway with views over the Med, I think that I have the best job in the world.
However, it is not without its downsides, mainly entailing the vicissitudes of five-hour waits at airports and sitting, seemingly forever, in tour buses and taxis.
Take my most recent trip to France. Presenting my passport at the desk at 530am I was advised that it was not mine but Mrs Clive’s.
Mind back in gear, I changed from the 635 to the 1155 flight, contacted my hosts, who, like me, were disappointed that I would not be able to join them for lunch in the palace of Versailles, but would taxi me to the National for a belated and truncated round of golf and then raced to the car park, made a 150-mile round trip to collect the correct passport, and after a cheese sandwich lunch courtesy of Air France, landed at Charles de Gaulle mid afternoon.
Those who think that the M25 is the biggest car park in Europe have clearly never experienced the pleasures of Paris’ peripherique in rush hour.
I am sure that I am not the first to compare the French capital’s beltway with Dante’s nine circles of hell, but suffice to say that it was the best part of two hours before we reached the National course and – here’s the shocking part – hell itself.
Hell itself – L’Albatros? Isn’t this the same course that on my last visit I called ‘a triumph’ and ‘a course which ordinary mortals can not only play, but enjoy immensely?’ What can have happened in the meantime for such a volte-face? Well, in three words, the French Open.
If I ever doubted that tour professionals play a completely different game to that attempted by us mere mortals, here was proof incarnate.
The course that the week before Rory had negotiated in five under was virtually unplayable. The set-up included fairways as narrow as 16 yards, a first cut of rough 75mm deep, so a ball could be lost a putter grip off the fairway, and then a further couple of metres and elephant grass a metre high.
I had expected to catch up with the main party somewhere on the back nine. In fact, I met them coming off the 6th green. They had been on the course two-and-a-half hours, stuck behind a medal competition.
Five hours later, with the sun setting, we reached the clubhouse. Fortunately, our hotel was part of the Le Golf National complex, linked to the clubhouse and, while notionally a Novotel, was finished to a high specification. Never has an excellent power shower been more welcome.
Nor has a welcoming glass of champagne as we sat down to a meal over which we agreed that although the course, as set up, had cost us several sleeves of balls, it was, in essence, as fair and enjoyable as it was spectacular.
The following morning, we were given a briefing on the Ryder Cup preparations by Paul Armitage, the director of golf, who firstly apologised for the slow play caused by the competition always run directly after the Open before the course is restored to its normal set-up and which we had simply had the misfortune to follow.
He pointed through the picture windows to the mowers setting off in serried ranks to restore the course to playability.
His talk was fascinating, starting with the creation of the stadium course on flat farmland involving 300 lorries a day for 300 days delivering builders’ rubble from Paris to form the dramatic hills and valleys which make the Albatros unique.
He then detailed the extraordinary preparations being made for the Ryder Cup in order to cope with the expected 60,000 spectators per day. One of our party asked whether any thought had been given to establishing a drivable risk-and-reward par 4 for the match, like the 10th at The Belfry.
Paul wasn’t sure whether there was one that was suitable, so I suggested putting the tees forward on the scenic 13th, which, like the Belfry’s 10th, has a green protected by trees and water. He immediately responded that the idea had legs, particularly at that point in the match where a taking a risk might be necessary. So, if it happens, remember you read it here first.
It was then on to the minibus and a two-hour drive to Deauville. If you like, from hell to heaven – sorry, I don’t really mean it; I love the Albatros, but I needed to relax.
The drive through Normandy’s rich fields and orchards was relaxation in itself. Normandy, as has often been observed, is like Kent, both formed on chalk, both regarded as the gardens of their adjacent capitals, and it was the fruits of the said orchards which gave rise to our lunchtime stop – the Calvados Boulard distillery.
Calvados is distilled from local apples, the best apples in the world according to Marianne, our brilliant guide. It is not as well known in the UK as it should be. But after a fascinating tour of the distillery and its cellars, and some judicious sampling after our tour, we were certainly fans.
Enjoying a lavish buffet lunch in the distillery’s museum, we sampled, (gorged upon) the local hams and cheeses, (Camembert, Pont I’Eveque and Livarot), all washed down with Boulard cider and shots of increasingly expensive Calvados – although not from the top of the range £2,500 bottle.
We continued our journey with some reluctance, but we were aware that our obligation to our readers required us to play some golf that afternoon. If there is a course that is better designed for relaxation after an indulgent lunch than Tom Simpson’s and Henry Cotton’s classic Golf Barriere at Deauville, I cannot bring it to mind.
With wide fairways, splash-out bunkers and views over the sea, it is holiday golf at its best, and, it must be said, at its most luxurious; when you spot four vintage Rolls and Bentleys amongst the Mercs and Beamers on the way to the delightful pavilion clubhouse, you know you are in a world of privilege.
I was privileged to play with David Raguet, the director of golf, who was great company and also an impressive golfer, so impressive that I asked him if he had played on the tour.
“Oh yes”, he said. “However, while I was an absolutely top amateur, I was a rubbish tour professional.”
This was a typically amusing self-deprecation, but it underlined for me the difference between even excellent golfers and the likes of Henrik Stenson.
Our more than pleasant round over, we retired to the luxury of the famous Hotel du Golf with its half-timbered Anglo-Norman façade and spacious bedrooms with balcony views over the course to the sea.
We dined out in one of Deauville’s excellent restaurants, but in the morning I enjoyed a self-indulgent breakfast, (yes, I added champagne to my orange juice), sitting in the glazed extension watching the passing golfers, before piling back into the mini-bus for the return to the Isle de France.
En route, Laetitia, our lovely minder for the trip, asked me if it made sense for punters attending the Ryder Cup to base themselves at Deauville. I responded that a two-centre golfing holiday, golf at the coast and then down to Paris for the Cup might be a better Idea.
However, an even better option presented itself as we stopped off at the Club du Champ de Bataille near Le Neubourg, about an hour from the National course and an ideal base. The description “a hidden gem” might be overworked, but this exquisite course fully justifies the description.
Carved out of the heart of an ancient forest of oak and birch by Robin Nelson, every hole is memorable, every shot is a challenge, but none of us lost a ball despite the fact that every fairway is tree-lined. Just a delight.
There was still the peripherique to endure, a five hour wait at the airport, the flight and drive home. Was it worth it? You bet. It’s still the best job in the world.
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