Named after the rarest of scores, L’Albatros at Le Golf National outside Paris is a stadium-style course like no other, which as Brian Noone writes, is a fitting home for the 2018 Ryder Cup
The French Revolution may have jumpstarted democracy in Europe, but when it comes to golf, France has barely modernised at all. The buttoned-up, ancien regime mentality has predominated for decades, meaning the beautiful game in France has been equal parts privilege and pleasure. The first course to break the mould – and some would argue still the only championship- level layout in France to do so – was Le Golf National, which debuted in 1990 without any membership scheme, a purely public, pay-as- you-play destination course in Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines on the southwest fringes of Paris, just beyond Versailles.
As L’Albatros, Le National’s premier track, prepares to host the Ryder Cup (25-30 September; rydercup.com), there is anticipation not only about the drama of the competition but also, for those looking more broadly at the state of the game, about what the event will mean for golf in France – as well as the rest of Europe. Might it, to be blunt, revolutionise golf? This year’s Cup is only the second to be held on the Continent – the first was at Valderrama in 1997 – and among Europe’s golfing cognoscenti there is a cautious optimism about what it (and the 2022 event, planned for the Marco Simone Club outside Rome) presage for the future of the sport in Europe.
Most of France’s leading courses are as elegant as the homes of the aristocrats who built them, nestled gracefully in the sylvan forests of Fontainebleau or Montmorency or winding between vineyards west of Bordeaux. Le National is a different, brasher sort of creation: set on what course architect Hubert Chesneau calls a “blank canvas” – entirely flat land – it was carved up into a true stadium-style configuration with the intention of hosting blockbuster tournaments, allowing both spectators and TV cameras to have unfiltered access to every moment of the action.
Exchanging sketches with fellow architect Robert von Hagge, who consulted on the L’Albatros course, Chesneau crafted a links- like layout whose every curve, undulation and hollow he designed to the last detail. It is a masterstroke of innovation and creativity, a playground for golfers with a penchant for risk-reward situations – starting from the very first tee, which requires a blind drive that cuts the corner to the right but risks an unplayable lie if the ball slices rather than fades, while a lake guards the left side of the fairway.
Water is the ubiquitous hazard here, coming into play on fully half of the holes and adding to the atmosphere of the grounds throughout, from bubbling brooks and streams to expansive lakes that swallow tees shots with voracious hunger. It doesn’t feel like a “blank canvas”, but a marvellous, even majestic landscape that has reached full maturity after these 28 years.
The par 72 course, measuring 7,331 yards (6,703 metres) from the tips, has hosted the Open de France – a staple of the European Tour calendar – nearly every year since 1991, and each tournament Sunday the iconic final four holes decide the winner. A quartet that rivals any in Europe, it includes the near- island greens at both 15 and 18 as well as the the dramatic par 3 16th, where the downhill slope can confound club selection and too much spin will feed the tee shot back into the water.
Drama is a given at the Ryder Cup, and this closing stretch will be squarely in focus in each of September’s matches. But after the tournament ends and the Americans go home, the real legacy of the event will come into view – will the noblest of sports remain the purview of European elites, or will the democratising Golf National be the next step in golf ’s popularisation across the European continent?