It would be an understatement to say that Napoleone di Buonaparte (who later changed his name to Napoleon Bonaparte to de-emphasize his Tuscan heritage among his French followers) had aggressive inclinations. One can only wonder if some of his hostile tendencies might have been softened by an early introduction to golf on his native Corsica. He might have come to appreciate the calming affects of a closer interaction with nature. He might have learned to reign in any frustrations stemming from perceived inadequacies (not long off the tee?) and channel them toward new self improvements (spend time with the short-game).
Had only Sperone Golf Club been built 220 years earlier!
Sperone is situated near the town of Bonifacio, at the extreme southern end of the island of Corsica – which means at the extreme southern end of France. (Corsica’s not only geographically isolated from the rest of France; through much of its modern history, it was aligned with Genoa [once a republic of Italy], which explains in part why Napoleone’s family made its way here from Tuscany.) “Sperone has to be the most aesthetically pleasing course that I’ve ever seen,” Christopher Smith said. “There are turquoise waters, rocky cliffs and views of the hills of the island of Sardinia in the distance [Sardinia is less than seven miles away across the Strait of Bonifacio]. I have played courses with more intriguing designs, but no other course with such a phenomenal setting. The other great appeal of playing Sperone is Corsica itself. The first time I visited was nearly twenty years ago, right after the course opened. Twenty years later, the area looks the same, having retained its rustic qualities. The island is not extensively developed; it citizens rely on low-key tourism and the cultivation of chestnuts and lemons to make a living. There’s a charm to places like Corsica, places that seem stuck in a time warp, a sort of strange twilight zone. It will always bring me back.”
Sperone Golf Club was designed by Robert Trent Jones, Sr., one of history’s most prolific architects – certainly the most prolific, were you to add the creations of his progeny, Robert Trent, Jr. and Rees to his list of course credits. (Jones, Sr. had his hand in some 500 designs – 350 originals, 150 remodels; only Donald Ross is credited with more layouts, though Ross didn’t often visit the sites where his designs were implemented. Jones was known – and sometimes reviled – for his punitive designs. These included his re-interpretations of classic courses (such as Augusta National, Baltusrol, the Olympic Club and Oak Hill) to make them more challenging for major tournaments, which earned him the moniker “the Open Doctor.” ”The shattering of par without a proper challenge is a fraud,” he often said. ”I make them play par.” This philosophy explains the yawning bunkers and seemingly unflyable lakes that permeate many of his properties.
In other ways, Robert Trent Jones, Sr. set the tone for generations of course architects to come. He was an early road warrior, logging an estimated eight million miles in delivering his designs to 45 states and 35 foreign countries; he was of saying that “The sun never sets on a Robert Trent Jones golf course.” He was not shy about moving earth, digging the aforementioned lakes to get the fill he’d need. Jones also understood the importance of salesmanship and promotion, and was adept at cultivating friends in important places – friends who could green light significant projects, like Sperone. (Incidentally, Jones had significant assistance on the ground around Bonifacio from Cabell Robinson.)
By RTJ, Sr. standards, Sperone is a relatively short course, coming in at 6,678 yards from the tips. When the wind is blowing off the Straits of Bonifacio, however, the course plays much, much longer. Twelve of the holes are inland, winding through the thick maquis shrubland that’s found on much of Corsica; the other six holes – eleven through sixteen – cling to the coastline, and have earned Sperone the sobriquet (in some circles) of “the Pebble Beach of Europe.” The par-4 11th begins with a blind tee shot uphill. As you crest the rise, the hills of northern Sardinia spread out before you, framing your approach. The 12th is a modest 147-yard par-3 along the coast, where your tee shot must carry scrubland for most of the distance. On a windy day, this shot can easily demand a fairway wood. The 13th is a short par-4 that continues along the coast; it’s drivable if the wind is cooperating. If you wish to weigh the pros and cons of hitting for the eagle, consider a stop at the crescent-shaped beach that spreads below the path between the 12th green and 13th tee. “If things aren’t going very well for you on the course, the pristine water below makes it tempting to give up golf at this point and simply go for a swim,” Christopher added. If you do drop in the Mediterranean, be sure to dry off and trod on, as the best is yet to come. The par-5 sixteenth is a fitting finale to Sperone’s six-hole seaside swing. The back tees are on a spit of land that extends into the Strait of Bonifacio. From here, you’ll aim over the white cliffs that comprise the southernmost headlands of Corsica. If you successfully take a big bite off this 580-yard par-5 with your tee shot, you can consider crossing the Strait a second time en route to the green – though it will take two near-perfect shots to get there.
Christopher Smith is the PGA Lead Teaching Professional at Pumpkin Ridge Golf Club outside of Portland, Oregon. A professional instructor since 1988, his teaching and coaching experiences include stints in Florida, New England and Western Europe; his list of students includes Tour players, professional athletes, CEO’s, top-ranked juniors – and recreational hackers. A Master Instructor with the Jim McLean Golf Schools, Christopher has received many accolades for his teaching: he has been nominated by Golf Magazine as one of the Top 100 Instructors in America, was named 2004 Pacific Northwest Section PGA Teacher of the Year, 2003 Oregon Chapter PGA Teacher of the Year and selected in 2003, 2005 & 2007 by Golf Digest magazine as one of the top instructors in Oregon. Christopher played collegiate golf at the University of California at Santa Barbara and later on the European Challenge Tour, before pursuing his passion for instruction. He is a Bill Bowerman Advisory Staff Member with Nike Golf and a consultant with the Nike Fitness Centers at the company’s world headquarters in Oregon. Christopher is the speed golf world record holder, having shot 65 (five under par) for 18 holes in 44 minutes, 06 seconds, playing with only six clubs, at the 2005 Chicago Speed Golf Classic. He is the author of I’ve Got 99 Swing Thoughts but “Hit the Ball” Ain’t One: Pick Up the Pace to Pick Up Your Game (Crown, 2007) and the creator of the CD Better Golf, which employs an audio ‘whole-brain’ learning approach designed to build confidence in your abilities on the golf course. ‘
IF YOU GO…
Getting There: Bonifacio is most easily reached from the airport at Figari, which is served by CCM (www.aircorsica.com) and Air France (www.airfrance.com) via Paris, Lyons and other mainland France airports.
Course Information: Sperone (+33 495 731 713; www.sperone.net) plays 6,704 yards from the tips to a par 72. Green fees range from 60 to 95 Euros.
Accommodations: The upscale Sperone resort (+33 825 078 466; www.sperone.net) has apartments and villas for rent. Visit Corsica (+33 4 95 51 00 00; http://english.visit-corsica.com) has an extensive list of lodging options in Bonifacio.
(Photo courtesy of Sperone Golf Club.)