Twenty-somethings who fantasize about Paris as a place where they can immerse themselves in a cloud of Gitane smoke, cheap red wine-fueled literary discussions and unbridled romance probably do not think much about the City of Light’s potential for golf. For that matter, neither do golf travelers – though there’s a good reason they should. “I’d wanted to look at France from a golf perspective for a long time,” James Dodson began, “even though it’s not a place where golfers traditionally went. The opportunity came up when I became golf editor for American Express Departures magazine. The piece I really wanted to do concerned golf around Paris, as I’d heard there were some very great courses nearby. I was able to take my fiancé (now wife) Wendy along, and enjoyed some of the best golfing days – maybe best days, period – of my life.”
For the golf course architecture aficionado visiting Paris, it is not the artistry of Matisse and Manet that captivates so much as the work of Englishman Tom Simpson, who coined the phrase “the Golden Age of Architecture” for the 1920s and 30s, when he did some of his most memorable work. In a fraternity of eccentrics and bigger than life personalities, Simpson stood out. A Cambridge-trained barrister and scion of a wealthy family, he was known to show up at the sites of new commissions in a chauffeur-driven Rolls Royce, a not so quiet way to let his well-heeled employers know that he wasn’t some commoner to be trifled with. Here’s how George Peper imagined Simpson’s arrival: “From the backseat emerges what appears to be a fugitive from the Cannes Film Festival, sporting an embroidered cape, horn-rimmed sunglasses, a floppy beret, and an attitude.” Simpson left his mark in Great Britain (Cruden Bay and Berkshire along with a renovation of Sunningdale), Belgium (Royal Antwerp), Ireland (a reworking of Ballybunion), New Zealand (New Zealand Golf Club) and perhaps most notably, France. Three of his greatest works are here – Morfontaine, Chantilly and Fontainebleau – along with a number of other designs. Like his fellow golden agers, Simpson championed the notion of strategic golf course design, where different approach options are presented to the player; more demanding options (successfully executed!) are rewarded with a better position in the fairway or on the green. “Most American golf architecture fans know Robert Trent Jones, Donald Ross and perhaps Old Tom Morris,” Jim continued. But they don’t know Tom Simpson. This is reason alone to golf in France, as he’s one of the greatest architects of all time.”
The extremely private Morfontaine did not figure on Jim and Wendy’s itinerary, but Chantilly and Fontainebleau did. The stop at the parkland Vineuil course at Chantilly (a second course was added in 1991 by the dean of modern-day British architects, Donald Steel) capped off a fabulous day, the kind, in Jim’s words, “that inspires travel posters and Visa commercials” – and encapsulates all the attractions of French golf travel. “We commenced the day dewsweeping a beautiful John Jacobs parkland course in the town of Aprement in just shy of three hours. We then pushed on to the ancient stone village of Senlis where we lunched at a fabulous patisserie and hoofed through the medieval cathedral where Joan of Arc once rallied her troops. We then followed a tunnel of magnificent sycamores along the picturesque River Oise to the market town of Compiegne, where my father had been stationed in World War II, and where there is a famous steeplechase course which happened to be running its final race when we serendipitously ambled up. On a lark, we plunked 20 francs on the number 8 horse and watched it gallop from dead last to win, sending an unexpected windfall of 144 francs back at us through the betting window, which we promptly squandered in the farmer’s market on truffle-flavored vinegar, fresh raspberries, three kinds of cheese and two bottles of locally wrung cabernet.
“Soon after we arrived at Chantilly, and presented 800 francs to a girl named Marie doing her nails and strolled out to the empty first tee of the Vineuil course, which was a little like paying 50 bucks a piece and being pointed to the opening hole of Merion or Winged Foot while members are away at Rich Persons Camp. That’s a great characteristic of golf in France – you can call up the most illustrious course (Morfontaine excepted) and say you’d like to play. You’re not only welcome – they seem astonished when you call. As we walked to the tee, there was only the sound of our footsteps and the cuckoos in the surrounding forest. Simpson was very fond of bunkering, especially the kind of daunting cross-bunkering you encounter on the first hole at Vineuil.” The round proceeded as the reddening Van Gogh sun set and the cuckoos called, shots clearing (and occasionally finding) those amazing Simpson bunkers. It ended with Jim and Wendy being escorted to a bistro in Chantilly with some men who befriended them in the clubhouse, where they feasted on a steak au poivre “the size of a Michelin tire”…and one of their escorts suggested they play Fontainebleau.
“The sun was coming up as I passed the grand palace at Fontainebleau, where Napoleon bade his troops farewell en route to exile,” Jim continued, “and a few kilometers later reached the ultra-private club of the same name, at the edge of Europe’s largest forest. The clubhouse gate was locked, but a wild-eyed elderly caretaker let me in and waved me in the general direction of the clubhouse, an adorable green and white Tudor-style manor house. I walked to the elevated first tee and took in a rough and sandy terrain that was reminiscent of both Pinehurst and Pine Valley. Instead of cuckoos, I heard contented doves. A young red-haired woman suddenly bounded up the clubhouse steps behind me, smiling and pleasantly greeting me. Having identified me as an American, Cely – the clubhouse manager – offered to make me coffee. She had no clue about the club’s visitation policy or fee structure, but suggested I ‘go and play the golf’ and settle up with club authorities afterward.”
“Fontainebleau has all of the usual Simpson trademarks,” Jim said, “bunkers that look as if they’ve been there since Napoleon said good-bye to the troops, challenging approach shot angles (especially the blind approach on the par-5 eighth) and putting surfaces that must be respected to avoid catastrophe.” Along the way, he picked up an eagle and a playing partner named Marcel who turned out to be one of France’s leading screenwriters, and to possess extremely strong (and not terribly sympathetic) views on the fall of Frenchman Jean Van de Veldt in the 1999 British Open. He also recorded his first score of even par in almost ten years.
And a day later, after ascending the second platform of the largest golf tee in the world (sometimes called the Eiffel Tower), Jim Dodson and Wendy became engaged.
Viva La France!
James Dodson was an award-winning regular columnist for Golf Magazine for almost 20 years and travel editor for Departures Magazine, American Express’s flagship travel magazine, for a decade. A former Senior Writer for the Atlanta Journal and Constitution Sunday Magazine and Yankee Magazine, his public affairs and political writing has won numerous national awards including the William Allen White Award for Public Affairs Journalism given by the University of Kansas. His non-golf work has appeared in Gentlemen’s Quarterly, The New York Times, Sports Illustrated, Travel and Leisure, Town and Country, Reader’s Digest, Geo, Outside Magazine, and numerous other national publications. In addition, he has won several Golf Writers of America Awards for columns in Golf Magazine. His books, Final Rounds and Faithful Travelers, were best sellers with Final Rounds selling 300,000 copies worldwide, in several languages, since publication. Final Rounds, also received the International Network of Golf’s industry honors award for Best Golf Book of 1996. Final Rounds is currently in the process of being produced as a feature film and Faithful Travelers has been produced as a television movie. Jim’s book, A Golfer’s Life – the autobiography of Arnold Palmer – was a New York Times bestseller. His bestselling book, The Dewsweepers, was released in late 2001, followed by The Road to Somewhere – Travels with a Young Boy through an Old World, in November 2003. Ben Hogan: An American Life, the authorized biography of Ben Hogan, was released in the summer of 2004, earning strong international acclaim. Beautiful Madness – One Man’s Journey Through Other People’s Gardens, was published in March, 2006. His latest book, The Pinehurst Cure, was recently published by Algonquin Press.
(recommended by James Dodson)
IF YOU GO…
Getting There: Chantilly and Fontainebleau are within an hour’s drive of downtown Paris. Orsy/Charles de Gaulle Airport is served by most major carriers, including Air France (www.airfrance.com).
Course Information: Chantilly (+33 44 57 04 43: www.golfdechantilly.com) measures 6,396 yards from the back tees and plays to a Par 71. Fontainebleau (+33 64 22 74 19; www.golfdefontainebleau.org) plays 6,643 yards from the tips to a par 72; it has a slope rating of 130. Though both clubs are private facilities, they’re generally able to accommodate visiting golfers, though the courtesy of a call a few days before your arrival will facilitate gaining access. Neither course publishes green fees.
Accommodations: Whether you’re seeking an apartment overlooking the Seine or a countryside chateau, The French Tourist Office (www.francetourism.com) can help.
(from Fifty More Places To Play Golf Before You Die)