Location: Hardelot, France
Designer: Tom Simpson
British influence in the town of Hardelot on the north-east coast of France is easy to detect as you arrive in this pretty seaside outpost. Even if the Union flag adorning the town’s coat of arms escapes your gaze, as you cruise along idyllic avenues lined by sweet- scented trees and elegant villas, you are reminded of well-heeled English villages. It is not unlike a more concise replica of Wentworth estate.
Neufchâtel-Hardelot, to give this resort its full name, is an immaculately presented and prosperous testament to the ‘Entente Cordiale’. An advocate of outdoor pursuits, he included tennis courts, an equestrian centre, watersports and a golf course in his plans for this new town on the dunes of the Opal Coast.
Hardelot is ranked number 24 in our Top 100 Golf Courses Europe.
Word soon spread of these attractions and it enjoyed prominence in Edwardian times, with King George V among those who visited. Whitley had already created another Anglophilic town a few miles down the coastal, Le Touquet. It too had a golf course and both were ultimately shaped by architects from his homeland.
While Le Touquet got Harry Colt, at Hardelot it was Tom Simpson. This noted creator of heathland masterpieces arrived in 1931 and ever since visitors have poured over the channel to enjoy his work at Les Pins – and indeed everything about Hardelot. Even when golf holidays to Iberia became readily available, British golfers stayed loyal to Hardelot and Le Touquet in large numbers.
Yet in recent times it was as much habit based on sentimentality and convenience – Hardelot is 40 minutes from the Channel Tunnel – than excitement. Both courses had begun to lose their aura.
Les Pins, one of the best golf courses in Europe, is set among a pine forest, but being within a mile of the sea, the topography is essentially sandy linksland. It had suffered significantly from the linked issues of undesirable tree growth and subsequently maintenance. A forest generates as much as three percent of new wood every year – so over eight decades, that is a significant amount. The additional timber altered Les Pins’ character from the fast-and- rm track Simpson envisaged to a lush, soft course lined by overhanging branches. This playground comprised narrowed fairways, runway-like tees, mis-shapen bunkers and smaller, shapeless greens.
Both the Hardelot and Le Touquet clubs are operated by golf and hotel business Open Golf Club who, realising their star courses were losing their lustre, sought the assistance of ‘The Restoration Man’, Frank Pont. But while the Dutchman, whose name might be familiar from his work at Camberley Heath, was fully involved in the projects, he has been assisted extensively by Patrice Boissonnas, whose family owns Open Golf Club.
Boissonnas is a Paris business school graduate who became inspired, four years ago, by France’s awarding of the 2018 Ryder Cup to pursue his teenage passion for golf course architecture.
Accepting he would not be entrusted with the task of revitalising Open Golf Club’s superstar courses (they also have others in France, Belgium, Holland and Morocco), Boissonnas was permitted to work alongside an experienced hand.
With Pont initially tutoring intensely, Boissonnas flourished. The master and his apprentice began at Le Touquet but decided to do a trial hole at Hardelot, spending a week re-working the 5th.
It was such a success that the Hardelot project gathered more momentum and overtook that of Le Touquet (three new holes of which have just opened). Over three subsequent years, the work of this Dutch-French alliance has resulted in the re-birth of Simpson’s original, using 90-year-old photographs and sketches to help transform it back to the Englishman’s 1930s intentions.
Three thousand trees have been cut – and more may follow – while the undergrowth has been scraped to bring back the natural sandy blowouts. Every bunker was rebuilt in the dynamic Simpson style; lace-edge sand pits that, according to Boissonnas “honour the artistic vision of the great architect and create a stronger, more strategic defence on this relatively short course”. Eleven bunkers were created – on the at par-5 13th alone, ve were built for visual and strategic reasons – and four closed.
Greens were extended back to their original size, fairways were widened and several tee boxes were rebuilt. Run-off areas were created around some greens, notably on the first two holes as well as 6, 8, 11, 13 and then the three from the 15th. To avoid crossing between the opening holes of both nines, the 1st and 10th have been switched back to Simpson’s routing.
Sporty two-shotters at 11 and 15 were adapted to ensure they remain fun yet competitive. The work on 11 – from the new tees, the green is visible and driveable – is the main move from Simpson’s plan, but the original tees are still available for those seeking the 1931 experience.
Les Pins is also now a par 71, with the 2nd and 16th dropping to par 4s... a change made at the behest of the members!
The greens remained untouched save for deep drilling that, in order to break up compaction beneath them, allowed them to drain more efficiently and become rm as a result. They are now hand mown.
“They are in our opinion the treasure of Les Pins,” adds Boissonnas. “We made some minor modi cations here and there (with some to come) but that’s mostly to reduce unfriendly humps from decades of sand splashing out of bunkers.”
The result is very impressive indeed. When we ranked Les Pins in the late 90s of our Continental European Top 100 two years ago, it felt like 2015 might see this old favourite fall out of our listing completely. Now the dilemma is in managing its rise properly.
It is impossible not to have fun here, and not just because it’s yardage of under 6,500 ensures it is not a slog. When you learn it is also now generally not especially tight, you might suspect flattery is the reason for its allure. Not so; while the forgiving corridors of play help higher handicappers enjoy the day, there is plenty of subtle challenge around the greens. Les Pins seduces you into making bogeys.
The gradual increase in length of the short holes is a nice example of its stealthily strategic test. The 5th hole, which saw trees axed and the bunkers that surround the green like a moat rebuilt more attractively, is nothing more than a wedge shot at 120 yards downhill. Two holes later a similar visual prospect awaits but this time it is 150 yards. An 8 or 7-iron perhaps.
On the classy downhill 12th it is 160 yards. A 6-iron. On the 14th – so achingly beautiful it could be at Augusta National or Sunningdale – it’s a full 175 yards and as much as a 4-iron to get over the ‘tongue’ of the sloping front. By the penultimate hole you are reaching for a hybrid or 4-wood to cover its 180 yards. From pitching wedge to 4-wood, Hardelot’s short holes probe and please in an orderly, polite and picturesque fashion. Pinpointing our favourite holes is not easy. There is impressive variety to the individual challenges here; the old cliché of every club in your bag is actually relevant, as competitors in the first stage of European Tour Q School discovered. The four-round winning total on this 6,450-yard course was eight under.
Les Pins is only likely to improve further too. The sandy subsoil ought to equate to a firm ‘linksy’ experience, even if there are still plenty of trees to pay tribute to the course’s name and also disguise the occasional handsome house on its perimeter. Bouncy fairways would improve the playing experience yet further and although Boissonnas says they are not trying to re- create Morfontaine here, in this golfer’s mind patches of heather interspersed with the pines and sandy blowouts would be magnificent. One or both of these developments are possible with further tree pruning to let in more sunlight. And if they do, British golfers seeking a high- calibre course away from our own shores will struggle to find too many better venues on Continental Europe.
To view our ranking of the Top 100 Golf Courses in Europe, click here.