Le Golf National (L'Albatros)
As recently as 1986, the Albatros golf course at Le Golf National was nothing more than a few hectares of pan-flat cornfields. Thirty-two years later, it stands as perhaps the finest Ryder Cup course ever created. Duncan Lennard tells its tale.
Of all the hundreds of Ryder Cup preparations made by Le Golf National, one of the most important happened only last winter. Created, owned and operated by the eco-friendly French Golf Federation (FFG), this 45-hole site includes 50 bee hives, some of which sit among the rough-grassed spectator mounds bordering the fairways of the Albatros course.
The more jingoistic Europeans among you might consider this an opportunity to merchandise nectar-soaked stars-and-stripes flags; Ryder Cup Europe, however, have taken the high road. “Last December all the hives were moved across to the Eagle course,” says Le Golf National’s course superintendent Alejandro Reyes.
“The bees will not present a problem.” As it turns out, Hymenoptera removal was one of the final steps in an extraordinary 32-year journey that has taken the Albatros from the most unremarkable of farmer’s fields to the stage for the greatest show on Planet Golf. Not only this; the course could well prove to be the greatest Ryder Cup venue of them all.
Biting hungrily into the fairways and greens of no fewer than 10 holes, the course’s lakes create a series of dramatic, climactic do-or-die approaches just made for head-to-head golf. Massive spectator mounding not only achieves the near-impossible task of allowing a daily intake of 51,000 people to follow just four matches; it also ensures an unprecedented sense of theatre for each hole.
Set in their own amphitheatre, the blue/green blur of the final four holes fuses the two elements together just as matches are coming to a head. Never before will the tremendous swings of fortune and momentum, the fever-pitch excitement only the Ryder Cup can deliver, have been played out in such a dramatic and highly-charged arena.
How typical of golf’s contrary nature, then, that the Albatros was built for strokeplay. “The fundamental purpose of the course was to be a home for the French Open,” says general manager Paul Armitage. “The tournament had been part of the European Tour since 1972, but it was being moved from course to course. In the mid 1980s, when golf was getting bigger and more and more infrastructure was required, this was proving unsustainable.”
These issues became evident to the French Golf Federation just as they were wrestling with the idea of setting up a national golf facility, fully equipped to train elite teams, greenkeepers, PGA pros and golf managers. But at the forefront of any development would be a championship golf course, worthy of hosting the country’s national Open. At the time, the FFG’s general manager was Hubert Chesneau. An architect by trade, he had already designed a handful of minor golf courses in France.
“Even before I’d seen a piece of land, I was drafting my plans for the course,” he tells GW. “I’ve always been inspired by links like Birkdale, whose dunes frame the fairways and create natural vantage points for spectators. My vision was to find a naked, flat piece of land near Paris and build a stadium course with natural grandstands that would deliver the same, linksy feel… albeit on parkland.”
Eventually the FFG found their piece of land. A 144-hectare plain of cornfields south west of the capital, owned by the local council and rented out to farmers. In 1986 it was handed to the FFG on a 99-year lease.
Chesneau now had the blank canvas he wanted. To create such undulation on a flat site, he turned to landfill. Paris was expanding rapidly to the west and developers needed somewhere to dump the massive amounts of earth excavated to create roads, railways and underground car parks.
“I estimated we’d need to bring about 800,000 cubic metres to create the adapted topography,” Chesneau recalls. “Almost every day for the next three years, around 400 lorries came to the site to dump their landfill, each one at a charge… and this was effectively how we paid for the course.”
Chesneau had a vision but his inexperience with top-level golf courses led to the FFG hiring a consultant architect to assist him. Enter Robert von Hagge Design Associates. The FFG had been impressed by von Hagge’s work at the TPC in Woodlands, Houston, a stadium course that became something of a reference for the Albatros course.
He was already in France, developing the much-vaunted Les Bordes layout south of Orleans. He had also worked for years in Florida, and had experience creating courses from flat land.
And here, when it comes to who actually designed the holes that will confront the 24 players in October, the story gets a bit messy. The official site of Le Golf National credits Chesneau as the course’s architect, with von Hagge mentioned briefly as a consultant. Von Hagge died in 2010, just months before Le Golf National was chosen as the venue for the 2018 Ryder Cup.
But his colleague Rick Baril, the administrative architect for the project, sees things rather differently. “Hubert had done a routing, but it was clear to us it wasn’t going to work,” he says. “As a tournament venue, we needed drama for that final act. We wanted it so you could sit in one place and see as many of the final holes as possible.
We came up with the final four-hole configuration – now called the Gauntlet – and then linked in the other 14 holes. Once you change part of the routing it affects the whole thing… so it all changed.”
The next step was setting the tactical examination, a process Baril insists he and von Hagge also led. “To do this you have to have a system and a comprehensive evaluation behind you,” he asserts. “You have to have a reason for why a green is a certain shape or a bunker is in a certain location because every time you do that, you’re asking a question of the golfer. For me, I could see they didn’t have that background.
“That said, it was always a collaboration. Hubert had influence and there was always full discussion of any questions. It was actually a great working relationship.”
The sad part was that 20 years down the line, Robert felt he didn’t get the credit for his input. We took a reduced fee because he wanted to be known as the architect for the course. And I guess they had a different idea about that. Hubert said ‘I’m the architect’.
That upset Robert, and he never got over it.”
Baril’s version of events is born out both by original routing diagrams and expert analysis of von Hagge’s trademark designs – island targets, rippling, contoured fairways, severe elevation changes and the course’s overall rhythm and flow. But while the true leger of exactly who contributed what will never be seen, what can’t be questioned was the quality of the course the collaboration was creating.
A created, dynamic landscape would ensure an ever-changing test of force and finesse, tenacity and nerve. Right from the first tee – an iron for position with water left – the golfer is forced to think and strategise.
Some consider it a second-shot course, others a test based around the tee game. But one thing is for sure – against the relative mindlessness of the bomb-and-gouge era, the Albatros is a welcome antidote.
Chesneau remained the man on-site three days a week for three years, managing the lorry drops, overseeing the vision and even learning to drive a JCB. With the shaping of landfill and the scooping of lakes, he estimates a total of some 1.6 million cubic metres of earth were moved… and not without incident.
“This land is just eight miles from the Palace of Versailles and would have belonged to the Crown at some point,” he says. “Digging on the 5th, we discovered drainage ditches two or three metres below the surface that were from the time of Louis XIV. We were mostly able to avoid them because we were building up, not down.
“But on the par-3 11th we wanted water in front of the green. We built the lake, but the water kept draining out of it. Then we discovered our lake had been sited over one of these old drains. It still worked perfectly. It wasn’t till 2016 that an artificial, rubber-base was created and the lake took shape.”
Further problems came with the spectator mounding that flanked the essentially clay fairways. “It was like creating a series of baths,” Chesneau remembers. “Drainage to the lakes became an important part of the project, the collected water then used for irrigation.”
The Albatros eventually flew in October 1990, an exhibition match between Ray Floyd, Jeff Sluman, Marc Farry and Greg Norman officially opening the course. But the biggest test would come the following June at the course’s first French Open. “I wanted to know Nick Faldo’s thoughts,” says Chesneau.
‘Tough but fair’ was his assessment. That was a good start. But over the years, the likes of Faldo and Colin Montgomerie both commented on how well the course would suit the Ryder Cup. “It is extraordinary for me to think that this course, that I have known from before the first spade went into the ground, will now get the opportunity to do just that.”
By Paul Armitage’s own admission, Le Golf National “lost its way a bit” in the early 2000s. “It was plodding along, more of a local, regional and national affair than an international superstar. But then the realisation came that France was becoming a global golf destination.
We changed our way of running the club, bought modern aspects to the site. But the FFG also had a vice chairman, Pascal Grizot, who had big ambitions for the Albatros. It was his drive that led to Le Golf National’s candidature for the 2018 Ryder Cup... and secured its eventual award.”
There had been almost no changes to the Albatros since 1990, but with the Ryder Cup things changed. The FFG closed the entire golf course for 10 months in 2015 to implement €7.5m of work.
“Most of the work was based on irrigation and drainage,” says Alejandro Reyes. “These systems were basic and the soil quality from the landfill was very poor. We installed a new system of 1,250 sprinklers, with four lines up the fairway instead of one; we created some 140km of sand slit drains, and installed 18km of secondary drainage ditches.”
“And we have top-dressed the fairways heavily for five years now, adding some 22,000 tons of sand. It has raised the original fairways by around 12cm. Consistency and playability are much improved.”
Most holes on the course have been tweaked slightly but these have been fairly minimal. The first green approach has seen some reshaping and a bunker moved closer to the green; softer green contours both here and at 16 have created new pin positions.
Bunkers and a pond have been added at the 11th; the 14th has a new back tee. But it’s the course conditioning that has had the biggest boost. “It’s a course that grabs you from tee number one,” believes Armitage, “and it really is at the height of its splendour now.”
Perhaps the one elephant in the room, though, is that thanks to the vagaries of matchplay the course’s crowning glory – that incredible, lake-strewn final quartet of holes – may not see much action. According to Ryder Cup stats 85% of matches go to 15, and only around 20 per cent go to 18.
“I have only one regret,” Chesneau concludes: “that the 18th hole, in strokeplay very often decisive and suspenseful, may not be able to play its part. We’ll just have to hope for some close matches, because the excitement will be incredible.”
How we ranked Le Golf National (L’Albatros)
Every conceivable hole type, hazard and challenge in the mix.
Clever sculpting disguises the farmland terrain.
Excellent, but only if played from the appropriate tees.
Immaculate presentation throughout.
The opening three and closing four linger long in the memory.
Exceptional from hole 1-18 with no weaknesses.
Great variety of holes, excellent conditioning and fair design. What more do you need?
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