Le Touquet (La Mer)

In 1928, when Harry Colt and Charles Alison stood atop one of the grand dunes at Le Touquet Paris-Plage in northern France and surveyed the canvas upon which they had been asked to create the resort’s new La Mer golf course, they would have looked out over a sprawling barren landscape alive with white sandy bluffs, thick bushes and large tracts of coarse sea grasses. Aside from the occasional cluster of pines, there would not have been a single tree in sight. Tucked between the rugged Opal Coast beaches and a small pine forest, the terrain was links turf in its purest form – a perfect site for the new 18-hole course that would form one of the major attractions for the new 500-room Royal Picardy – touted at the time as the world’s most luxurious hotel.

Colt and Alison had worked together since around 1910, but the design of La Mer was one of their first collaborations as official design partners. When they teamed up to work on the project Colt, at almost 60 years old, was already a prolific and respected architect with a portfolio of high-profile designs under his belt, including Pine Valley, Hoylake and St George’s Hill. He was also one of the first architects to publicly state that a golf course had to be playable for everybody, that the challenge of golf was as much mental as physical and that beauty was a key foundation of good golf course architecture. Although 15 years younger, Alison shared many of Colt’s design philosophies. However, he favoured more severe and difficult designs, and was especially fond of large bunkers and elevated greens of the type found at some of his masterpieces, such as Royal Hague in Belgium and Hirono in Japan. The design traits and preferences of both men were evident in an expansive layout that stretched to almost 6,700 yards when La Mer opened for play in 1931.

The 12th hole at Le Touquet’s La Mer course.

The 12th hole at Le Touquet’s La Mer course.

For the best part of two decades, La Mer and the Royal Picardy flourished. While the golf course hosted the French Open in 1935 and 1939 and attracted many leading golfers, the Picardy became a playground for royal families, maharajas, millionaires, politicians and Hollywood stars. All was well in Le Touquet until the outbreak of the Second World War. The La Mer course was heavily damaged by bombing while the Picardy was commandeered by the German army and, together with the original golf clubhouse, vandalised and eventually destroyed. By the time Le Touquet was liberated in 1944, it is estimated that some 2,000 bombs had been dropped on the town and its surrounds. Such was the level of destruction, it took the resort almost two decades to fully recover. 

When the new hotel and 45 holes officially reopened in 1968, La Mer had a brand new clubhouse and a modified 18-hole layout. Unfortunately, four of Colt and Alison’s original holes on the northern edge of the property didn’t make the cut in the rejig. However, while they eventually became overgrown, they were never quite forgotten. For the best part of a quarter of a century, La Mer’s 18-hole layout remained unchanged. In the early-1990s, the British architect Harold Baker approached the resort’s new owner Nicolas Boissonnas with a proposal to restore the four “lost” holes. Although there was no official documentation of Colt and Alison’s original layout, Baker claimed he had played the holes many times when he was younger and that he could remember the routing in fine detail. Boissonnas took Baker at his word and the northern corridor of the course was integrated back into the course a couple of years later.

La Mer retained this routing until 2011 when Boissonnas’ aspiring course designer son, Patrice, and Dutch architect, Frank Pont, were asked to restore the La Mer course and decided to examine Baker’s work in a little more detail. Upon closer inspection, they discovered that many of the architectural features in Baker’s new holes conflicted with the design philosophies of Colt and Alison. “For a start, the new greens were very fancy and the undulations didn’t look like the type that were built in the Golden Age of course design,” says Boissonnas.

Another tell-tale sign that the redesigned holes were misaligned with the originals was the symmetry of the bunkering. “On the 15th hole, there were two bunkers left and right,” Boissonnas says. “That type of symmetrical defence was typical of the Hawtree-style of design in the 1960s, not from the 1930s. It was the same at the 14th hole, where there were three perfectly-aligned bunkers. Colt and Alison would have preferred asymmetrical or diagonal bunkering to present golfers with more options.”

Despite their strong suspicions that Baker’s renovation was not fully accurate, the absence of any documented evidence meant Boissonnas and Pont were unable to prove their theories. However, they later uncovered a high-quality aerial photograph of La Mer from the early 1930s. The image enabled the designers to measure the width of fairways and greens, and to accurately plot the size, shape and locations of hazards. In effect, they had a blueprint of the original Colt/Alison design. “When we started the renovation, people asked us if we would create revetted bunkers like you see on many links courses,” Boissonnas says. “But Frank and I preferred to resist. We wanted to remain totally faithful to an authentic restoration.”

The photograph also revealed how the sandy bluffs that had once dominated the landscape had all but disappeared, buried beneath layers of thick vegetation. In addition, unchecked tree growth over the years had closed off many of the open vistas for which La Mer was renowned and, in doing so, had transformed the entire character of the golf course. In the space of just six or seven decades, La Mer had evolved from a pure links to a borderline woodland course. “We removed a lot of trees to bring the course back to how it used to be. The vistas are now much more in line with Colt’s original barren landscape,” Boissonnas says. 

In addition to its grand scale, the finest attributes of the refreshed La Mer are its playability and the design subtleties that constantly challenge your decision-making. The journey starts with a serene par-5 that flows through a channel of dunes. In true Colt style, the hole has been designed to gently ease you into the round before presenting you with a stern challenge at the second – a long par 3 that funnels through two imposing sand hills. At face value, it’s just a mid-iron or hybrid into a narrow green, but the hole demands you land the ball short and run it up onto the putting surface. However, doing so means avoiding a collection of bunkers placed mischievously in your intended landing area. 

Over the front nine, the course setting alternates between dramatic dunes and tree-lined flatlands. It’s not always the most visually spectacular experience, but the holes are strong and reward smart decision-making and solid hitting. La Mer gathers pace around the turn before really coming alive on the back nine, where the epic scale of the land is revealed. The closing holes keep you off balance with constantly changing vistas and topography, while a selection of elevated and tilted greens present difficult but not excessively penal challenges. 

As part of the restoration of the missing four holes from 13 through 16, Boissonnas and Pont restored Colt’s original iconic dogleg right par 5 15th, described by design rival Tom Simpson as one of the best on the Continent. The designers were also able to return the long par 3 16th to its original setting, although they took a little artistic license by elevating tee in order to give golfers a better chance of hitting the green in regulation as well as opening up a spectacular view. “We wanted to stay true to Colt and Alison’s original design as closely as we could, but when the opportunity came along to improve on something, we took it,” Boissonnas says. 

La Mer may have had a somewhat troubled past, but under the watchful eye of Boissonnas and Pont, it has a very bright future. 

How we ranked Le Touquet (La Mer)

Design
Pont and Boissonnas’ masterful reworking has returned La Mer to its original glory and breathed new life into classic layout.
20.1 out of 25

Setting
Not always visually spectacular but La Mer’s regular highs allow you to forgive the occasional lull.
15.4 out of 20

Presentation
In excellent condition on our visit and true to the original vision, with formidable bunkering, vast dunes and fast, firm greens.
15.7 out of 20

Playability
Constantly finds ways to challenge your shot-making. A tough examination, it rewards solid shots and sound decisions.
13.4 out of 15

Memorability
True to the original vision of Colt and Alison, the sympathetic touch and artistic license applied by Pont-Boissonnas has elevated La Mer to a higher level.
8.5 out of 10

Consistency
A solid, nuanced test throughout, the early holes pale a touch when judged against a stellar finish and the intrigue of those missing holes.
7.6 out of 10

TOTAL
Restored it to its original form, La Mer rose 35 places up our Top 100 ranking to 31. Its renaissance and rise may have only just begun. 
80.7 out of 100

To view the Top 100 Golf Courses in the Europe please click here.

 

 
FranceNick Wright