The story behind our top-ranked European course is almost as fascinating as the layout itself.
Few courses possess the mystique of Les Bordes International. Only properties such as Vidauban and Queenwood retain as much reverence, with the common denominator the exclusive nature of these clubs and the thirst for knowledge such reclusive escapes inevitably engender. The morsels of information about these courses that do emerge serve only to enhance the fascination, exaggerated as they are by being passed on like Chinese whispers.
Another analogous theme is that, as far as we can accurately establish, they are also outstanding courses. Of course, being well-heeled and well-briefed, these private clubs enjoy significant resources and select sites astutely, so to the outsider the creation of an outstanding course feels a fait accompli. It is not always straightforward though, and the often intriguing back stories to these clubs and courses merely heighten their allure. That is very true of Les Bordes.
Situated two hours’ drive south of Paris in majestic woodland that was previously reserved for the enjoyment of French kings hunting boar and stag, simply locating Les Bordes is an adventure in itself. It merely adds to the exciting element of the unknown that accompanies any visit to a course for the first time, even if we have seen it on television, read about it in a magazine or heard tales about it from a friend. That feeling is especially intense en route to Les Bordes. After crawling through medieval Orleans and along some B roads, you reach a prominent ‘Les Bordes International’ sign, reassuringly pointing to what maps and GPS devices agree is the edge of the property. In fact, it leads to a wire fence, behind which a new driveway is being built – one of several developments at the club. Another (unpromising) route is identified but when a locked gate once more halts progress, soon a member of catering staff pulls up, confirms Golf World’s identity, and in we go.
It feels a privilege to be here, for this is a road rarely travelled since Les Bordes was born in 1986 out of a friendship between Marcel Bich, the man behind the Bic pen and disposable razor empire, and his trader partner Yoshiaki Sakurai. For nearly 30 years, it has remained one of the world’s most private clubs. The two had acquired a vast estate in the Sologne Valley and, with Sakurai a golfer keen to own courses close to capital cities and Baron Bich advised by doctors to exercise more, they resolved to create their own masterpiece. Sakurai asked prominent Japanese golfer Yoshi Endo to identify an architect and he recommended Robert Von Hagge, who had worked in Japan. The American was summoned over the Atlantic by one of France’s wealthiest men to wander among the ancient forest to discuss the project. Baron Bich told Von Hagge he wanted Les Bordes to be capable of training French golfers to be competitive internationally (for several years he sponsored Jean van de Velde, who often visited Les Bordes) and demanded the American send him a hand-written assessment on his return home; as a proponent of graphology, he intended to assess his potential architect’s psyche and personality. Von Hagge agreed, for he returned to Houston enthused at the prospect of designing Les Bordes.
A far-reaching vision
At that stage, 36 holes were planned, but woodland restrictions encouraged Bich to advance with just 18 that required less tree felling and could thus be created quickly – and that is how it has remained, despite continued talk of a second 18 being added. The 18 holes were instantly rated highly, not least by Golf World’s first Continental European Top 100. But two decades after opening, the 1,600-acre estate was acquired by a group of businessmen. In 2008, Von Hagge returned to Les Bordes along with his design associate Rick Baril, who had also worked on the original 18 holes. Their far-reaching revision led to new tees, sympathetic woodland management, bunker reconstruction, and the replacing of all the sleepers that buttress 12 of the greens that are guarded menacingly by water. The update was so remarkable that, in tandem with continued peerless conditioning, Les Bordes was elevated to No.1 in our Continental ranking from 2009 to 2013. The timing was apt, as Von Hagge lived to witness his masterpiece atop the rankings before passing away later that year.
It is not difficult to appreciate why those on our Top 100 panel fortunate to have played here have been so impressed by the tranquility, conditioning, beauty and challenge of Les Bordes. There is both a voracious perfectionism and an understated, sleepy ambience to life at Les Bordes, which one imagines suits the small, well-heeled membership who retreat here for R&R and the French country lifestyle. This embracing attention to detail results in the course being groomed meticulously. It looks and plays as if the greens are not merely hand cut, but painstakingly snipped with nail scissors and finished off with tweezers and a comb. The light nature of the traffic the course receives naturally helps. Indeed, when one speculates that the golfer-greenkeeper ratio on a daily basis might well often be 1:1 it is probably not fanciful. So, during the growing summer months – Les Bordes is not naturally fast-draining, being built on “miserable and variable soil that seemed like they would never drain” says Baril – it is difficult to imagine Augusta National is in perceptibly better condition than this.
A beauty and a beast
Adding to the escapism is the almost eerie silence among the woodland, with the only sounds of golfing combat and wildlife scurrying around the forest floor. It is much more than pretty and serene though – in fact, it is one of the most unremittingly exacting courses in Europe. It stretches to over 7,000 yards, yet it is far from length alone that challenges, with a legendary small number of players who have broken par off the backs. “What a course,” Ryder Cup player Paul Broadhurst tells Golf World. “But what a beast. I’ve been going there for years with other Tour pros… but we very rarely play off the backs.”
The accent on stringent golf begins as you stroll from the clubhouse – which like all the buildings has a traditional Gallic look of beige stone and mortar, enhanced by huge panes of gleaming glass – and circle the lake as you eye up the first drive. The fairway offers a narrow landing strip between trees and rough before an approach to a green ‘pushed up’ from the fairway and completely surrounded by bunkers save for a 10ft gap at the front. The whole area is surrounded by trees, heather and bracken; an exacting but glorious start.
This scenic challenge is the norm at Les Bordes, holes threading through avenues of trees with a margin for error made even more unforgiving as a consequence of raised fairways necessary to improve drainage. So, any balls landing off the designated ‘play corridor’ are encouraged to continue away from the short grass by banks. When it’s firm, bounces off these slopes are penal. Similarly demanding slopes surround many greens too, and these grassy run-offs necessitate committed chips in order to nudge your ball up onto the surface with enough control to keep it there.
But it is not all hard graft. Les Bordes is relentlessly beautiful, with spellbinding holes such as par 3s over water at 4 and 8. The 11th is another highlight, raising the temperature once again after a modest pair either side of the turn. A lake is the constant danger on the inside of a sweeping right-to-left hole that ends on a tiny green. There is a feeling of openness here, encouraging you to relax and take in the glorious nature of the scene, with an island populated by pines protruding out of the middle of the lake. The uphill par-3 16th is one of the few times a hole does not feel like it fits exactly into the overall masterplan. On many other high-calibre courses it would be a highlight. That thought is enhanced by the fact this is the section with the longest walks between green and tee; otherwise it feels like Les Bordes fits together like a jigsaw.
Good order is restored at 18, where you must drive over a lake to get a good view of the green. From there you fire over a lake to a sleepered green with bunkers to the back. The challenge, the beauty, the stillness; it is vintage Les Bordes.
Les Bordes International
41220 Saint Laurent-Nouan, France
t: +33 (0)6 98 07 45 01. e: email@example.com
Visit privategolfkey.com to apply to play.
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