Terre Blanche (Château)
Golf World spends a weekend in Provence and uncovers a captivating history behind one of Europe’s leading courses.
High-stakes card games. A French aristocrat imprisoned by Russians. The Cote d’Azur. A billionaire entrepreneur. And Sean Connery. It sounds very much like the necessary ingredients for a classic James Bond film but, as remarkable as it might seem, they are the glamorous characters, the unlikely plot and the breathtaking setting for the development of one of Continental Europe’s finest golf courses.
The Terre Blanche story begins in the late 18th Century when the estate was acquired by Charles Bouge – the aforementioned aristocrat who was an imperial colonel in the Napoleonic armies and who was taken prisoner by Russians. It remained in his family for two centuries until 1979 when Camille Bouge, current mayor of the nearest town of Tourrettes, sold the property to Connery. In fact, legend has it that the most revered 007 won the estate in a game of cards. Irrespective of how Connery came to own this magnificent, forested land to the west of Nice, he immediately fell in love with it. His second wife Micheline (they met at Royal Mohammedia Golf Club in Morocco) is from the area and the actor began the process of clearing some of the trees necessary to create a luxury residential estate. The local council weren’t so keen though, and 20 years after acquiring the land it was bought (via a developer) by the final character in the story – the billionaire entrepreneur.
In the 1990s Dietmar Hopp had fallen in love with the landscape of Terre Blanche. Like Connery a keen golfer, the founder of software giant SAP had the extraordinary wealth needed to develop the land into a high-end golf resort. He did so with rare dedication and passion – and is thrilled with the results. “Amid the magnificent scenery of Provence, I have fulfilled a dream: the dream of 300 days of sun; the dream of tranquility, which to me means utter luxury; and the dream of golf,” says the German. “Both golf courses are so well embedded in the landscape they seem to have always been there. Terre Blanche is
an oasis which is soothing to the soul.”
Off the beaten track
Finding Terre Blanche for the first time can turn into anything but a soothing experience. In the manner of the similarly reclusive Muirfield (no sign whatsoever) or Swinley Forest (a sign the size of a postcard, at ground level), Terre Blanche doesn’t shout about itself with vast roadside billboards for miles around. It’s the sort of place that doesn’t need to boast. So, first-time visitors will find it very easy to become lost in the narrow rural roads to the south of Tourrettes. You can at least take comfort from the initial climb away from the E80 motorway that runs east-west along the foot of France.
It is a spectacular drive, offering breathtaking views of the vast Saint-Cassien lake as you twist and turn your way up the side of the mountain.
When you do locate Terre Blanche, the entrance is hardly underwhelming. Passing through imposing stone viaducts more commonly seen outside the palatial residences of royalty and presidents, you undergo a security check equally as stringent as at such houses of state. This rigorous initial filtering is, though, followed by a relaxed atmosphere at Terre Blanche, which is not always the case at such resorts where layers of luxury can often result in a stilted atmosphere. Here, though, you feel a bit like you’re a visitor to Lilliput; a guest in a fairytale village where everything is elegant, meticulous, and works to clockwork. Even the fleet of spotless buggies that whizz you around the low-rise village seem faster than usual. With cars not permitted further than the hotel car park, you need to hail one of them to get down to the golf clubhouse (it is actually a lovely walk downhill, but definitely accept a lift on the way back!). There is a neatness and efficiency to the golf operation here, perhaps owing to the Germanic influence. Certainly there is none of the ‘faffing’ you get at other high-end resorts. Things just work, which is no mean feat given there are 36 holes here, with Le Riou – laid out around the clubhouse and hotel so that some fairways run alongside villas – being a pretty younger sister to the Chateau.
Terre Blanche’s smooth simplicity will have played a part in it being voted 2013 European Golf Resort of the Year by the golf travel association IAGTO. However, the most significant role will surely have been played by the Chateau. Hopp handed the task of routing both courses through the forest to his favoured architect Dave Thomas, who also laid out his course in Germany, St Leon-Rot, that will host this year’s Solheim Cup matches. While the often steeply undulating terrain must have created challenges, this site will otherwise have been an embarrassment of riches. With a wealth of mature trees and inspiring views (plus a hefty budget), Thomas was not without assistance as he created the premier course here.
Being set down so seamlessly in a natural landscape means it’s scarcely believable the Chateau only opened a decade ago. At very few points over its 7,235 yards does the work of the construction team come to mind. Credit must go to Thomas for assimilating the vast bunkers of white sand, the ravines, the huge greens, the thousands of mature trees and the water features (the only man-made creations) so skillfully. There is a tranquility that is entirely expected but appreciated nonetheless. You see other golfers on adjoining holes but their game never affects yours. You rarely even hear other shots being struck, with greens and tees often significantly apart (some may cite that as a negative, but a buggy is necessary anyway, due to the site’s hilly nature). One of the few sounds breaking the silence are small aeroplanes passing overhead as the playboys of the Cote d’Azur land their private planes at the small Tourrettes airstrip nearby.
This is ‘Millionaire’s golf’; the feeling you have a course to yourself and that it is conditioned to within an inch of being artificial. The shrubs and the borders are immaculate – with jasmine and lavender scent filling the air – while the greens are slick, flawless affairs and the tees as smooth and flat as a marble worktop. Yet the Chateau also consistently asks questions, whether in avoiding drive bunkers and trees off the tee – notably at holes such as the par-4 15th – or in holding tiny greens such as on the holes that precede and follow it. This is a course that will impress strong amateur golfers, just as it has the pros from the European Seniors Tour and resort ambassador Raphael Jacquelin: “Whenever I’ve got a break, I love to go there,” he says of Terre Blanche. “Le Château is a good test; you feel if you can play well there, your game is in pretty good shape.”
A marriage of challenge and beauty
This marriage of challenge and beauty gives birth to variety. The Chateau starts among dense woodland with a gentle uphill par 5 of under 500 yards off the yellow tees. But after three more holes in the trees – including one of the real highlights, the gorgeous 3rd that winds between the pines like a snake – there is less of a claustrophobic feel from the moment you arrive on the 4th green (another elegant two-shotter). This includes the par-5 6th that begins with a drive towards the Chateau (the centuries-old Bouge family home) as it peeps out of the ancient oak and pines and concludes with a decision over which of two possible routes you take to cross the lake.
By the 8th the more enclosed setting has returned. With the accompanying picture-postcard views – enhanced by the numerous elevated tee shots – of hilltop villages beyond the trees, it feels like you are playing in Canada. The terrific 10th, played round the corner of a lake and where only the brave will not hit a long club for their approach, sets up the magnificent 11th (see left) and sporty downhill, dog-leg 12th. The best of the par 3s is the last of them. The 16th is played downhill between towering pines over a ditch to a small green framed by a stone wall – so it is all carry. It’s another spot that screams ‘Canada’, and is 161 yards of exquisite golf. That said, uphill short holes at 2 and 7 as well as the smart 13th – which entails one of the few big changes in direction on the Chateau – are hardly disappointments.
The expected strong finish arrives with a muscular par 4 of 450 yards off the tips. It’s also uphill and slopes right to left so it is easy to find yourself stymied by trunks on the low side as you try to thread your approach through a narrow gap between the tall trees round the green.
An exacting climax certainly, but one imagines James Bond would have found a way to produce a happy ending and soon after be quaffing champagne and oysters on the terrace of the chic clubhouse.
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