This piece appeared in Cache magazine as part of a 2015 series that examined the best public and private courses to play in prominent metropolitan areas worldwide. This first bit spotlights Paris. It’s coupled with a follow-on bit re. Melbourne that appeared 3 months later.
The French do not follow, a fact that applies most stringently to their cousins across the Channel. This begins to explain the marked lack of great golf courses (and great players) in a country so big, so populous, so temperate and so blessed with golf-worthy coastline. All that said, France is so hosting the Ryder Cup in 2018, whether we golfers (and the French themselves) like it or not. And while the French may never take to the game en masse, they have provided surprisingly well for golfers visiting the capital any time before or after September’s event.
Let’s first fixate on the Ryder Cup theme (even if the French may not). The host venue, Le Golf National, is nominally private but anyone willing to shell out 120 Euros can get a game there, and what a game. There are 45 holes here but L’ Albatros (that’s “The Albatross” for you non-Francophones) is the preferred 18, a track befitting golf’s biggest team event (it’s also hosted every French Open but two since opening in the early 1990s). Architects Hubert Chesneau and Robert Von Hagge fashioned a flamboyant, 7300-yard beast from what had been a pretty humdrum piece of terrain. For anyone but the old world design purist, there’s plenty to enjoy here: wide landing areas, artificial mounding that renders each hole a golfing pod unto itself, forced carries, and peninsular greens (bounded by wooden retaining walls) jutting out into water hazards. It’s a feast for the modern golfing eye.
The other factors recommending Le Golf National, the next time business takes you to Paris, are convenience and variety. The property is located in suburban Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines, just west of Versaille. What’s more, the secondary 18, L’Aigle (The Eagle), is more of the same good fun, if not quite so stern a test. There’s even a sprightly, 9-hole short course, L’Oiselet (The Birdie), for those with a little extra time, or not quite enough.
Golf de Morfontaine is everything Le Golf National is not. Set aside an entire day for this place, where nothing is rushed and time would appear to have stood still since architect Tom Simpson fashioned this design in the late 1920s, the heart of course architecture’s “Golden Age”. Indeed, it was Simpson (designer of Cruden Bay in Scotland and The Berkshire outside London) who coined this now-hackneyed phrase. In any case, Simpson’s patron at Morfontaine, the 12th duc de Gramont, chose his ground well. This is arguably the best course in continental Europe. It’s also among the most private, meaning it’s THE place to leverage all your best Parisian connections in order to wangle a visit.
What you’ll find, if those connections prove distinguished enough, is a deft cross between the best of London’s heathland tracks (think Sunningdale, where Simpson once renovated the New Course), and Northern California (think Olympic, with its ubiquity of trees and paucity of fairway bunkers). Indeed, the fairway corridors at Morfontaine, while firm and fast (thanks to perfectly sandy soil conditions), are a bit too crowded by massive Scotch pines to truly embody the “heathland” milieu. However, its stupendous putting surfaces, strategic greenside bunkering and elegant routing thoroughly overcome this stylistic impurity.
If there were a spectrum to chart the exclusivity of private golf clubs, by continent, the results might surprise you. At one end we’d have the United States, where everyone bangs on about living in a classless land of opportunity, but where private clubs are well and truly exclusionary to unaccompanied non-members. Oddly, in the United Kingdom, where clubs are generally older and more hidebound (some still ban women and require jacket-and-tie in the clubhouse, for example), it’s comparatively easy for outsiders to get a game unaccompanied. A polite letter to the club secretary, requesting courtesy of the course, will often do the trick (provided you pay a premium green fee). Asian clubs typically follow this British model, but forget the letter. Just call ahead and bring the cash.
Which brings us to Australia, where colonial Brits founded all the top private clubs but where famously casual, leveling Aussies have since beaten any and all pretension into submission. Nowhere in the world is gaining access to private golf clubs easier — and, sanguinely, nowhere are the course pickings quite so marvelous.
Normally in this space we detail for readers the best public course in a particular city, alongside the best private club. In Melbourne, the golf capital of Australia (nay, the entire Southern Hemisphere), this distinction is unnecessary. The best courses are all private, yet non-member tee times are routinely arranged without a fuss.
Melbourne’s best tracks are located cheek by jowl, south of the city, along a narrow strip of suburban real estate known as the Sand Belt. There is gorgeous golfing ground all around the metro area, but here the substratum is pure sand — the key ingredient in growing and maintaining turf that promotes both bounce and roll over this lovely terrain. See here four venues, ostensibly private but all perfectly accessible, that any traveling golfer would be remiss in missing during his/her next spell in Melbs.
Royal Melbourne GC — Justly ranked among the top 10 courses on Earth, RMGC doesn’t disappoint. Don’t be thrown by the Royal moniker. The tone is casual and be prepared to walk; members routinely pull their own trolleys. The championship 18 is a composite of the East and West courses. You won’t be allowed to sample that, but don’t fret. Either track on its own would be well worth indenturing a son or daughter in order to play.
Victoria GC — Located a stone’s throw from Royal Melbourne, the Victoria layout rollicks over this same premium terrain, though it’s restricted to a smaller footprint. The property has nevertheless been marvelously accoutered with golf holes — and scads of bunkers, all cut in the Australian fashion: clean-edged and steep-faced, prompting ensnared golf balls to roll down those faces to flat bunker floors.
Kingston Heath GC — Some argue this course is the equal of Royal Melbourne; it is, in fact, routinely ranked among the world’s top 30 courses. Truth is, the terrain here isn’t nearly so compelling. But the routing is so sublime, the greens and bunkering so devilishly devised, one is loath to complain.
Metropolitan GC — The elite Sand Belt courses have succeeded in creating distinct physical environments from a stretch of land that, aside from topography, is pretty much the same. Metro is lush and sub-tropical in a way the others are not, however, and here the ground really moves (in a way Kingston’s does not). What’s more, sitting in the low-slung, modernist clubhouse — sipping a local pale ale, chatting with the club’s amiable members, overlooking the magnificent 18th green — is a reminder of why some pay dues for the privilege (even if you don’t have to).