Golf in the Cote D'Opale - France
First there were ferries. Then there were hovercrafts. Now there's Eurostar and Le Shuttle. If you're British, the reasons to cross over to France become more compelling, less complicated, by the year. If you're a golfer (and if you're not, it's quite a surprise that you're reading this), there are manifold - or at least sevenfold - reasons to arrange a sojourn to the courses of the Cote d'Opale.
It was Rupert Brooke who wrote the sonnet The Soldier, which said that if he was to be killed at war abroad then "there's some corner of a foreign field that is for ever England". If golf balls count as casualties, the same is true of me. There is now a fairly ample portion of northern France that has become the likely final resting place of the erstwhile contents of my golf bag.
In similar vein, Queen Elizabeth I (these days more commonly known as Judi Dench or Cate Blanchett) once remarked: "Calais is written on my heart." From a British perspective, contemporary Calais is mostly to be found written on a credit-card receipt after a visit to the hypermarket, but the point remains that there are strong historical associations with our neighbour to the south.
This is a very 'British' enclave of France, halfway between London and Paris. At Le Manoir Hotel at Le Touquet, a wedge shot from the clubhouse, there are seemingly no French people in the bar - or at least, not on the customer side of it. The TVs in the rooms not only have Sky but also BBC 1, ITV and Channel 4 (and you sometimes can't get reception for that in Britain). At Hardelot Golf Club nearby, 60% of the green-fee paying visitors come from Britain. The French account for just 16%.
Le Touquet and Hardelot are the two best-known and most popular golf destinations in this region, and not without reason. Both have two 18-hole courses (the former has a nine-holer as well) which offer different but indisputably invigorating tests of golf.
Sometimes, La Mer Course at Le Touquet can be a little bit too invigorating. On my last visit, the wind was so strong that the first hole, a 490-yard par-five, required a full drive, two full 3-woods and a full 9-iron. Then I only had a short chip left. In case, entirely understandably, you have already attributed this anecdote to my feeble hitting, I should add that at the 195-yard 2nd, the helping wind off the sea meant I only needed a 6-iron, and it finished two feet from the cup. (And that, I promise, is the end of the blow-by-blow in this star report.)
Getting to Le Touquet by car is easy - it's a 40-minute drive, mostly on a great new stretch of motorway which is emptier than Selhurst Park for a Wimbledon home game. Getting the aforementioned first drive away is pretty straightforward, too, at least so long as the wind is not so powerful that even standing up is quite an achievement.
From the very back, La Mer runs close to 7,000 yards. It is a true championship test, and has hosted the French Open on many occasions. Its condition is variable, and sometimes it looks a little ragged, but it is a genuine links course, and purists will relish the fact that it is not over-watered.
The greens are wonderfully contoured, although on occasions peevish will seem a more apposite adjective. The bushes and other vegetation that line the fairways are redolent of a British links and some of the bunkers are magnificent (again, spiteful might be your choice of word during the course of the round).
There has been some local controversy in recent years since the course was remodeled more along the lines of the original layout, undertaken by Harry Colt. If you have played here before but not for some
time, you will find that the first two holes have become the starters on the other course, La Foret, the opening hole is what was the 14th, and the 18th is the former 13th.
All this has meant the construction of four new holes, the 13th to 16th, but they have been well executed. The 13th is a fine par-five with a fairway that runs between dunes on the left and bush on the right, and the 14th is an excellent short par-four that requires judgment and placement both off the tee and from the fairway.
La Foret is very much the junior of the duo at Le Touquet but by no means ignominiously overshadowed. As you will have guessed, trees form the major feature here, and it has to be admitted that they do it rather well. It's not a long course, measuring under 6,000 yards from the regular tees, but it is axiomatic that waywardness gets punished in comprehensive fashion.
The last hole provides an emblematic illustration of the point. A dogleg to the left of just over 400 yards, it offers the chance of finding the trees on the left or, in your efforts to keep the ball out of them,
the prospect of running out of fairway on the corner of the dogleg on the right. Fortunately, the sanctuary of the bar is close at hand.
The town of Le Touquet has great charm and appeal. Somewhat bizarrely, there is a lighthouse in the centre, a rather large reminder of the fact that a hundred years or so ago, the omnipresent sand dunes and the sea occupied this terrain.
Some 6,000 people live in Le Touquet all year round. At weekends, that number can swell to 60,000. The midweek result is a lot of darkened windows and restaurants that are appreciative of your custom. The next-door town of Etaples is especially famous for its fish and seafood.
Moving north up the coast by about 20 minutes, the more established of the two courses at Hardelot is known as Les Pins, which means the evergreens are in abundance here as well. Designed by the renowned British golf course architect Tom Simpson, this 18 is closed between December and February when, rather like the Old Course at St Andrews, it is deemed in need of a rest. It certainly gets a lot of traffic, although this breather helps to ensure that it can be maintained in outstanding condition.
The view from the tee on the 18th at Les Pins
When one French golf guide describes Les Pins as a "testimony to classic British architecture", you know you have either come across a French author who delights in sarcasm or a rare case of open Gallic admiration for something quintessentially British.
Happily, it is the latter.
The course includes five short holes and five long ones. Two par-fives to begin with get you out into the gorgeous pine-clad mounds and forests, although they are comparatively gentle rather than unduly intimidating. Both short holes on the front nine are terrific examples of why par-threes need not be long to be difficult - neither is over 140 yards - although the 9th itself has a blind tee shot to a fairway that you then find curves further to the left than Tony Benn, as if to get the blemishes out of the way in one fell swoop.
On the back nine, the 11th, an uphill dogleg of 290 yards, is a beguiling hole, and leads into a section where the holes run through more open countryside
before returning to the forest to complete the job with a flourish - a 470-yard par-four played from an elevated tee into a valley with the clubhouse awaiting behind the green.
The newer course, Les Dunes, is something of a misnomer. The sea is not in view and the terrain is not particularly links-like. Les Doglegs might have been a more fitting name. On only four holes can you see the flag from the tee, and three of those are the short holes. The first, a sinuous, mostly uphill par-five of a more than adequate 530 yards off the back, features a switchback in the fairway that could unsettle the most experienced golf-cart driver. Even Mika Hakkinen, come to that.
The downhill closing hole on the newer Les Dunes 18 at Hardelot
After that, as New Labour likes to say, things can only get better, and they do. The 7th, for example, is a strong par-4 to a green nestling in the hillside, and just one of several holes that are appealing to the eye and demanding of your game, and the thrill of the downhill approach at the par-five 18th is recompense for that initial climb.
All round, golf at Hardelot makes for an exceedingly pleasant break. A word of advice: the place is usually at its quietest in July and August, when weekenders are not so prevalent since they're then on their main summer holidays.
Both Hardelot and Le Touquet possess wonderful beaches, ideal for sand and water sports. Carrying on a little further up the coast we come to Wimereux, a genuine links in spartan Scottish tradition. The clubhouse is simple, the fairways have authentic rabbit holes, the greens are true, the sea is no more than 250 yards away, the course (which is mostly flat) is entirely unprotected from the elements, the bunkering is frequently deep and the rough invariably is. But then there is a lot to be said for all of that, even if sometimes it can't be printed in a family magazine. And since there are no trees, the course can provide pleasure for golfers of all capabilities. It is much better if they can hit it straight, but on some days the inability to get the ball airborne might actually prove to be a blessing.
After that battering, it's time for more tranquil environment. Travelling south and inland, there are three courses of a generally parkland nature. Nampont St Martin has
two 18-holers: Cygnes, at 6,700 yards, and Belvedere, at under 5,800. Both courses are laid out in fairly open, plain countryside, although good use has been made of the indigenous trees to sculpt the holes.
Water is in play on many of them on the bigger course, principally courtesy of three lakes that furnish the primary hazard on the closing five holes. There is also a forbidding sounding stretch of water called the Grand Canal, but when you get to it you fortunately discover that it's not in play unless you fall off the bridge while traversing it. I should mention that the dining room is most attractive and the club's offices are housed in a small, quaint chateau.
The golf club at Arras hosted the French Ladies' Open in 1996 and stages many domestic men's professional tournaments, so it's clearly up to scratch. It also has an extensive array of practice facilities in case you feel in need of a serious pre-round tune-up. Even if you play off scratch, you won't find the course, which runs through through the Scarpe Valley, to be a cinch, although it is built on predominantly flat land - which is quite a contrast to St Omer.
The course there doesn't exactly go up hill and down dale but it is likely that no review of it has ever been written without once taking in the word undulating. However, there's no need for any ululation. Set in an agreeable rolling, rustic landscape, the whole ambience is as French as a pack of Gitanes, if a trifle fresher.
The final stop on this tour is Dunkerque, on the other side of Calais, which was notoriously the final resting place for so many people in rather grimmer circumstances over 50 years ago. It's a public course located five miles east of the city, on which there are only three holes devoid of water. The terrain here is pretty bumpy, too.
As so often seems to be the case in France (both courses at both Le Touquet and Hardelot, for example), the round begins with a par-five, with water on both sides around the green, and on the 8th, a tough par-three, just about all you see from the tee is the wet stuff.
But then water's what we had to cross to get here in the first place. And either going over it, on it or under it, once you make it past the hazard of the Channel, the other side is worth reaching.
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