All eyes on Le Golf National...
September 04, 2018
The stage is set – and the Albatros Course at Le Golf National is primed for what promises to be another epic Ryder Cup encounter, writes Ed Hodge
It's that wonderful time of the golfing season, as the anticipation feverishly grows. It's a feeling only enjoyed every two years, thus increasing the excitement and intensity. The teams are forming, the posturing over pairings is in full swing, the favourites tag is being tossed back and forth and the captains are carrying out more media interviews than they ever dreamed of. Yes, the Ryder Cup is just days away.
Of the many sub-plots that will undoubtedly develop as the biennial contest at Le Golf National draws ever nearer is the course itself. Home advantage has proved a 13th man for the Europeans in recent times, borne out by the fact America haven't won on away soil since way back in 1993 at The Belfry.
Over the Albatros course, a par-72 layout measuring over 7,100 yards, can Jim Furyk's star-studded team buck their trend southwest of Paris?
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Make no mistake, this is one of the strongest American sides ever assembled. At the time of writing, the eight qualified players all sit inside the top 17 in the world rankings. That is formidable form. One American player is also already familiar with Le Golf National, having made the journey to the Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines venue back in July for the HNA Open de France. And Justin Thomas, the world number three, liked what he saw and appreciated the challenge.
“It's a difficult golf course,” said Thomas, the exciting 25-year-old who tied eighth overall on four under par after rounds of 70, 70, 69 and 71. “I played some of the best golf I've played this year and I was only four under par through three rounds. It's very narrow. You have to hit the fairways to have birdie chances into the greens.”
Designed by architects Hubert Chesneau and Robert Von Hagge, in collaboration with Pierre Thevenin, the stadium-style course is perfect for a Ryder Cup, with a number of holes like an amphitheatre such is the mounding on either side of the fairways for spectators. “The course could host a Major in a heartbeat,” added Thomas, speaking in July. “It's such a great track and you just can't fake it around here. You have to hit quality golf shots. I mean this is a championship golf course. I think it's going to be a great venue for a Ryder Cup.
“I think all of us will be happy to know it is a matchplay and not a strokeplay event. You get a cold, rainy, windy day out here and you can post a pretty high number. You can't really take any shots off. You really have to take each and every shot and execute really well.” Sweden's Alex Noren was the eventual victor of the French Open and looks set to be part of a European team that will also be full of quality. “There are so many shots that get your attention,” he said of the course. Notwithstanding Noren's superb final round of 67 for his 10th European Tour victory, achieved with a seven under total, the plight of others aided his cause on a dramatic final Sunday back on 1 July.
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With three of the final four holes surrounded by water, more drama is certainly guaranteed at the Ryder Cup. “Everybody talks about the last four holes, it's asking you to hit good shots over and over and over again,” notes Sergio Garcia, who also shared eighth spot with Thomas, helped by a third round 64. “Probably a lot of holes are going to be won with par and some of them maybe with bogey. It's a solid golf course.”
After an out of sorts summer, Ryder Cup stalwart Garcia is battling for a captain's pick from Thomas Bjorn. On the venue, he continued: “I think that overall it probably should suit us a little bit more, but it still comes down to playing. It's going to be hard for everyone.”
Fellow Spaniard Jon Rahm, set for a rookie appearance at Le Golf National, said: “It's a tricky golf course. You need to play really good, so no matter what Thomas Bjorn and the European Tour do for the golf course, you still need to play well. You can't overpower it. You have to play good.”
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Graeme McDowell, one of Bjorn's four vice-captains, was a more than interested observer of proceeding at the French Open. Going on to tie for 37 th was of little importance to the Northern Irishman as he continued his homework to try and wrestle that sought after golden chalice back from the USA.
The hero of Celtic Manor in 2010 said: “One of the important things we have been talking about with Captain Bjorn is the level of comfort that you have to have on the golf course because it is a super intimidating track. You stand on the tee boxes and all you can see is high rough and you have to be comfortable about where you're positioning the ball off the tees.” Let battle soon commence...