MORFONTAINE - 18 POINTS
If you ask most golfers what the best course in Continental Europe is, it is unlikely that many will say Morfontaine, just north of Paris. But after spending one of the best days of my golfing life there, I would have to say it absolutely deserves the title.
It was reading this blog by Geoff Shackelford which first put Morfontaine high on my list of 'must play' courses. The pictures just looked amazing and a bit of research led me to uncover plaudits from design gurus such as Mike Clayton. So the idea was firmly cemented that I had to find a way to play the course.
It is famously exclusive and really a course just for the members and their guests. However, where there's a will, there's a way! We planned a late-May visit - when we thought the course should be in peak condition and the weather would (hopefully) not be as hot as Parisian Summer days can so often be. Then, it was with utter horror that I watched the weather forecasts getting steadily worse and worse in the lead up to our trip. Normally I can persuade myself that forecasts get it wrong more often than not and the it'll be fine on the day, but in advance of this May day, the weather was only going one way.
Arriving in Paris the night before it was hard to see how we had any chance of playing golf the next day - the rain was biblical in its proportions and it didn't let up at all the next morning. A call to the club assured us the course would be playable, which seemed hard to believe.
The club itself is around 30 minutes north of Charles de Gaulle airport but you really do feel like you are out in the sticks, travelling down winding country roads before you arrive at an imposing gate with a discreet intercom for entry. The kilometre-long driveway passes many of the holes which are to follow and definitely whets the appetite.
It would be hard to describe the main house where you check in as a 'clubhouse'. As soon as you enter you know this is something very different. Our host described it as like going into someone's house - there is a nice living room with a small bar, a large bathroom to get changed in and a pleasant dining room. And that's about it. It's about as far away from the excesses of the great, Sebonack-style, country clubs of the US as you can imagine.
There is no pro shop here, rather a converted cupboard which has a handful of items to purchase should you really need them - buying a Morfontaine logoed jumper required the club Directeur's agreement, which isn't handed out to all!
Morfontaine is home to 2 courses - the Valiere, a 9 hole course, and the Grand Parcours, opened in 1927. Both courses were designed by the Englishman Tom Simpson. He can also include work at Ballybunion and Cruden Bay on his resume, so he has some heritage. If you want to read more about the design philosophies then I would thoroughly recommend this book on the subject.
Our plan had been to play the Valiere as a warm-up before taking on the main course but our weather radar told us that while it was going to rain steadily all morning, it would take on new levels of wetness in the afternoon. So we headed to the first tee of the Grand Parcours, via the driving range.
It is hard to say which are the best driving ranges I have seen. Valderrama has a bold claim to make with pyramids of shining white balls to hit down a slope to a perfectly manicured fairway, Friar's Head allowed you to try out all kinds of shots to wonderfully placed greens, and the new Augusta range will be a delight when I get to warm up there I am sure! Morfontaine doesn't challenge any of these places. We hiked through woodland to hit the most rag-tag selection of balls you have ever seen. off mats, with no way to stand a tee up. This was no Disneyland golf but we felt as it we had stepped back in time, to somewhere pretty special.
And that's exactly what the golf course delivered. The course is heathland - we saw a lot of heather flanking the fairways, although it was rarely brutally punishing. The course is built on a very sandy base and the drainage was simply phenomenal. The course had been battered by the most incredible storms and yet we didn't see a puddle on the course the whole way around. The greens were quite possibly the best I have played on in Europe. Fast and true, sometimes obviously breaking, but sometimes very subtly.
The course isn't hugely long. It plays around 6,400 yards from the white tees, although it is a par 70. We could have played the yellow tees a little further up but there didn't seem any need as, despite the rain, the ball ran well on the fairways and, on the front 9, only the 1st was what you could describe as a long par 4.
The fairways were fairly wide, although there was often a 'side' to miss them on. As long as you weren't too wild off the tee, balls were generally findable - as 14 and 8 handicappers we only lost 1 ball each over all 18 holes, despite my worries before teeing off that it would be a little too tough if we weren't on form.
But this course is far from a pushover. It is definitely a second shot golf course. Taking note of where the pins were on every hole was key (no pin sheets here, indeed no information beyond the hole number on every tee) and the range finder was invaluable. Some greens were probably as much as 4 clubs difference depending on the pin position and may pins were perched at the top of false fronts which could have dire consequences if you came up short. Positioning our approach shots was vital.
The bunkering around the greens was tremendous. It had a very 'natural' feel to it - nothing overly manicured, with the bunkers often just running into the fairway with no solid demarcation. I had recently played Yas Links in Abu Dhabi, which may be a million miles away in many respects, but Kyle Philips (who had recently done some renovation work on Morfontaine) must surely have found some inspiration for that creation here.
Calling out particular holes feels unnecessary as they are almost all great holes. The early par 3s played much longer than on the card thanks to a combination of pin positions and conditions, yet we never felt anything was beyond our reach with a good shot. The course is not without it's quirks - a tree in the middle of the short 13th or the 'frog' rock on the 16th. But they don't seem to irritate here, simply add charm and memorability. What made this course really special was the unrelenting quality of the holes. They all made you think, made you admire and made you smile and I don't think I could ask for much more from any course.
Neither of us scored brilliantly, we had a few scratches each and the greens found me out at times, but it definitely felt like we had played better than the scorecard indicated. We came off after 18 holes with a spring in our step to find a really warm welcome back in 'the house' and, after a shower and a change of clothes, a truly great lunch.
Now, I am not one to talk a great deal about the catering on a golf course (although the tapas at Monte Rei was great and, according to a friend, the burger at La Manga is still the best he has ever tasted) but, I think that lunch at Morfontaine beats the previous holder of the catering award - Muirfield - into submission.
The dining room was a simple affair (the terrace looked like it would be a great spot on a nice day....) but you definitely know you are in the world centre of gastronomy when the food arrives. It's not often I post a food picture but the chicken terrine starter was fantastic, and even it was surpassed by a main course of lamb which hit new golfing culinary heights. A pear tartin and plate of cheese rounded things off perfectly. All accompanied by a lovely bottle of Pouilly Fume. Pure heaven!
The rain was lashing down by the afternoon but we were determined to go out on the Valieres course. Our host had explained to us that the Valieres was designed in an age when golf was something to be plotted out and with plenty of opportunity for drama and excitement. (This was the era of the stymie of course, surely worth re-introducing to brighten up a dull match play event?!)
That spirit is certainly captured on the Valieres course, in a way I have never seen before. At times, the greens were like something from the Himalayas in St Andrews - it seemed impossible to stop the ball near the hole and required an imagination beyond that of mere mortals still full from a good lunch. The course has three each of par 3s, 4s and 5s although no hole is more than 450 yards long.
If anything, this course was more punishing than the Grand Parcours - stray from the fairway and the rough was thicker. Positioning off the tee was vital, but sometimes longish tee shots were required to play a ball in to stop on the right part of the green. It is hard to imagine there is a better 9-hole course anywhere in the world.
If you get the chance to spend a day at Morfontaine, I would encourage you to grab the opportunity with both hands. It really is an experience you will cherish for ever.
Postscript - 12 months on, I had the opportunity to play the course again. On this occasion the weather was kinder (most of the pictures here are from that trip), although there had been storms on the previous day. The condition of the course was just a smidgen behind our first visit but the welcome was just as warm and the lasting impression undiminished.
We combined that round with a game at Les Bordes, 2 hours to the south. Here's a video (with steroptypical music) of a great double header! -
BOOKING THE COURSE
This is probably the hardest course in Europe to get on to. It's not got many members and you can't just phone up and get a tee time. There are a couple of great posts here and here from John Sabino about his efforts to get a game, which culminated in success. One route you could try is to use a top-end French travel agency, Private Golf Key. However, they don't really just book individual tee times. They put a whole 'experience' together, which will definitely cost you.
Another high-end option is the World Amateur Tour who have events at some of the world's top tracks. However, this is breathtakingly expensive so I am yet to experience one of their tournaments!
Charity auctions are another option. I saw a tee time recently on Charitybuzz which went for a few hundred pounds. So keep your eyes open and have your Google alerts set!
If you do manage to land a tee time, there are plenty of options for good golf around and about. I haven't played Chantilly but it's supposed to be great. Saint Germain is a nice course but the stand-out for me in the area is Fontainebleau. It's a beautiful course, through a lovely forest, which will test and delight you in equal measure. Of course, you could make the drive a couple of hours south of Paris to the formidable Les Bordes. If you do, remember to take plenty of balls!