Canada vs France: Where Did We Go Wrong (And Also Right)
Before delving into the particularities of the wonderful golf courses I played while in Paris recently, a return that solidified my belief that it is not only the world’s greatest city but also one of the great golf destinations, too, I want to delve a little into the French golf culture, for it is one that is quite different from that on this site of the Atlantic. In a sense, it’s certainly better, but also worse than ours, here, in Canada and in the United States.
Golf in France, passionate as their practitioners are for their clubs and players, still is very much a sport for the few and far between, the noblesse and la haute-société. As European Tour Pro Michael Lorenzo-Vera admitted to the NYT prior to the 2018 Ryder Cup, played at the dreadfully modern Le Golf National, “if you say to people in France that you play golf, they will say: “No, but really. What’s your real job?” Golf is not a good thing here. It’s for rich people and spoiled kids. That’s the image we have.” Despite efforts to grow the game at the grassroots level by the national sporting body, it nevertheless remains far down the pecking order, behind the North American nothingnesses of Judo and Handball, among others. Moreover, outside of the golf inteligencia, their best golf courses – Morfontaine, Fontainebleau, Chantilly, Saint-Germain, Les Bordes – fly hugely under the international radar (which is likely how these clubs want it, but I digress). Eyebrows were raised, noises of confusion were made whenever I revealed that I was heading to Paris to play golf. Paris? Golf? Café-au-Lait – sure. La Louvre – absolutely. Versailles – got it. Baguettes and Moulin-Rouge – am aware of those. Piaf, Proust, Marie Antoinette, Louis XIV – know them all. But Tom Simpson? Huh.
Let me relate to you, here and now, that the golf in Paris is magnifique, resplendent, and well-worth the effort of dragging your clubs through Charles-De-Gaules. Yet I must also warn you, dear reader, that unless you are rich enough to be chauffeured around from one club to the other, or are brave enough to drive Paris’ frantic cobblestone streets and cross-crossing boulevards on which the sound of car horns honking is as regular as the chatter of revolution and the planning of riots on the sidewalk terraces, then this is certainly not a trip for the faint of heart. After a few days, ardent as I consider myself to be when it comes to matters relating to golf, I was worn out by the trek to and from the various clubs from my home-base in the 10eme Arrondissement. These treks, golf-bag slung over my shoulder, croissant in one hand and Le Figaro in the other, usually involved a metro or a train from La Gare Du Nord, then an Uber from whichever outlying train-station I hopped off at to the golf club. In truth, the city’s public transportation system, once you get the hang of how it works, which shouldn’t take much more than a few minutes of studying a map, in true tourist fashion, is very efficient and modern and clean.
Paris’ best clubs are located around the outskirts of the region of L’Ile de France, where cobblestone, pièrre de taille, wrought-iron, grime and smog are replaced by undulating, serene hard-wood forest, plentiful rock-outcroppings, healthy heather, and, of course, the occasional Château and racecourse and horse stable replete with galloping thoroughbreds and polo grounds. Like Versailles, the clubs’ locations, detached and aloof from the Parisian masses, very much adds to this sense of the sport being for la noblesse; making the journey from the tight-knit and boisterous area around La Gare Du Nord, in particular, it’s easy to imagine the dukes and duchesses, the politicians and art-merchants, who constituted the memberships of these clubs, being chauffeured up for their weekend getaways to the country, in Rolls-Royces or Jaguars, dressed to the nines, pampered and coiffed, as most French so pride themselves on being at all times. Though, I doubt any of them originated from where I did, dodging hooded men selling knock-off cologne, peddling cigarettes and un-christian DVDs, but rather from the 16eme Arrondissement, or from Neuilly-Sur-Seine, or from the Bois-De-Boulogne areas.
After playing Chantilly, my first game in the country, I was lucky enough to get a drive back into the city from the member with whom I lunched, wined, and coffeed after our respective rain-soaked rounds. Still raw to the city, his declaration that I should put my rain hood back over my clubs, before I metroed to my hotel room from the glass-fronted and bank-headquartered district where he dropped me off, spooked me slightly; however, throughout my subsequent journeys around the city with my clubs in check, I never had an issue, nor was confronted by anyone with an admiration for Titleists or an eye towards re-selling them hot. This sixty-some-year-old white man, a executive of Roland-Garros, kind and generous as he was, also assured me that French society had become largely free of any racial issues and tensions between whites and blacks, and that Marine Le Pen was the way forth…In this sense, he was very much a stock custodian of French Golf, I think.
Yet, despite this, his gregarious spirit, and how we began to mingle, essentially encapsulates what I admired most about the golfing culture of France. For as elitist as the sport and the best clubs remain in the country, once inside the gates, which can be breached rather easily on most weekdays with just a phone-call or email, a tremendous model for “private golf”, I hardly got a sense of said circumambient societal elitism in regards to the game; in fact, it was quite the opposite. Warm, generous, unpretentious clubs who were happy to have you play their course, visit their clubhouse, and, especially, learn about their long and distinguished histories, which they cherish greatly, in true French fashion. A relaxed and non-prickly, though stern and expected, sense of class and dignity is expected and maintained on club grounds. There’s a deep respect for the traditions of the sport that runs through the blood of the French golfers with whom I crossed paths, a reverence lost on too many North American golfers, I feel. In short, that golf is a sport of respect, quiet dignity, and, of course, camaraderie, a relief from the hustle and bustle of anxious and turbulent life, over there, in the encroaching city.
But golf, above all, is a sport, one not that different from Quail hunting or Fencing. The French play fast, walk and talk. Before the round, a quick coffee and maybe a pastry at the bar, while expressing how this day will be the day when, finally, it’ll all click out there; after the round, a shower, a wine or beer, while sitting on the red-velvet fauteuils in the lounging area, then a healthy lunch and more wine in the wood-paneled dining rooms, lined with the rosters of past champions, the names of past club presidents, and historic pictures of the club.
There were no more than a handful of employees lingering around the clubhouses on the days when I played: an attendant or pro; a secretary who took your payment; and a waitress or two, ready to serve. Efficient, courteous, but not overbearing, true to common European service standards, where fake-smiles and niceties aren’t required since tipping isn’t a thing, the way I’ve grown fond of it being. Unlike so many Canadian and Americans clubs, where the elements apart from golf seem to be the primary focus – where courses, for example, now host their own microbreweries, pumping out triple IPAs and gin, or have car-washes in the parking lot. In France, members grabbed their own bags from storage; the locker rooms were unmanned; the small and sparsely stocked pro shops (if there was one) were not attended by more lollygagging employees than a Nordstrom; and voiturettes are nowhere to be seen.
Here’s a place for golf, a place for sport. Where twosomes only are allowed before lunch. Where the presentation of the course is unfused, yet perfectly suited for golf.