By Adam Schupak
Call it TPC Paris. Le Golf National, site of the 42nd Ryder Cup, is located on the outskirts of Versailles, 20 miles southwest of Paris, and its towering dunes and natural amphitheaters would make architect Pete Dye blush at the less than accidental resemblance to his house of horrors at TPC Sawgrass.
Designed by Frenchman Hubert Chesneau and American Robert Von Hagge, the Albatros Course at Le Golf National was transformed in 1988 from a flat cornfield into an inland layout that is both penal and picturesque, with stretches of holes that have a links feel and others that scream target golf. It has hosted 22 of the past 24 French Opens and is slated to host the golf competition at the 2024 Olympic Games. In preparation for these premier events, the course underwent course renovations during 2014-15 totaling 8 million euros, and if the taut battle for this summer’s French Open (won by Sweden’s Alex Noren) taught us anything, it’s that Le Golf National is ready for its close-up.
“I really believe this is going to be the best Ryder Cup venue we’ve taken the Americans to in a couple of decades,” said Northern Ireland’s Graeme McDowell, a two-time French Open champion, and a vice-captain for Team Europe.
The uncertainty and drama of match play often makes it more enjoyable than stroke play. There is something fundamentally appealing about two-man teams or two men dueling their way around a golf course. Le Golf National is an ideal site that presents numerous options and risk-reward decisions. Water is a constant theme and gives several of the holes—it comes into play on a total of 11 of them—their menace and charm. Tommy Fleetwood, who won the 2017 French Open, offered this telling description of the task at hand: “Stand up and be a man and hit the shots, because there’s no other way.”
The threat of water immediately comes into play at the 419-yard, 1st hole. The smart play at this dogleg right is to tee off with a long iron. While the second shot may be nothing more than a mere short iron, it must be very exact to a green that slopes towards the water.
The par-three 2nd plays 210 yards from an elevated tee and the tee shot has to go every inch of it over water that guards the front and left side of the putting surface and preys on the mind in the way that only water can. The back-left pin is one of the scariest shots on the course.
If there is one trait baked into seemingly every hole at Le Golf National it is that there is no margin for error off the tee.
“It’s not go to the tee, hit driver as hard as you can,” said Spain’s Jon Rahm, a Ryder Cup rookie. “It actually makes you think.”
Virtually every hole is challenged by water or fairway bunkers. On certain holes, the best strategy is to just to put the ball in play and try not to be too aggressive and for the rest, keep dry.
“If you miss your tee shots, it’s bogey time,” said Mike Lorenzo-Vera, the highest-ranked Frenchman in the Official World Golf Ranking at No. 96.
It’s become de rigueur to modify the routing at match-play venues to ensure that the traditional closing holes with the best spectator viewing don’t go for naught. But Le Golf National is bucking the trend and maintaining the same routing.
The closing four holes at Le Golf National were built to generate the type of Ryder Cup drama we’ve come to expect at the biennial matches, and testing enough to keep hope alive in the breast of anyone who is trailing. Starting at the 15th, a 408-yard par four nicknamed “Le Juge“—The Judge—players will be faced with tough choices. Expect to see most of the competitors tee off with a long iron to avoid the lake that hugs the entire right side of the hole and protects an island green that measures 39 yards from front to back that feels much smaller.
It doesn’t get any easier at the 177-yard, 16th. It may be the shortest par three on the course, but the renovation work enlarged the green, creating more hole locations to bring the lake on the right into play. Left is no picnic either with three bunkers adding to the challenge.
The 17th offers only a slight respite. This 480-yard par four plays uphill and turns gently right to left. The key is to hit the fairway—preferably the right side—to attack a large, undulating green.
If it all comes down to the last hole on Sunday, the 18th ensures great theater. It is modeled after the island-green 17th at TPC Sawgrass except stretched to 480 yards. Hitting the fairway is paramount. Water lines the left side of the hole and four pot bunkers on the right or a lie in the rough could force a layup. With 7,000 fans packed into the grandstand behind the green, competitors will have a chance to play the hero or be the goat if their approach sinks into the water at this large peninsula green.
“I struggle to think of a better finish that you could have,” Fleetwood said. “It is what you practice for, to play some of the toughest holes in golf in the biggest sporting event in the world.”
It’s a challenge the Englishman, who will be a Ryder Cup rookie, said he’d relish before adding a caveat.
“Well,” he said, “I’d probably like the matches to be over before it.”
What do you think about Le Golf National and the 42nd Ryder Cup? Tell us in the comments below!