PARIS - Each year I’m asked the same question: “Why are you going to Europe again to play vacation golf when there are so many great courses here in North America you haven’t yet played?”
That’s when I sit my friends down, hand them a cold beer and answer their question with a question:
“Tell me, where in North America can I find courses with Roman ruins running through them; one where you have to navigate around a headstone sitting in the middle of a fairway; a course where you can meet a world renowned Formula One auto racing driver; and one where you share space with nudists?”
The latter example usually has my buddies running for their passports.
Admittedly, I tell them; European golf still has a long way to go before reaching the status it enjoys in North America, especially when it comes to quality courses. But people on this side of the great Atlantic water hazard are kidding themselves if they don’t think they can have a memorable golfing holiday in Europe – on championship courses that cost a lot less to play.
The courses there, especially the newer designs, are the best money can buy – literally!
Take the outstanding courses located just outside Paris, of which 20 are considered championship quality. All were built by wealthy Japanese businessmen in the late ’80s for something to do between meetings. Those courses are carved out of rolling estate properties and their once grand homes, which for the most part fell into disrepair, were brought back to their original stately beauty and now serve as lavish clubhouses.
And oh, if your into designer name dropping, the courses I’ve played in Europe have been created by famous architects like Robert Trent Jones, Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, Seve Ballasteros, … The list is endless.
So, come along with me on a European Golf Vacation where the unexpected is all part of the game.
First stop, the Netherlands.
“There must be a picnic area on the other side of this fairway – look at all those people up ahead. They’re all dressed the same too – must be a club of some sort,” observed the near sighted Tom, one of two close friends – Ian being the other – whom I’ve been travelling to Europe with each of the last six years on golfing holidays.
As we walked the fairway at Spaarnwoude golf course just outside Amsterdam, the gallery came into view – and what we saw was quite revealing. The group was indeed all dressed the same – they were undressed. The Spaarnwoude club, we discovered, shares space with a nudist camp and the residents of the “au natural” area like to watch golfers play.
Ever try hitting an approach shot with a bunch of giggling naked women looking at you?
The Netherlands, which claims to have invented the game in the 14th century, 150 years before the Scots took it up, was obviously the sight of the first ‘Skins Game’ as well.
That was our first exposure to European golf and the naked truth is space challenged Netherlands doesn’t have as many great courses as the rest of Europe. But one, Lauswolt in the northern part of the country, is one of my favorite of all times.
Next stop, France.
This is the golfing Mecca of Europe in my opinion. As mentioned earlier, the French owe a great debt of gratitude to the Japanese – the courses all went bankrupt under the Asians’ ownership, by the way – for what they have today.
There are over 500 courses in France with some of the best located just outside Paris. My favorite of that distinguished group is Paris International, one of Nicklaus’ finest designs in my opinion with a par-5 18th hole whose island green makes it one of the most challenging on the continent.
But my favorite French course is located in southern France, just outside the perfume city of Grasse. The St. Donat club, designed by Robert Trent Jones, is a remarkable patch of real estate near the French Rivera. Its 6,031 yards are some of the most enjoyable you will ever walk and then there’s the Roman aqueduct.
“When Jones came here to design St. Donat he was shocked to see the ancient aqueduct sitting in the middle of the property but was delighted to have such an historic landmark to build the course around,” a club member named Henri told us.
At another course in France, Golf Club de Bossey, which straddles the border with Switzerland, is where we came upon the headstone just sitting in the middle of the eighth fairway. On closer inspection, the engraving revealed this to be the spot where Ferdinand LasSalle was buried - loser of a pistol duel on this property long before it became a Trent Jones masterpiece cradled by the Rhone Alps. It’s absolutely breathtaking and a joy to play.
The grave marker prompted the wisecracking Tom to observe: “You know what Ferdinand’s last words were? Nice shot!”
The Bossey club’s annual trophy features crossed pistols and the winner is hence known as “Le Big Shot.”
Now it’s on to Switzerland – where every shot is an uphill lie. But what else would you expect of courses built around the most beautiful mountain landscape in the world.
The Swiss take their golf seriously and that’s reflected in the quality of the courses they’ve built. Again a Who’s Who of golf designers was hired and the Alp backdrops inspired them to create some beauties.
Top of that list is the Ballesteros-designed Crans-sur-Sierre course where they play the annual Omega European Masters. The course is set in a mountain valley and the inspiring views and quality conditions makes this one of the finest courses to play – anywhere!
“Was that who I think it was?” asked Ian as a Porsche 4x4 darted past headed for the clubhouse at Villars Golf Club, another Swiss beauty we played.
A few minutes later, Jacques Villeneuve, a resident of Villars where the course is located and Canada’s only Formula One world driving champion, was asking his fellow countrymen questions about what was happening back home.
Villeneuve, an avid golfer and skier – Villars is one of the best ski resorts in the world – makes the Villars club his home course. The rugged mountain terrain surrounding it makes for some interesting situations from a shot point of view, by the way.
Our latest vacation took us to Portugal’s northern region, a late comer to the golf holiday scene where you come across more of those ancient aqueducts acting as backdrops to greens – amazing!
The newness of the courses in northern Portugal is great for vacationing players since the layouts located between Lisbon and Porto are brand new and more North American in their designs. One we played, Penha Longa, near Sintra, was part of a Ritz Carlton hotel complex and reflected the standards set down by the upscale chain.
Portugal’s southern Algarve region is where the country’s best courses are reputed to be located but its northern cousin is catching up fast.
There have also been trips to Scotland and the home of golf St. Andrews, where we braved rain and wind just so we could brag about playing the Old Course. The St. Andrews area is rich in golf history and courses - there are at least 10 within driving distance of the Old Course that are far more enjoyable to play, it says here.
Kings Barn just down the road qualifies as one of the top 10 courses in the world.
For a real treat, though, you have to visit Ireland, where both the north and south sides of the border offer some of the best courses in the world. The south offers more championship courses than you can count – Lahinch, the K-Club, site of this year’s Ryder Cup, Ballybunion, Portmarnich - and the north’s lineup of legendary layouts like Royal County Downs, Royal Portrush and Port Stewart will have you toasting your good fortune of being there with a pint of black beer.
But the best course I’ve ever enjoyed in Ireland was one called Ardglass, an enchanting club that drops off into the Irish Sea and whose first six holes require drives over rocky cliffs. The course is surrounded by a 13th century Celtic wall and the local players will invite you in for a history lesson over a pint afterwards. Be prepared to buy the round – the history lesson is free.
It was at enchanting Ardglass where we experienced all four seasons – a cold winter wind, a hot summer’s sun, a spring rain and an autumn chill; and that was just the first hole.
The harsh conditions prompted me to tell my caddy: “I don’t think it could get any worse than this.”
“Yes it could, sir,” he replied. “You could be on the other side of the turf.”
My explanation of playing holiday golf in Europe over, my friends only had one thing left to ask:
“Could we tag along with you guys next year?”
Here's some facts about playing golf in Europe: Golf is considered a recreational sport in Europe so unless you have a physical handicap you are expected to walk most courses. There are few power carts. / You’ll need a handicap card when you show up at the first tee in Europe. The Europeans like to know who’s playing their courses. / No need to bring your clubs – most clubs in Europe now rent the sticks and they are all high end versions. / Pro shops at European golf courses are not well stocked, however, so make sure you bring rain wear and plenty of your favorite balls. / Many courses in Europe are private but they do allow visitor play. / In larger cities like Paris or London, ask your hotel concierge where you can play a game. Most hotels have exclusive playing arrangements with high end clubs in the large cities. / The most developed golf countries in Europe, besides the ones making up the British Isles, are France, Italy, Germany, Austria, Spain, Portugal, Switzerland and to a lesser degree, Holland. The Scandinavian countries produce a lot of great golfers but most get their training in places like France, Spain or the U.S.