TANGO IN PARIS

The Ry­der Cup goes to France, a coun­try with a long golf his­tory but few cham­pion golfers.

Golf Digest (South Africa) - - Contents - By John Bar­ton

From my par­ents’ old house, high above the White Cliffs of Dover, you could look out across the English Chan­nel on sunny days and see the out­line of the French coast. I used to imag­ine that some­where be­yond the hori­zon there was a French ver­sion of me, a bon viveur en­joy­ing bet­ter weather, bet­ter clothes, bet­ter friends: chic, debonair, non­cha­lant, hang­ing out in cafés and brasseries, quaffing aper­i­tifs, maybe Cham­pagne, liv­ing with elan and panache; liv­ing le vie en rose. This al­ter­nate life could be glimpsed on fam­ily mo­tor­ing hol­i­days in the Loire Val­ley or the Dor­dogne, or cy­cling through France one sum­mer en route to Madrid, or sell­ing drinks on the top­less beaches of Saint-Tropez an­other sum­mer, or on week­ends in Paris (“It’s all so French,” a vis­i­tor said re­cently. “I think they’ve over­done it.”)

The Bri­tish have tended to have a su­pe­ri­or­ity com­plex towards their con­ti­nen­tal neigh­bours, but per­haps that masks a de­gree of envy, too. There’s an In­ter­net meme based on Euro­pean na­tional stereo­types: “Heaven is where the police are Bri­tish, the lovers French, the me­chan­ics Ger­man, the chefs Ital­ian, and it’s all or­gan­ised by the Swiss. Hell is where the police are Ger­man, the lovers Swiss, the me­chan­ics French, the chefs Bri­tish, and it’s all or­gan­ised by the Ital­ians.” Of course such char­ac­ter­i­sa­tions are clichés, but nev­er­the­less, it’s hard to walk the streets of Paris in April and not feel a fris­son; a cer­tain je ne sais quoi. There’s a rea­son France is con­sis­tently the most vis­ited na­tion on earth with 89-mil­lion-plus in­ter­na­tional ar­rivals a year. Peo­ple come for the food, the arts, the chateâux, the beaches. But per­haps what they come most for is the joie de vivre. For love.

Only in France would some­one de­sign a golf course as an homage to a woman’s body.Viewed from the air, Robert Ber­thet’s Ma­con La Salle Golf Club in Bur­gundy, opened in 1990, is a riot of cur­va­ceous mounds, con­tours and strate­gi­cally po­si­tioned haz­ards that de­pict the body parts of a woman called Ni­cole, Ber­thet’s muse. Many who play the par-4 11th, for in­stance, suc­cumb to a gap­ing tri­an­gu­lar bunker in the cor­ner of the dog­leg. Af­ter ac­cu­sa­tions of sex­ism, a “male” hole was added to La Salle’s nine­hole course: a par 3 with a dis­tinc­tively shaped tee and green, mea­sur­ing 180 yards, though male mem­bers of the club are prone to ex­ag­ger­ate the length.

France has a long golf his­tory.The old­est course on the Euro­pean con­ti­nent, dat­ing from 1856, is in Pau, in the French Pyre­nees, and the first non-Brit to win the Open Cham­pi­onship was French­man Ar­naud Massy. Massy moved to Scotland in 1902 to fol­low his dream. He aban­doned his left-handed clubs and started from scratch right-handed, work­ing on his game at North Ber­wick. He mar­ried a lo­cal lass and set­tled down. And in 1907, he won the Open.

In the en­su­ing 111 years, France’s haul of men’s ma­jor-cham­pi­onship ti­tles has re­mained un­changed: one. Some have come close, most notably Jean Van de Velde, who led the 1999 Open at Carnoustie by three with one hole to go. If you look up “de­ba­cle” in the dic­tionary, you might see an im­age ofVan deVelde stand­ing in the Barry Burn on Carnoustie’s fi­nal hole, trousers rolled up like Mon­sieur Hu­lot on hol­i­day.

Van deVelde be­came the first French Ry­der Cup player that year; there will be none in this year’s en­counter.

The best French player right now is Alexan­der Levy, ranked 72nd. In 2014, Vic­tor Dubuis­son played in the Ry­der Cup and rose to 17th in the world. Dubuis­son is the en­fant ter­ri­ble of French golf with a mys­te­ri­ous past – he claims to have left school “at 10 or 12” and raised him­self.When he played in the French Open at his peak, he banned jour­nal­ists from his pre-event press con­fer­ence and in­vited 22 lo­cal school chil­dren into the in­ter­view room in­stead. Dubuis­son is cur­rently ranked 185th in the world.

“The French play­ers are lazy,” says one French golf in­sider.“They live like play­boys.”

But maybe it’s not lazi­ness. It takes a cer­tain blink­ered lack of imag­i­na­tion to be the best – spend­ing your for­ma­tive years and most of the sub­se­quent ones stand­ing in a field hit­ting golf balls. French cul­ture is built on a tremen­dous ap­petite for all the earthly delights. (The Sun King Louis XIV, who reigned for 72 years and who built the op­u­lent Palace ofVer­sailles, was said to have a 20-to-30-course sup­per every night; his au­topsy re­vealed a stom­ach twice the nor­mal hu­man size.) There are 450 kinds of French cheese. For France’s best golfers, per­haps there is more to life than golf.They might want to win a ma­jor, but more press­ing might be win­ning en­dorse­ments from the most stylish cloth­ing com­pany, win­ning at the poker ta­bles in Monte Carlo, win­ning the heart of Miss Côte d’Azur. In France you work to live, not the other way round. This is en­shrined in law with a statu­tory 35-hour work week.

The ab­sence of a French cham­pion is also because his­tor­i­cally golf in France has been an elit­ist, bour­geois pur­suit. Some hope that the Ry­der Cup will spark a golf­ing re­nais­sance. But it will prob­a­bly be largely met with a Gal­lic shrug.

My imag­ined French twin won’t be watch­ing. He and his clique don’t care about golf.They’re still buzzing from France’s stir­ring vic­tory in the foot­ball World Cup in July.

Au revoir, Massy; bon­jour, Mbappé.

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