Pack your clubs and test your skills at the picturesque courses along the coast.
L ike all true religions, golf has its holy places. The faithful arrive at St Andrews from all corners of the world, and line up for expensive humiliation at Pinehurst and Pebble Beach. Those of us who love to swing a club in France are drawn to the sunshine and sand of Nouvelle-Aquitaine, where southern heat tempered by an Atlantic breeze promise perfect conditions for a seaside game.
Shadowing the well-trodden pilgrimage road to the Pyrénées and Santiago de Compostela, my journey through France will be punctuated by bogeys and birdie opportunities, followed by a cruise on the ferry back from Spain after the last putt has been missed.
Where to start? Every Channel port has top-notch golf on its doorstep. My landfall is Saint-malo, where the overnight ferry docks beneath the walls of the fortress city at 8am on a brilliant June day. From here it is an easy hour’s drive along the coast to Pléneuf-val-andré, the pick of Brittany’s crop of courses.
In a new car that offers every comfort short of a massage, I arrive at the golf club with no excuses, for once, instead of staggering to the tee with joints creaking like a rusty door hinge.
Rhythm is an important element of course design, and Pléneuf starts quietly with a generous par five – unless you visit on a competition day, as I did, and they welcome you with instructions to begin at the tenth.
This is like starting Verdi’s Requiem at the Dies Irae. Down the left, a hedge marks the course boundary. A bank of dense prickly scrub, more maquis than rough, intrudes from the right. The green is out of sight and the fairway narrows to a ribbon precisely where you would like your ball to be, for a view of the flag. Never mind par: to complete this hole with the first ball that you hit off the tee is cause for rejoicing.
In happy contrast, one of the most inspiring moments in French golf comes next: a pulpit tee on a spur high above the beach looks down on a beckoning sward of flat and hazard-free fairway behind the sweep of the sands. Unwind, and launch a shell through the gap between a lone pine and the picturesque ruin of an old farmhouse.
So the round goes on, measuring its doses of menace and generosity. After the usual ragoût of shots and too many putts, it is time to head south on the region’s toll-free autoroutes, cross the River Loire at Nantes and follow the Vendée coast as far as Saint-jean-de-monts, a familyfriendly beach resort with a golf course of great character, created and designed 30 years ago by local enthusiasts.
Not for them, the quiet start. The first hole curls from left to right around the only lake on the course. It is one of those risk-reward moments that call for a deep breath, commitment – or a splash and three off the tee. Same story for the approach to the green, only with a shorter club in hand, depending on how brave and successful you were with the tee shot. Use an old ball would be my course management advice.
The course then plunges into an oak forest for half a dozen tight holes before emerging into rolling dunes for as fair a stretch of links golf as a Scotsman could wish for, with salt on the breeze and a pretty view of the Île d’yeu.
To complete the hole with the first ball that you hit off the tee is a cause for rejoicing