‘Going back to Le Golf National made me relieved I was presenting, not playing!’
The French Open left me hooked, but brought back bad memories of missed cuts and lost balls
Out of all the courses I’ve revisited since retiring, Le Golf National is one that makes me glad to be behind the ropes. Not because I never enjoyed playing it; I just never scored very well. When I first played there, I was told to stay patient and hit fairways – but I never managed either. Every little mistake was amplified, which is why I could relate to seeing so many pros struggle during the French Open. Although Alex Noren delivered the big shots when they mattered to win his 10th European Tour title, his nearest challengers crumbled around him as they found the water or thick rough. But that’s the genius behind the golf course and the reason why the French Open is so well loved on the European Tour. As much as it is unforgiving, it rewards great golf tee to green.
That was one of my criticisms about Hazeltine and how they took away the skill element off the tee by cutting all the rough down. Instead, everything came down to putting, which meant the scoring was superb. Some fans liked that, but I felt it didn’t ask enough questions of the best players. Le Golf National is the ultimate ball-striking course and will provide a different type of Ryder Cup drama. You may not think playing to par is particularly exciting, but I know from experience just how terrifying some of the holes are. I always respected and admired the layout, but I hated the way it made me feel. The mental strain over the last four holes, where water comes into play on three of them, is excruciating for a player but enthralling as a spectator.
What will make this year’s Ryder Cup even more exciting is the dynamic of the fourball matches and the temptation for players to take on that riskier shot. You don’t have that luxury in strokeplay. Justin Thomas told me it was one of the hardest golf courses he’s ever played. He said that he felt like he had played some of his best golf of the year, and still only finished on four-under-par. That bodes well for Team Europe, especially as he was the only would-be US Ryder Cup star to play the event.
It was a smart move on Jim Furyk’s part to invite six potential members of his team to Paris the week before The Open so they could see the course, play it and speak with ‘experts’. That’s why I’m inclined to think that more was probably passed on to Spieth and Co in terms of the learning experience than it would have been had they played the French Open and been in that bubble of tournament play. Whether that will count against someone like Tiger Woods if he needs a wildcard pick, I’m not so sure. Personally, I think the criticism he received for appearing at a Nike promotional event instead has been really unfair. Every player has a number of sponsorship commitments to fulfil every year, and Nike’s event was probably in Tiger’s diary months in advance, well before Furyk thought about a pre-ryder Cup bonding trip.
What we should be focusing on is where Tiger’s game needs to be for him to even earn a Ryder Cup call up. Right now, you could argue that he hasn’t done enough to earn a place, but if he picks up a win somewhere, how do you not pick him? Yes, you can look at his record in foursomes and fourballs and say he’s never been much of a team player. But I think that’s more down to his teammates being overwhelmed when they’ve been paired with him. In his heyday, most players – I included – would have preferred to play against him, rather than with him, because that way you had nothing to lose. Since Tiger’s return, the expectations have been scaled back and he’s become less of an imposing figure in the team room as a result. Plus, everyone remembers and appreciates the impact he made as a vice captain at Hazeltine and they now see him as a teammate. That’s why I believe he can only have a positive influence in the team, regardless of whether or not he is actually playing.
What counts in Europe’s favour, of course, is home advantage and Bjorn will know that the style of the course – particularly the stadium effect created by the banking – has the potential to create a really intimidating atmosphere which will only add to the pressure of hitting all those shots over water. The one downside is that I don’t think Bjorn can – or will – do much to change how the course typically plays. Thick rough and narrow fairways are part of the design, which means any element of surprise is likely to be dictated by the weather. Jimmy Johnson, who caddies for Thomas, said the Americans will just hit irons off every tee, but that’s assuming the fairways are as fast and firm as they were in July, which is very unlikely. Paris usually enjoys plenty of rain in September and the softer the course becomes, the more it plays to the strengths of the Europeans. My only hope is that it doesn’t become another washout like Celtic Manor. I’d happily take the same drama and scoreline, though!
‘JUSTIN THOMAS TOLD ME IT WAS ONE OF THE HARDEST GOLF COURSES HE’S EVER PLAYED’
In his seven appearances as a player, Tiger has been on the winning side in the Ryder Cup just once (1999). Nick’s ‘Tee Time Tips’ Instagram series has been made into a TV show on Sky Sports. The first of four, 30-minute programmes aired during the...
Nick Dougherty is a three-time European Tour winner and now a presenter on Sky Sports’ golf coverage. Follow him on Twitter @Nickdougherty5 and Instagram @nickdougherty5