Since there are only 15,000 golfers in France out of a population of 46 million, most Frenchmen are inclined to agree with George Bernard Shaw's description of the game as a "wonderful walk spoiled by a little white ball." More exactly, the French regard golf as an Anglo-Saxon gentleman's pastime for the rich, the old and the fat.
But next week an important golf tournament will be played in France at Saint-Nom-la-Bret√®che, an attractive if not exactly elegant course located on the site of one of Louis XIV's farmyards near Versailles—the clubhouse was actually a large barn on what was Louis' "royal farm." Built in the 18th century of roughhewn stone, it is replete with ivy and roses, fountains and a moat from which swans trumpet at golfers on the first tee. There are now indications that what is going to happen at Saint-Nom-la-Bret√®che will have considerable influence on the French view of golf. The event is the 11th International Golf Championship. Thirty-three countries have named two-man teams to compete for the trophy known as the Canada Cup, and the fact that the best golfers in the world will be on display at Louis' farm is exciting the French press.
Until recently French newspapers totally ignored golf. The country's sports fans had never heard of Arnold Palmer or Jack Nicklaus. They knew Ray Charles, but who, mon dieu, was Bob Charles? Lately, however, the conservative morning newspaper Le Figaro and the sports daily L'Equipe have been running golf articles almost every day.
Just how many French spectators will turn out to watch Palmer and Nicklaus, who are representing the U.S., and three score and four other players go around Saint-Nom-la-Bret√®che four days in a row is still a mystery. Alert to every opportunity to increase the gallery, the tournament committee has let it be known that the Duke of Windsor, ex-King Leopold, Italian Prince Ruspoli and Prince Michel de Bourbon-Parme may well be following the play. The committee also made arrangements to employ a number of girl caddies dressed in blue uniforms topped off by red berets. Such moves should help with those segments of the French sporting public that are royalty-minded or girl-minded—i.e., about all of it.
Advance ticket sales have been brisk—in American circles. The U.S. Army and SHAPE report keen interest in the Canada Cup from Barcelona to Berlin. Chartered planes and trains are expected to bring thousands of golf-loving American soldiers to Saint-Nom-la-Bret√®che. So Arnie's Army will be regular Army.
The Canada Cup may put golf on the sports map of France for the first time, but historians can point out that golf was being played in France when St. Andrews was still a sand dune. The first reference to the game dates back to 1421 and the Hundred Years' War. A Scottish expeditionary force had come to help the French, who were besieged by the English at the town of Baugé in Anjou. It was Easter, and a holiday truce was declared. Saturday evening the English treacherously attacked, confident that they would surprise the Scots at the dinner table. But, taking advantage of the truce, the Scots were miles away playing golf. They spotted the English assailants, sounded the alarm, and the attackers were routed.
The history of golf in France seems curiously linked to wars with the English. The officers of a Scottish regiment under the Duke of Wellington played golf in the meadows around Pau in the Pyrenees in 1814, and it was at Pau in 1856 that the first French golf club was founded. By the turn of the century, the formal-minded French were playing golf in scarlet coats with gold buttons at Mesnil-le-Roi near the horse racing town of Maisons-Laffitte, and the sport had spread to Biarritz and Cannes. At the outbreak of World War I France had 32 golf courses.
Today there are about 80 courses in the country, a dozen of them in the Paris area. Several more are under construction or in the blueprint stage, and the sport would be doing even better if the last war had not caused damage at a great many courses. Antiaircraft batteries, for example, took over La Boulie, near Versailles, while courses at Etretat, Deauville and Cannes were truffled with land mines. Cabbages and leeks sprouted from fairways at Le Havre, Divonne-les-Bains and Nancy. Even now, there is not a single public course in France. Many courses, like Saint-Cloud and Saint-Nom-la-Bret√®che, are owned by golf-playing shareholders. A mineral water company is proprietor of the Evian course, and hotels own one at Deauville. Institut de France, the famous cultural institution, inherited the Chantilly course and runs it, while Mont-Agel belongs to the Monte Carlo Casino.
Yearly club dues in France range from a low of $80 to $600. Green fees vary from $3 during the week on one of the less swank courses to $15 on weekends at the best clubs. That seems like a lot of money to Frenchmen, who are accustomed to paying 40¢ or 50¢ for bleacher seats at soccer games or bicycle races.
"Most unfortunately," says Prince Michel de Bourbon-Parme, president of the Saint-Nom-la-Bret√®che club, "it is very expensive to play golf in France. Another brake on golf's popularity is psychological. If you are a Frenchman who does not play golf, you think it is the silliest game in the world. Golf has a great future in France, but first the middle class must cease to regard it as an upper-class pastime akin to polo."
The very fact that playing golf is a status symbol in France ought to induce bourgeois Frenchmen to try the game. "After all," says Jacques Léglise, president of the French Golf Federation, "who would have thought 10 years ago that the wine-and brandy-drinking French would adopt Scotch whisky as a national beverage? Why not now the Scots game of golf?"
Enough golf is played in France to provide a livelihood for 120 professionals. The proportion of Basques among these pros is about as high as that of Irishmen on the New York City police force. French golf pros are obliged to earn their living giving lessons because there is no professional tour. In fact, 1963 was considered by French pros as an exceptionally good year for tournaments, because there were seven of them instead of the usual two or three. The top prize of $5,000 or $6,000 is also regarded as pretty good. Not that French pros are unaware of the American golfers' pro tour and their fabulous winnings. But they don't complain, undoubtedly because they do well giving lessons. For fear of "le fisc" (internal revenue department), French pros will not publicly estimate their earnings, but the better ones probably make $10,000 to $15,000 a year.
As the number of golf courses has risen from around 55 in 1946 to the present 80, French golfers have tripled their ranks from 5,000 to 15,000. The latter figure is accurate, because the document-loving French hand out "licenses" to anyone practicing any sport, from ping-pong to pole-vaulting. Fully a third of France's 15,000 golfers are women, and the general quality of their play is good. Many take lessons for months before playing their first round.
Led by a lady
There have been no Bobby Joneses in French golfing history, nor is there a Palmer or Nicklaus on the scene today. Only once has a French player won the British Open, and that was Arnaud Massy way back in 1907. The names of the French competitors in the Canada Cup, Jean Garaialde and Jean-Claude Harismendy (both Basques), are unknown outside their golfing circles. Sport followers recognize only one name in French golf—that of Brigitte Varangot, 23, who, despite tonsilitis, won the British women's amateur championship at Newcastle, Ireland late last month. L'Equipe splashed the story of her victory under a front page headline: FRENCH EXPLOIT IN GOLF.
The course on which host pros Garaialde and Harismendy must confront the world's best next week is located half an hour from Paris and hardly a tourist's walk from Versailles. The nearest villages are Saint-Nom and La Bret√®che, hence the name of the club. This lovely region is known as Ile-de-France. Nowadays scout troops and Sunday picnickers wander over the area's green rolling hills, but for centuries it was a favorite section of Bourbon kings and their courtiers. That explains why the clubhouse of Saint-Nom-la-Bret√®che cuts so superb an architectural figure, ancient barn though it is.
If the clubhouse is a distinctive two centuries old, the course is not, and more's the pity. Five years ago the fairways of Saint-Nom-la-Bret√®che were hilly slopes planted with beets and potatoes. Like a good wine, a golf course should have a few years to mellow, and five years are not enough. Saint-Nom-la-Bret√®che has almost no trees—there is but one short lane of them on two holes and a golfer would have to work very hard to get into trouble among them. The course is liberally trapped but, unaccountably, some of the traps were built backward. Their high side is away from the green, while their low side flows toward the putting surface, making it a simple matter to putt or chip out of them. A 6,821-yard par-73 layout, it has three very easy par 5s that big hitters are going to birdie frequently.
On the other hand, its fairways are fine at any time and are now especially lush—thanks to a wretched summer in which there has been nothing but rain. The greens are both good and treacherous. They are extremely fast, and this may in the end prove to be the most important factor in deciding who wins this year's Canada Cup.
In Palmer and Nicklaus the U.S. has as strong a team as has ever represented it—and five of its previous teams have been good enough to win. The inclination is to think this pair will prove unbeatable. But if Saint-Nom-la-Bret√®che's greens stay extra fast, the safest way to hit into them may be with pitch-and-run shots instead of irons smacked boldly to the pin. Americans are less familiar with this pitch-and-run style of play than most foreign golfers and don't much care for it. This could counterbalance some of the U.S. advantage off the tees—no two-man team has ever hit woods any farther than Palmer and Nicklaus—and make a close match of it.
Prince Michel de Bourbon-Parme, admittedly a prejudiced observer, considers the advantage of local knowledge and says the U.S. may rightly worry about teams with such internationally experienced players as Bob Charles, Roberto de Vicenzo and the especially dangerous Gary Player on them, but says Palmer and Nicklaus had better not forget the French. He points out that the Japanese won in Tokyo and the Australians in Melbourne, and he claims there is an excellent chance for a French victory at Saint-Nom-la-Bret√®che. Louis XIV would like that.