The verdict on Ryder Cup host Le Golf National: challenging and respected
It took Alex Noren a little time to warm to Le Golf National outside Paris. He missed the cut in the first three French Opens in which he played, and when he finally made it to the weekend in 2010, he shot 81 in the third round.
“My first memory of playing the course was that it is a very tricky golf course,” Noren said, adding, “but then over the years, I have played it better and better.”
So well, in fact, that this summer, he departed Le Golf, site of next week’s 42nd Ryder Cup, with the French Open trophy in his passenger seat, having shot 10-under on the weekend after a rocky start. Sweden’s Noren, who at age 36 will be competing in his first Ryder Cup, is one of several European players who have savored success on the beautiful layout of Le Golf. Being that it serves as an annual summer stop on the European Tour, most every player on the home side knows the course. Noren and teammate Tommy Fleetwood of England have won at Le Golf, Italy's Francesco Molinari has lost in a playoff and counts two other runner-up finishes there, and seven other European players have performed well enough through the years to collect top-10 finishes.
“I think also returning to Le National, it can only help that I am the reigning French Open winner from this year, and I will be comfortable, even as a Ryder Cup rookie, that I will be able to play the course,” Noren said.
Le Golf National, which is located in Guyancourt, roughly 22 miles southwest of Paris, is heavily respected among the players on the European circuit. It was built by architect Hubert Chesneau, who designed Le Golf's Albatros Course (one of two courses on property) with the concept of establishing a permanent, stadium-golf home for the French Open. The ribbon was cut in autumn of 1990, and the first French Open was played there the next summer. Argentine Eduardo Romero won the first Frensh Open staged at Le Golf. Only two times since 1991 has the French Open not been contested there.
When U.S. Captain Jim Furyk asked several European Tour members their thoughts on the quality of the course, several told him they place Le Golf in their top five on their tour. It’s a difficult layout often played in significant winds that doesn’t necessarily cater to those who wish to bomb it deep and try to gauge from the rough. Precision and control is paramount. Le Golf is a terrific ballstrikers’ test.
Le Golf is expected to measure just under 7,200 yards for the 42nd Ryder Cup Sept. 28-30, and will play to a par of 71 (three par-5 holes instead of four).
Furyk, who has now visited Le Golf a few times, has said the course reminds him a little of the Players Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass, not far from where he resides in Florida. It has modern mounding and rolling greens guarded by water. In fact, three of the final four holes feature approach shots required into greens that are protected by water – that could produce some high drama for matches that go the distance.
The 15th, 16th and 18th greens also reside in close proximity, not far from the clubhouse, and with a stadium-style setting and thousands of fans watching over those holes, Furyk said, “This could really be the most grand setting ever in Ryder Cup history. To be a part of it, I feel very fortunate.”
Here’s a look at the finish at Le Golf:
• No. 15
The 408-yard par-4 has water running down the right side of the hole and jutting into the fairway, meaning most players will lay back and face a longer shot into a green also surrounded by water. The designers of Le National called this hole Le Juge, or The Judge.
• No. 16
The final par-3 test. Though it’s short at 177 yards, players can’t go to sleep here. There is water around the green and those hitting through the green will find it difficult to get up and down. A back-right hole location right in front of the fans on Sunday in singles? Magnifique!
• No. 17
A rugged par-4 heading uphill away from the clubhouse. It’s pretty straight, and with the hole’s length, it demands a player find the fairway off the tee. The green runs back to front with plenty of slopes in it. Nos. 17 and 18 rank as two of Le Golf's most difficult holes.
• No. 18
This will present a solid finish and definitely test the nerves of players who push their matches that far. There are four penal bunkers clustered right of the fairway, which will be a bailout area with water running down the left side of the hole. European Tour player Matt Wallace said a player must "man up" on the tee shot here. The green, protected by water, is the second largest on the course, which lends itself to many options with hole locations. From back in the fairway, where players will be hitting mid-to-long irons, the green appears shallower than it actually is.
"It's a very intimidating hole," Noren said.
Any Ryder Cup match heading down 18 is always exciting in itself, and Le Golf mixes in an incredible amphitheater and thousands of fans lining the ropes down the fairway. The drama will be intense.
“It is a great match-play golf course, and some of the matches, if they are tied going down the 15th, will be very, very exciting,” said Frenchman Jean Van de Velde, who played for Europe in the 1999 Ryder Cup and carries the title of “ambassador” for the 42nd Ryder Cup in his home country. “For the sake of the Ryder Cup itself, and to see how the golf course can defend itself, it will be nice to see as many matches as possible going down to the final few holes.”
A few of the U.S. players have visited and played Le Golf. Bubba Watson, Jordan Spieth, Phil Mickelson and Tony Finau visited around the Open Championship, and Justin Thomas tied for eighth in the French Open. But most will have three days to get to know the golf course.
Because of that, European Captain Thomas Bjorn has to believe his team will have a home-course edge given his players’ great familiarity with the golf course. He has played there, vice-captain Graeme McDowell has won twice there, and so many of his players have done well there.
“We’ve come here for many years, and we believe that we are going to bring a team here that can win on that golf course,” Bjorn said in a walkthrough at Le Golf last fall. “I believe we could win on any course in the world, but there is a home advantage in the sense that, you know, we know the golf course very well.
"But is it going to play to our advantage during the week? Maybe, maybe not. Time will tell.”