Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Golf de Morfontaine - A Brief Update

A brief update to let you know how I am fairing in my attempt to play the Golf Club de Morfontaine outside Paris. As my previous readers know, I was rebuffed in my initial attempts to gain access to this private club. Having learned that persistence is important in this quest, I am forging ahead with some more creative attempts to gain access. If you would like to read my original post on Morfontaine, click here.

So, I thought long and hard, who is the most famous of French golfers? Is it Arnaud Massy, who was the only Frenchman to win the Open Championship 1907 at Hoylake? Sadly, though, Arnaud died in 1950. Actually, the most famous French golfer alive is our infamous friend Jean Van de Velde, who was almost the second Frenchman to have won the Open Championship.

Bien Sur.

After some difficulty I was able to track down Jean Van de Velde's agent and will keep his identity confidential for reasons that will soon be obvious. His English wasn't bad, if a bit heavily accented. After offering my condolences on Jean's performance at the 1999 Open I politely asked him if Jean might be so kind as to help me gain access to play Morfontaine.

Well, he did not directly answer my question. He went on a tirade against America being a land of over-indulgent people living in a crime-ridden, war-mongering society where people are self-centered, eat too much fast food, have an abundance of consumer products and lack sophistication and culture. I tried to identify the source of his anger, but it appeared deep-seated. At this point, I felt I had nothing to lose and suggested an "au contraire", and returned fire along the lines that the French are a bunch of womenizing prima-donnas that have strong body odor and drink too much wine, go on strike too much and are angry with us because we make better movies than they do, when suddenly the phone connection went dead. Perhaps the satellite connection was poor?



Perhaps it was a mistake to start the conversation off bringing up Jean's meltdown at Carnoustie? I'm having trouble with the nuances of dealing with the French.

I was brought up to believe that the U.S. and France were allies. My feeling was that it wouldn't be too difficult for a visiting American to arrange a game at Morfontaine. What surprised me about this episode is the hostility the French have toward Americans. Are we Americans not bosom buddies with the French? Permanent members of the U.N. Security Council together? We're both members of the nuclear club? Do we not help each other out in times of need? They helped to fund our war of independence and we helped liberate them in 1944. I don't understand how they're not being more receptive to my inquiries.

Sacre bleu...

I also got up the nerve to again call the club directly to see if they might have softened their previously rigid stance on overseas visitors. Maybe they couldn't hear us clearly last time. I thought I would speak louder this time and see if it made any difference.

It didn't. My latest attempt went pretty much like my first. In fact, probably worse. This time, I thought I heard sounds in the background of a blade being sharpened. Could it be they are readying the guillotine at Morfontaine for this obnoxious American?

"Jacques, if he calls again, it's off with the head!"

Rumor has it that both the members and the Fédération Française de Golf have now been notified about this enfante terrible trying to get access to their sacred course and have been warned not to take my calls!

All their attempts to keep me out of the club are going to be about as effective as the Maginot Line was at keeping out the Germans.

In golfing lore, the toughest secretary (as they call managers of clubs in Europe) is allegedly at Muirfield in Scotland. Stories of Muirfield secretaries' cool receptions and methods of turning away visitors are the stuff of legend. Morfontaine apparently can join the running among the ranks of courses that are difficut to gain access to. Their club history recounts the story of a famous partner in a London law firm who is near the club one day and goes inside to see if he can play. He is rebuffed (I know the feeling) and as he is leaving, sees one of the founders of the club and a member of the British aristocracy, Lord Parnham. He tells Lord Parnham how he has always dreamed of playing at Morfontaine and wonders if he could allow him to play as his guest. The Lord asks his credentials and he explains that he is a practicing member of the Church of England; went to Eton, graduated from Oxford, Magna cum Laude where he played four sports; served as a Captain in the Coldstream Guards where he won the Distinguished Service Order, Military Cross and Legion of Honor; fought at Dunkirk, El Alamein, Normandy and Arnhem. Since the distinguished gentleman helped liberate France, they let him play.

But only nine holes!

If an Oxford educated war hero only gets to play nine holes, my chances are probably pretty slim, but I am not giving up. I remain indefatigable in my quest.

The Golf Course and Architect

Morfontaine was the brainchild of a member of the French aristocracy, The Duc de Gramont. In the interest of historical accuracy, since there have been fourteen holders of this title since 1643, it was the 12th Duc - Antoine Agnor Armand de Gramont, Duc de Gramont, who lived from 1879 until 1962. He was a keen golfer and wanted a world class course near his estate, Château de Valliere. He chose Tom Simpson as the architect for his dream course.

Anyhow, given my obsessive personality, in the absence of playing the course, I have been doing some research on Tom Simpson, who can best be described as an iconoclast. He frequently wore a cloak and beret and was driven around in a silver Rolls-Royce (he is pictured below).

Simpson sounds like my kind of guy. Apparently, he had a flair for the dramatic. He once drove his Rolls-Royce slowly up and down in front of a club committee's window as they deliberated whether to accept his design as an architect. He also was on record as saying that no golf hole could be truly great unless it began to operate in the player's mind for some time before he actually came to it. He was also quoted as saying that "the vital thing about a hole is that it should either be more difficult than it looks or look more difficult than it is. It must never be what it looks." He liked his courses to demand 'mental agility'. All this research continues to build up my desire to get access to Morfontaine and see Simpson's masterpiece.

My exhaustive research also led me to the fact that fellow American and golf course architect Kyle Phillips (designer of the world ranked #65 course Kingsbarns) was hired to make changes to this French gem of a course within the last ten years.

Perhaps Mr. Phillips will take my call?

Or perhaps the current title holder, the 14th Duc de Gramont, whose grandfather founded the course can help, if I appeal to his sense of noblesse oblige?

I'll let you know how I make out...

Sunday, April 08, 2007

The Valley Club of Montecito

A fascinating bit of travel trivia for you. Did you realize that flights take off and land from LAX all night? I know this for a certainty from first-hand experience. So it is that I find myself awake at three in the morning at the Westin LAX. For those not familiar with LAX, there is a line of hotels right off one of the runways in this airport-city. My latest travels take me to Southern California to visit a client. As it turns out, I was also able to fit in a round of golf at The Valley Club of Montecito (ranked #85 in the world). The Valley Club is located about 1 1/2 hours north of Los Angeles in Montecito, an un-incorporated part of Santa Barbara. It is situated between the Pacific Ocean and the Santa Ynez Mountains. This particular itinerary also had me flying on Alaska Airlines for the first time from Palm Springs to San Francisco, then home. My itineraries can be complex when I need to plan around fitting in a round of golf, but I do it gladly. It will also be my last time flying Alaska Airlines, who have not yet perfected the art of on-time departures and they committed the cardinal sin for a golfer - they lost my clubs. Luckily it was on the way home so it didn't impact my play at The Valley Club.

For those not familiar with the topography of California, a quick lesson. The entire state has a series of mountain ranges running through it from north to south. These 'transverse ranges' are one of the defining features of the state. The majority of California's population lives squeezed in between these various mountains and the Pacific Ocean.

California's transverse mountain ranges

The Golf Course

I digress into geography because it is important to understand when playing at The Valley Club. The course is situated between the Pacific Ocean and the Santa Ynez mountains. This means you always have to take into account the impact both the ocean and the mountain will have on your putts. Putts break toward the ocean and away from the mountain. I had several putts that were clearly uphill but played downhill because they were coming off the mountain, toward the ocean. Knowing where you are in relation to the mountain is a non-trivial matter here and dominates your selection of line and pace on every green. It really takes some getting used to.

Why is The Valley Club on the top 100 list? In two words: Alister MacKenzie. The Valley Club was designed in 1929 by Alister MacKenzie and Robert Hunter. 1929 was at the height of MacKenzie's output, having completed Augusta National the same year and Cypress Point the year prior.

One of the defining characteristics of The Valley Club are the signature MacKenzie greens. In addition to the subtle breaks and the mountain/ocean effect, the greens are also small. Like at another MacKenzie course, Crystal Downs, I found putting here difficult.

The other key feature of The Valley Club are the MacKenzie-designed bunkers, which he works into the course with his 'camouflage' effect very skillfully. Many are optical illusions. Often, what looks to be a greenside bunker is actually set back from the green.

2nd hole with classic Mackenzie Bunkering

The first two holes and the last six holes play near the clubhouse. Holes three through twelve play across Sheffield Road and essentially in a little isolated canyon. You can get a good feel for the terrain at The Valley Club from the shot below, which is looking back to the tee box from the green at the 14th. You hit your tee shot on this par three downhill over a barranca.

Looking back from 14th tee

I thought the best hole on the course is the 9th hole, a dog-leg right that plays from an elevated tee. If you hit your shot far enough to the left you have a good, but long, shot to an elevated green over a creek. The green and its bunkers slope severely down a hill. To the left of the green is a horse-farm, consistent with aristocratic nature of the neighborhood here. I did not play the hole that well, which is a shame, since it is such a good hole. I hit my approach long into one of the greenside bunkers above the hole. A downhill-fried-egg-lie-to-a-small-green is not in my repertoire of shots.

Approach shot to the 9th

The next three holes (10-11-12) all play in the same direction and are also quite good since you are playing along the canyon on the left with beautifully designed, sloping holes protected by camouflage bunkers and small greens.

11th hole in the Canyon

I was fortunate to play at The Valley Club on a beautiful winter morning. The course is one of the best conditioned I have ever played and it was an ideal round. We were one of only a half-dozen groups on the course. At 225 members, The Valley Club doesn't get a lot of play. This is golf as it was meant to be played, in my opinion. We walked and had nobody in front of us, nobody behind us, there was no waiting, and we played briskly in the beautiful weather. I will once again state how fortunate I am indeed to be lucky enough to play golf in idyllic places such as this. I started the day wearing a sweater due to the morning fog which is common along the California coast. By the fourth hole, the fog had burned off and we played the remainder of the round in polo-shirts.

The beauty of the place is evident from the picture below showing the sculpted trees against the mountain backdrop.

Third hole - with the Santa Ynez Mountain backdrop

I got a lesson in tree-spotting at The Valley Club. A traditionalist type of place, like both Pine Valley and Ganton, the sprinkler heads are not marked and there are no other identifying marks. You get a little card (seen below) that tells you the yardages from various landmarks on the course. If you can distinguish an oak tree from a sycamore from a cypress/pine you're in good shape. I was OK until one hole was marked with a 'forked' tree, which I couldn't make heads or tails out of. I'm used to reading putting greens. Reading trees took some getting used to.

The "Yardage Markers" at The Valley Club

I did become quite familiar with the Cypress trees, with their distinctive trunks, near the 16th green, below, when I hooked my second shot left of the green.

Cypress trees near 16th green

The Club

The course was launched right before the Great Depression and immediately ran into hard times. Hard being a relative term in Montecito, you understand. In any event, during the second world war they allowed livestock to graze on the holes across Sheffield Road - more than half the course. It became overgrown and was also used for Victory Gardens. It was restored in 1946. In 1997, The Valley Club hired Tom Doak to update their master plan and refresh the course. In a testament to both the original strength of the design of Mackenzie and Hunter and to Doak's restraint in messing about with a gem, only minor changes were made to some greens and bunkers.

The Valley Club proved a difficult course to gain access to, it took me about three years of trying to get on. The Valley Club is a privileged club in the middle of a prosperous and aristocratic community. Montecito is an extremely well-to-do enclave. The course is surrounded by gated-entrance mansions, most with screening hedge-rows.

I like to research each club and destination as part of my travels. Santa Barbara was routinely described as "among the wealthiest communities in the U.S." The market research firm Claritis classifies it as "upper-crust", which is their highest affluent ranking. According to Forbes Magazine Montecito is one of the top 20 wealthiest zip codes in the United States and ranks ahead of such high-end locales as Beverly Hills, Bel Air and Pebble Beach. The affluence of the area is reflected in the understated but tony clubhouse with its old locker room with its original wooden lockers that have developed a nice patina. Quite a cozy little place to have a post-round drink overlooking the Pacific Ocean.

To give you a flavor for the housing surrounding The Valley Club, see the picture below of a house off the 17th fairway, reminiscent of two other Southern California gems, Los Angeles Country Club and Bel-Air.

Not such a bad neighborhood, this Montecito

Clubhouse as seen from first fairway

California has a reputation as being one of the most liberal and left-leaning states in the Union. I'm sure it is, however, this quest is taking me to all its conservative strongholds (Los Angeles County Club, San Francisco Golf Club and now The Valley Club). Thus far on my golf travels I have not yet seen the liberal California. Santa Barbara is an old-money conservative town and this is reflected in the makeup of its membership. This is Reagan Country, the 40th President had strong roots in the area and his presidential library is located not too far away in the Simi Valley. Not many granola-eaters or tree-huggers around here.

The club has traditionally defended itself by protecting its right to do as it pleases and to be different. From the club president in the difficult war year of 1944, "Certain evidences of wear and tear merely suggest the homey lived-in atmosphere so rarely seen today. It is the only club in Santa Barbara where members can still find an uncrowded golf course, good food, proper service and privacy. It was organized to provide these features which are only obtainable in a small club". So little has changed from when this was written it may as well have been written last week.

An original Valley Club Prospectus for new members

I enjoyed my day at The Valley Club quite a bit and agree with its place in the rankings at #85. I have now completed playing five of the seven courses I need to in California and look forward to one day playing MacKenzie's other California course - Cypress Point.

Post Script

My trip was completed by a requisite visit to an In-N-Out Burger, one of the fringe benefits of freqent travel. Not normally an eater of fast-food, I can't resist their old fashioned, high-quality burgers and shakes. In one of the great food mysteries of our time, I can't figure out why In-N-Out hasn't made it east of the Rocky Mountains?