Thursday, January 31, 2008

Golf de Chantilly

It is hard to describe Golf de Chantilly properly without describing its location. You get there by taking the A1 motorway north, out of Paris, and then by driving through the thick forest in Chantilly. It is a centuries old town with the perfect french château in the middle, surrounded by a moat. As you leave the forest, the streets turn from pavement to cobblestone. You then approach a big cobblestone round-about, and the famous race-course is directly in front of you. To your right, down the hill is the imposing château. You have to drive past the château and through the old town gate to get to the golf course. Like at Morfontaine, you have to pass through an electronic gate to get into this private course. The château and the great stables at Chantilly were featured in the James Bond movie A View to a Kill. Chantilly has the world's largest concentrated area for trainers and racehorses.

I played at Chantilly this past October, during the week of the races, and the area has a regal atmosphere. It is a spectacular sight to see the locals on horses galloping through the beautiful surroundings and forest. When we were at Chantilly, there were elegantly dressed people on horseback riding through the narrow allées carved in the forest. One guy was decked out in all his Sunday best, including a curved hunting trumpet strapped around his chest.

Although Chantilly is not ranked on the world's top 100 list I am playing, I jumped at the chance to play this beautiful course when offered. As my readers know from my Morfontaine experience, I am a huge fan of France. Chantilly was also designed by the same architect as Morfontaine, Tom Simpson, whose courses I absolutely love.


The chateau at Chantilly

Like most of the elite french courses, the history here is intertwined with the aristocracy. Golf de Chantilly was founded by a local prince in 1909. Baron Edouard de Rothschild was the president of the club from 1927-1940.

Like at Morfontaine, Chantilly doesn't open until nine o'clock in the morning. Perhaps it's related to the 35 hour work-week the french have, but it seems a bit odd to give up a couple of great dawn hours when you could be playing. C'est la vie.

The Golf Course

Golf began at Chantilly in 1909, when a nine hole course was laid out. Tom Simpson was brought in to re-design the original course and design a new eighteen hole course in the 1920s. Unlike Morfontaine, Chantilly was heavily damaged during the Second World War, and nine holes were abandoned as a result. In the 1980s Donald Steel designed thirteen new holes and integrated them in with nine holes from the earlier Longeres course. There are 36 holes at Chantilly today: the Veneuil course, which has most of the original Simpson holes, and the Longeres course. They play championships on a composite "Vineuil Old Course" which is made up of fourteen holes from the Vineuil course and four from the Longeres. The course has hosted the French Open championship ten times. Nick Faldo won twice at Chantilly. Other winners include Roberto de Vicenzo, Peter Oosterhuis and Arnaud Massy.

Chantilly 1st hole

Chantilly 1st hole

Some courses ease you into the round, and it takes awhile for you to find the courses' charms. Not at Chantilly. It announces right away that it will be a great round of golf. The opening par five hole shows the strategic use of bunkers that are present throughout the course. The three bunkers on the right side make the only safe shot one that lands in the middle of the fairway, right of the clump of trees guarding the left side of the hole.

3rd green at Chantilly

The 159 meter par three, third hole shows off the great bunkering at Chantilly. The routing at Chantilly is varied and interesting, and although you are in a dense forest the fairways generally aren't choked with trees (the fifth hole below is an exception).

5th tee

The tee shot on the narrow fifth hole

The World Atlas of Golf describes looking down the fairway from the fifth tee (seen above) as the golfing equivalent of looking down a gun barrel. It plays as the #1 handicap at Chantilly and is a tough hole through a tight chute of trees. I was very pleased with my par.

7th fairway

The dog-leg right seventh hole reminded me of playing at Garden City on Long Island and Myopia Hunt Club in Massachusetts, with its flat terrain, fescue and bunkering.

8th cross bunker

Both the front and back nines at Chantilly have back-to-back par fives. The back nine is the clearly superior of the two, with the six stretch of holes twelve through seventeen being very good. The thirteenth hole was my second favorite on the course (after the 17th). It is a 400 meter dog-leg left (below) that demands you hit your tee shot over two large cross-bunkers. Your second shot is then to an elevated and well-bunkered green.

Like at Morfontaine, the feeling on the course is one of complete solitude and isolation since it is located in a dense forest.

13th green

13th green from the front

13th green from behind

The sixteenth hole is a dogleg left that starts out simple enough. As you walk up to your ball you see that you have to hit your second shot over a ravine to the green. The ravine is interesting, it is about 50 yards long and, unusually, has a fairway at the bottom of it. The second shot plays through the trees toward the clubhouse in the background.

15th chantilly

16th approach to green over ravine

Chantilly now offers a startling discovery. It is hard to describe just how good the seventeenth hole is at Chantilly. For those that remember the original Planet of the Apes movie with Charlton Heston, remember the sensation, the chills, and sense of surprise you got when the camera pans over and you see the top half of the Statue of Liberty. The same type of feeling overtakes you here when you realize there is a hole located where the seventeenth is. Shock and awe. It is a stunning par three that plays 199 meters from the back tees down into a tight tree-lined valley.

Chantilly par 3 17

Par three 17th from the tee

There is an extremely steep hill on the left side of the hole and a large slope on the right side. It is somewhat reminiscent of the par three fourteenth hole at Pine Valley, but without the water in front. Chantilly is basically a flat course, but when you get to the seventeenth tee, the hole is at least sixty feet below you in an enchanted setting. Like both the Valliere course at Morfontaine and Cruden Bay, it shows off Simpson's absolute genius in hole design. How he pulled this off is amazing. The World Atlas of Golf describes this hole as being located in a "secret dell," and I think it is an apt description. The prior sixteen holes give no hint of what the seventeenth hole will be like. It really is surprising and inspiring.

Unfortunately, I got stains on my pants when I dropped to my knees after seeing the hole and started to shout, "Damn you, you maniacs...," but there were tears of joy running down my face!

Chantilly 17

17th par three as seen from the side

The next hole, the par four finishing hole, has the most difficult walk to a tee box anywhere in the world (you can see it in the back right carved into the trees in the picture below). The walk to the tee box is without the benefit of a stairway. You have to walk up a steep mountain to a tee located behind the seventeenth green. There is a small rocky path winding up through the trees that gives your calves a workout. After you hit your tee shot over the seventeenth green to the fairway on the other side of the valley, you have to navigate your way back down the sharp incline, across the valley and then up the other side of the steep hill to get to the fairway.

After playing seventeen, eighteen is a bit of an anti-climactic hole, but none-the-less, Chantilly is a great place to play golf.

The rustic Chantilly locker room

Chantilly dining room

Chantilly clubhouse

Like at Royal Dornoch, Chantilly only allows two balls before eleven in the morning. It really is a great way to play and the pace of play is fantastic. I played some of my best golf at Chantilly, and our two groups were essentially the only four people on the course in the morning. It was easy to get into a rhythm playing this fast with no distractions. We played on a damp, misty and un-seasonably warm autumn day shrouded in heavy fog that lifted about halfway through the round. Although I shot a good score, the other two people on the trip with us, who were playing in front of us, played off-the-charts. How is a 64 from the back tees? Well done, Mark!

Either French people don´t play a lot of golf or Morfontaine and Chantilly are really exclusive clubs, since we barely saw anyone on either course during our mid-week rounds.

We stayed for lunch after our round, and although the clubhouse at Chantilly doesn't have the same charmed feel as Morfontaine, it is a nice quaint clubhouse that overlooks the vast property. In England or in the U.S. you often see people having a couple of beers after a round, in Scotland during the round, and in a classic French move, here, it's a bottle of Bordeaux after the round. While we lunched on French fries with vinegar several members were lounging around having a leisurely lunch over a bottle of red wine.

Chantilly's web-site is helpful, but a bit rough on their translation into English. Among other things stated in the dress code are "no long-line bra nor straps for women."

Perhaps short-line bras or strapless bras are permitted?


Vive la France!

Golf de Chantilly's web site

Monday, January 14, 2008

Friar's Head

Friar's Head is located on New York's Long Island, home of the best golf in the world. Three-quarters of the way out into the Atlantic Ocean, Long Island splits into two distinct peninsulas of land. The southern fork contains Shinnecock, The National Golf Links, Maidstone and Sebonack. Friar's Head is located in the town of Baiting Hollow, on the northern fork of Long Island.

Friar's Head is about a thirty minute drive from Shinnecock, although in a distinctly different area. Shinnecock and the other great courses on the Eastern end of Long Island are located in the posh, consumption-oriented Hamptons. Baiting Hollow is quite a contrast. It is a quaint little town and a throw-back to the way most of Eastern Long Island used to be. It is still primarily a farming community, and approaching the course you drive past farms growing sod, corn, potatoes and past even vineyards.

The term "Friar's Head" is derived from a large sand formation that early sailors thought looked like a Friar's head when approaching this part of the North Shore from the water.

The current pro shop at Friar's Head

When you turn off the road and drive behind the high hedge rows and into the Friar's Head parking lot, it is clear that this is an understated affair. There is only room for about thirty cars, and the pro shop and caddie shack are old buildings left over from the farm that used to occupy this land.

The Golf Course

Friar's Head was built by the team of Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, and it has all their signature design features including the natural blown-out bunkers and wildly undulating greens.

The first and ninth holes are at the far end of the property, close to Long Island Sound. There is a new clubhouse under construction near these holes. Since the clubhouse is not finished, however, many groups start on the third hole (as we did), which is nearer to the driving range and club entrance. Friar's Head is a walking only course with caddies required, and a brisk pace of play is encouraged.

The unique scorecard

Take a quick look at the Friar's Head scorecard and see if you notice anything missing. Note that there are no yardages, no hole handicap rankings and no hole names. The lack of hole handicapping is apparently due to the shifting winds; hole difficulty depends upon the direction of the wind. Keeping with the natural feel of Friar's Head, no cart paths, no rakes anywhere (like Pine Valley) and no frills. There is no slope rating on the card either. I had to look up the Friar's Head slope rating from the Metropolitan Golf Association's website in order to post my humbling score. The slope and course rating are 74.1/144 from the back by the way.

The course is built on very sandy soil along a massively sloping ridge of land that rises up as it approaches the water. No holes play along the water and it is only visible from two or three holes. As you can see, the sand is a vibrant shade of white - it has the appearance of refined white sugar. This is the natural sand color and is in stark contrast to the more subdued sand color at other courses on Long Island. I'm highlighting the sand color here, because it really is one of the defining characteristics of the course and gives Friar's Head its unique look and feel, which some have likened to Cypress Point. Also, unlike many courses, which have very white sand in their bunkers, at Friar's Head, the sand is omnipresent and is not just in the bunkers.

The first hole bears some likeness to the second hole at Pine Valley, although, here the hole is a bit shorter. You hit your tee shot over a waste area to the fairway. Your second shot plays blind, sharply uphill to a fast green that slopes back to front and side to side.


The par five 2nd hole

The second hole, seen from the tee above, is a downhill par five with a snaking fairway.

7th fairway

7th fairway

The seventh fairway, seen above, shows the signature Coore/Crenshaw look, similar to their masterpiece at Sand Hills. At Friar's Head, on virtually every hole, there is a severe penalty for missing the fairway on the wrong side of the hole. On the fifth hole, missing to the right puts you in a waste area. Similarly, on the sixth and seventh holes, missing left puts you in the same waste area.

Also consistent with the Coore/Crenshaw design philosophy, there is usually a driveable par four on every course. At Friar's Head, the fifth hole is a short par four (280-290 yards if I remembered from the caddie correctly), with artfully placed, and difficult bunkers in the fairway in front of the green for those that dare go for it and miss.


The world-class par three 10th hole

The tenth hole, pictured above, starts off the back nine with a jolt. It is a very interesting par three that plays about 200 yards to a green that is semi-blind with a couple of very large sand dunes guarding the front. It took a great deal of imagination to design this hole. It would not be immediately intuitive that a hole would fit in this narrow corridor. The Long Island Sound is behind you when you are on the tee, and the wind is very tricky on this particular part of the course. This is exacerbated by the alley effect that is created between the rows of trees on either side of the green. It was also a brilliant decision to leave the over-sized sand dune on the left side, in front of the green.

The hole is all carry. Being just a few yards short leaves you in serious trouble, as I can personally attest to. Do I hear seven, anyone?

I thought that the back nine was clearly superior to the front nine. I thought the front, which is on the flatter terrain away from the water, was not as interesting. I absolutely hate to say anything negative about Coore or Crenshaw, since they are such gentlemen, and I love their overall design philosophy, but the front didn't grab me.

The best stretch of holes on the course are numbers fourteen through seventeen. This brilliant succession of holes include the par five uphill 14th, the downhill, signature par four 15th, the blind tee shot, par four 16th, followed by the postage-stamp, par three 17th.

14th hole

14th hole

The fourteenth hole, pictured above, is a hole reminiscent of the second hole at Gullane's #1 course in Scotland. It plays up a big hill and the fairway gets narrower as it rises up. To the left of the hole is a massive blown-out sand dune. The green is interesting and, consistent with Coore/Crenshaw courses, has many humps and bumps.

Stairway to heaven

When you leave the fourteenth green, you walk up an infinity staircase, seen above, which looks like it rises to the heavens. Like all Coore and Crenshaw designs, everything fits into the natural surroundings beautifully.

15th hole

The par four 15th hole

When you finish climbing the stairs after playing the fourteenth hole and continue walking up the hill, you then walk through a clearing of trees. You are now at the most dramatic vista on the golf course, which is the fifteenth tee box. The hole from the tee is pictured above.

15th green

The shot from the fifteenth tee plays down a large hill into a valley with the dog-legged fairway stretched out below you. Your second shot approaching the green plays uphill and has a false front, as do many of the greens at Friar's Head.

Fourteen and fifteen are as good a pair of back-to-back holes as you'll find in the world of golf. They are beautifully designed, challenging and offer great risk/reward options for all levels of golfer.

The seventeenth hole is a short par three with a postage-stamp size green and a dramatic fall off on the right side of the hole. As with many holes at Friar's Head, the penalty for being short or on the wrong side of the hole (the right side in this instance) is serious. Local lore has it that Raymond Floyd took double digits on this hole.


Postage Stamp par three 17th

17th green

The Golf Bubble

Clubhouse at Friar's Head

The clubhouse at Friar's Head, which is still under construction, is pictured here, and it's a real monstrosity. There are also six cabins being built near the clubhouse for overnight stays. The clubhouse seems over the top to me. Everything else about Friar's Head is understated, but this looks like some sort of 21st century Gatsby contraption. The Eastern end of Long Island has always been a show place for Wall Street money, and when building becomes excessive it usually means it is not sustainable. This second 'golden age' of golf course architecture has been fueled by gangbusters economic growth in the world over the last 20+ years, allowing the new generation of newly-minted money-men to spend vast fortunes building their dream courses and clubhouses.

The building of a clubhouse like this seems to me to signal that we are probably getting near the end of the party, and the punch bowl will soon be taken away. The excesses of wealth have reached obscene proportions and the bell is ringing to indicate the end of the bull market. Not that I'm complaining about this, since its been one hell of a run and I've been privileged enough to experience many of these new world-class courses first hand.

Personally, I prefer the quaint, older and more understated original buildings and shingle style of architecture found on this part of Long Island. But then again, I have always preferred something like the clubhouses at Bandon Dunes or the under-stated style of clubhouse found at a place like Sunningdale or Royal Liverpool.

The current pro shop at Friar's Head

Friar's Head has been rocketing up the world rankings since it was built in 2002. It made its debut at #71 and, on the most recent ranking, jumped all the way up to #33. Even though I am a major fan of Coore and Crenshaw designs and think that Sand Hills is probably the best course in the United States, I think Friar's Head is getting way ahead of itself. Having now played all the top courses on Long Island I would rank them in order: 1) National Golf Links of America; 2) Shinnecock; 3) Bethpage Black; 4) Garden City; 5) Sebonack; 6) Maidstone; 7) Friar's Head; 8) Piping Rock; and 9) Fishers Island.

No doubt there will be complete unanimity among my fan base regarding my well thought out rankings.

Interested in learning the methods I used to play all these spectacular golf courses around the world? then my forthcoming book may be of interest, in details how a mortal golfer may be able to do the same. The book is available from and Click on the image of the book below to order on Amazon:

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Golf Smarter Podcast

For the second year running, I had the opportunity to speak with the affable Fred Greene of Golf Smarter Podcast, to discuss my 2007 golfing exploits.

Click here to listen to the interview. Or, if you prefer, you can download Golfsmarter podcasts from iTunes Store Podcast section.

My next couple of posts, coming soon, will feature Friar's Head on Long Island, Chantilly in France and my first attempt to make a tee time in Japan.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Cypress Point Club

I haven't managed to play it yet, but if you want to invite me my email address is Am flexible as to date and time.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

2007 The Year in Review

New Year's Day 2008 marks the two year anniversary of my travelogue. Over the course of the last year I have been accused of being irritating, pedantic, moronic, caustic, sophomoric, and irritable. My readers are entitled to their own views: however, I like to see my work as erudite, poignant, amusing, opinionated and not afraid to give an out-of-consensus view of a course if I don't like it. I have again included hyperlinks to all courses played this year in case you missed a post.

The 1st tee at Merion

By any measure 2007 was another banner year on my quest for golf's holy grail. I'm never quite sure how many courses I will be able to line up in advance with any certainty, but this year I was able to play eleven new courses on my list of the world's top one hundred. I visited five countries on my travels and have now completed playing 71 of the top 100.

It's interesting how certain themes develop each year, depending upon the mix of courses I end up playing. One of the themes this year was Jack Nicklaus. I visited the course he played as a young man, Scioto, and two courses he co-designed: Sebonack and Harbour Town.

Another theme that remained constant this year is that lovers of Fishers Island still think I'm an asshole. I've received more invective comments on my Fishers Island post than any other, although the comments on my Royal Troon polemic are piling up fast as well.

I visited the lowcountry of South Carolina and have now completed playing all three world-ranked courses in the state - Yeamans Hall, Harbour Town and the Ocean Course at Kiawah. Yeamans Hall was a discovery I shall remember for a long time. The understated elegance and majesty of the plantation setting, coupled with an absolutely world-class golf course, make it a special place.

The 15th at Friar's Head

Although I was not able to complete the Shinnecock-National-Maidstone triumvirate this year like I have in the past two years, I did manage to play an equally awesome triumvirate in Sebonack-National-Friar's Head. I have said it many times before, but will repeat it once again in case you didn't hear me: Long Island has the best collection of golf courses in the world.

I managed to access some very private clubs this year - Yeamans Hall, Chicago Golf and the cynosure of private clubs: The Links Club, arguably, three of the hardest clubs to gain access to. I also ran into Charles B. Macdonald again and again. His baronial statue looked right at me as I walked into Chicago Golf Club; his imposing portraits stared down at me from The National Golf Links, The Links Club and The Mid Ocean Club. Charley liked to create monuments to himself and if you undertake a similar journey you will no doubt keep running into him as I have.

The Valley Club of Montecito was a special treat for me not only because it is an Alister Mackenzie beauty but also because it's nice for me to be able to play golf in January in Southern California, when I can't play at home. St. George's in Canada also proved a worthy spot among the world's great golf courses.

I achieved another stretch goal in 2007 by crashing the gates of Morfontaine and managing to play this world-class French jewel. In addition, I played at Chantilly near Paris, which I will post soon, and made a discovery worthy of shouting about. My French journey was such a success, that I am now working on my dinner invitation to the Élysée Palace. I got such good feedback from the series of posts detailing my attempts to gain access to Morfontaine that for 2008 I am toying with the idea of doing a similar series on another course.

14th green at Somerset Hills

2007 represented several other milestones in my golfing education. I have now played all eight A.W. Tillinghast courses on the list including three under-the-radar courses that I liked: Baltimore, Somerset Hills and Quaker Ridge. I have also now completed playing all fourteen courses in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania on the list.

The phenomenon continues of interested readers who appreciate a farcical sense of humor, coupled with an eagle-eyed, on-the-ground assessment of many of the world's elite golf clubs. Last year I had readers in sixty countries; this year, I'm up to over 119 countries including such obscure places as Burkina Faso and Brunei Darussalam.

3rd green at Bermuda's Mid Ocean

I also retain a special place in my heart for emails that I receive from the Byrn Mawr-ivy-league-private-jet-pied-a-terre-finishing-school crowd who are appalled that someone as crass as me has managed to infiltrate so many of their special places. Most of this crowd doubt the veracity of my trips. I can assure them, despite their loathing, everything I do is real.

Oh, I almost forgot to mention, I also played the #1 ranked golf course in the world last year: Pine Valley. That alone made 2007 a banner year all by itself and something most golfers dream of being able to do. I don't for one minute take any of this for granted and count my blessings every day.

I look forward to an equally productive 2008 where my travels may include a visit to the land of the rising sun.

God speed to all you traveling golfers out there!

P.S. - Congratulations to the good looking schlog in Ft. Collins who won his senior club championship and introduced me to Monica and Windmill Bob in 2007. His victory celebration at the Marine Hotel will be rememered for a long time.