Tom Simpson's design at Morfontaine is France is widely regarded as one of the finest courses in mainland Europe, scoring highly in both GolfWorld and Golf Digest's rankings.
Left virtually untouched since Simpson's death in the 1960s – until then, he came regularly to France to make subtle alterations to the design – the course had become something of a museum piece.
"It must have been an incredibly difficult course in 1927," says longtime Morfontaine member Francois Natali. "But for good players with modern equipment, it had become quite short and not very challenging."
Simpson's philosophy, which was, in some ways, ahead of its time, was that a course should ask tough questions of the good golfer, but remain playable for those with less ability. To this end, his bunkers were placed, as he said, to catch the shot that is good, but not quite good enough. And it was in this regard, according to Natali, that the layout had fallen behind the times. "For good players, there were far too many holes that were just a tee shot and a short iron, and many of Simpson's design features were just being flown over," he explains.
Morfontaine engaged American architect Kyle Phillips – of Kingsbarns fame – to advise them on potential changes. "The members have a deep appreciation for the rich history of the club," says Phillips. "Often, when people are thinking of remodelling a course, it's a question of taking care of the professionals. But that wasn't the case at Morfontaine – the members wanted to make the course more enjoyable for themselves to play. I like working in Europe, because it seems to me that people are more interested in the pleasure of making shots, rather than just making a score."
"I think Kyle was quite surprised when he first came here to find such an old golf course that was practically untouched. He said to us 'If you are going to change a hole then try to make sure you don't have to touch it again for another 30-40 years, and don't try to scatter your efforts across the course, adding five metres here and ten there'," says Natali. "The stretch from holes 9-14 was always a little weak, and good players knew they could expect to be under par for those holes. At the tenth hole, for example, Simpson put a little hump in the fairway around the area that a tee shot would land. The hump was there to catch the ball and stop it rolling too far, but shots were instead landing on the far side of it, and kicking forward almost to the green.We have added 50 metres to the hole, and now balls land on the hump again, and don't roll forward. The green is elevated, and instead of a sand wedge, players are typically hitting a seven iron for their approach, maybe even a five iron if the flag is at the back of the green."
On the twelfth hole, Phillips has built a new green as well as a new tee, lengthening the hole from 462 metres to 555 metres. "The original landing area was on top of a hill, and the new tee means you again have to hit a good drive to get up the hill," he says. Francois Natali explains that Simpson's original green was perhaps the least interesting on the course, and the new green site, up a slight rise and with a substantial fall-off to the left, adds a dogleg element to the hole, as well as a more demanding approach shot.
The twelfth hole apart, Simpson's greens at Morfontaine are notable for their dramatic contours and huge false fronts, and have largely been left alone during the updating work. "Simpson built greens for much slower conditions than are typical nowadays," says Natali.
The removal of encroaching trees has helped return Morfontaine to Simpson's vision of a course that can challenge the best while still being fun for the less gifted. The club plans to make further alterations to two or three of the holes, but Natali says there is no intention to turn it into a modern monster. "We've lengthened the course from 5,900 metres to 6,070 metres, which is quite reasonable for a par 70.We don't want every par four to be 430 metres, every par five to be unreachable in two and every par three to be over 200 metres," he says. "We could have narrowed the course, but it would not be Simpsonlike – it would feel constricted and would be almost impossible for weaker players. We want the course to play the way it was designed, and the only solution is to increase the length and put the original features back into play. At Morfontaine, things don't change very quickly or very often, so it was very important that we got it right. And when you stand on the new tees, it typically looks much like Simpson's work.When the new work has had chance to blend in – in two or three years – I think it will look as if it has always been like that."
This article first appeared in issue 1 of Golf Course Architecture, published in July 2005.