The resorts of France’s Cote d’Opale are an unusual mix. Partly a little bit of England, with golf courses designed by architects such as Colt and Simpson, partly reminiscent of masterplanned American villages like Pinehurst, and partly... well, France.
Developed in the early twentieth century and combining golf, housing and hotels in the fashion of a modern resort, the towns of Le Touquet and Hardelot are very different beasts from the surrounding French countryside.
Tom Simpson designed Hardelot’s principal course, Les Pins (Pines) in 1931. It’s an unusual mix; as the name suggests, it is set among a pine forest, but it is within a mile of the sea, and the topography is essentially linksland.
Simpson’s design, bold and highly visual as was typical for the eccentric architect, has long been recognised as one of France and mainland Europe’s best. But, up until a few years ago, it was punching well below its weight. As with so many venues, tree growth, green and bunker shrinkage and generally a lack of awareness among its managers of what Les Pins could be had left the golf course a shadow of its former self.
That’s where architects Frank Pont and Patrice Boissonnas came in. Pont has built a highly successful career over the past decade helping to restore classic courses to something more in keeping with the vision of their original architects, such as his excellent work at Hugh Alison’s Royal Hague in the Netherlands. His French partner Boissonnas, like Pont coming to golf architecture as a second career, has aspirations to do similar work on many of his own country’s leading courses.
Over three years’ work at Hardelot, the pair have peeled back years of neglect and uncovered Simpson’s genius. More than sixty bunkers have been rebuilt, returning traps that had become smooth-edged into authentic lacy-edged hazards – Simpson’s drawings, plus surviving photos of the course in its heyday leave no doubt as to how the architect wanted his bunkers to play.
It is a remarkable transformation. Anyone who has played what is generally viewed as Simpson’s greatest French work, Morfontaine, will be well aware of how dramatic his bunkers can be; at Hardelot they are, if anything, now even more impressive.
The golf course is stuffed full of remarkable holes, but perhaps the best of all is the double dogleg par four ninth. The tee shot must carry a dune ridge, with bunkers cut into it, setting up a classic strategic question straight away. The further down the left the player drives, the more open his line into the green, which is elevated above the fairway.
Most dramatic, though, is the transformation Pont and Boissonnas, and the team from British contractor John Greasley, have wrought on the par three fifth. Pre-restoration photos show an attractive little hole, but utterly choked by trees. Many of those trees have now been removed, and the bunkers that practically surround the green have been rebuilt, huge, intimidating and deep. It’s only a very short iron, but you had better hit that iron straight – the bunkers are really no place to go.
The Greasley team – a site supervisor and two shapers, plus, following behind them, a team of finishers preparing the work areas for seeding or turfing – has rebuilt more than 60 bunkers to Pont and Boissonnas’ directions, as well as carrying out extensive green recapture and building a number of new dunes. Around 30,000 sq m of turf was laid in total.
Another splendid hole is the uphill short par four eleventh, which has another deep, punishing bunker on the left side of the fairway, pretty much where a good drive would land, and more sand around the green. The two architects have added a new tee complex at the hole, further forward and to the right of the previous green (the original tee is over to the left). It makes the hole more driveable, though in truth as things stand an iron into the fairway and a wedge to the green is a more sensible choice for most golfers. Perhaps the green bunkering is a little too tight to make taking it on from the tee a wise play; the hole would not have been driveable in Simpson’s day, so the bunkering is understandable. It’s an example of how club and ball technology has transformed holes in recent years, in this case creating more options, but it might be a better balanced hole with one bunker fewer at the greenside.
Another hole that remains a work in progress is the dogleg right par four fifteenth. Here, a clump of trees creates a split fairway effect, inviting bold players to hit through the narrow gap to the right of them, directly at the green, leaving just a short uphill pitch if the shot comes off. Like so many split fairway holes, though, the balance of risks is slightly off right now, and relatively few players will take the safe option to the left. The green, though, is splendid; raised above the approach on a dune, it is only too easy for a mishit second to roll back down the slopes.
Architect Pont has, as mentioned earlier, developed a strong reputation for his restorative work on some of Europe (and now some of Britain’s) Golden Age courses. At Hardelot, he, along with Boissonnas, has outdone himself. The course, always highly regarded, but perhaps not in the very highest echelon, is now fit to be compared with France and Europe’s very best, though there is one significant challenge yet to be tackled.
That challenge is agronomic. The subsoil at Hardelot is pure sand – the pine forest environment hides the fact, but effectively the terrain is linksland – so the course ought to play like a links, hard, bouncy and fast, which would make Simpson’s contouring and bunkers, so beautifully restored, come alive. At the moment, though, the turf is dominated by poa annua, and, albeit in a wet summer, was much softer and lusher than should be the case in this environment. It feels, oddly, more like a southern English heathland course than a links, albeit one without heather – walking round the course, any golfer used to the courses of Surrey and Berkshire will constantly be wondering where the heather has gone!
the club’s management, as well as its consulting architects, is well aware of this fact. General manager Ken Strachan, a Scot, albeit one resident in France for many years, is working on plans to start an agronomic transformation project to match the architectural work that has already been completed. More trees may well need to come out as part of this process, to provide better sunlight to greens, tees and fairways. Fix the turf, though, and Les Pins really will be one of continental Europe’s true gems.
This article first appeared in Golf Course Architecture Issue 38.