Anyone who has read Jim Hansen’s brilliant biography of Robert Trent Jones Sr will know the story of Vidauban; how Trent found a stunningly beautiful property in the south of France in the 1970s, and bought it with the intention of becoming more than just a golf architect but also a developer.
Jones originally wanted to build three courses and over a thousand homes at Vidauban, but planning difficulties, financial problems and the like meant it was 1991 before one course was completed and opened. The project went bust and was taken on by new owners, and fell foul of the French government, when it became clear that the planning consent granted after the purchase of the land had not included a tree clearing permit, and thus the golf course was, effectively, built illegally.
Now, under the ownership of Michael Hilti, boss of the Liechtenstein-based construction machinery firm of the same name, and Gavyn Davies, formerly global head of economics with Goldman Sachs, and now a private equity operator (and coincidentally owner, with his wife, of the Machrie course on the Scottish island of Islay), Vidauban is, at least, legally established and with water rights. The club remains something of a legend in golfing circles; known as Europe’s most exclusive golfing venue, it has only 20-odd members, each of whom gets a bill each year for their share of the running costs.
One doesn’t have to spend long at Vidauban to understand what captivated Trent Jones in the first place. It is a stunningly beautiful spot, a perfect example of the characteristic southern French landscape called ‘garrigue’, typified by low shrubland of thyme and rosemary and rocky outcrops. It is a place of cicadas and long, lingering sunsets. To sit outside one of the houses in the small village development that was built for the use of members and their guests, with a glass of local rose as the sun goes down is to experience France at her most perfect.
Across the road from the village lies the golf course, built by Trent Jones Sr and his son Robert Jr (Bobby), and recently substantially renovated under the eyes of RTJ II architect Mike Gorman and his boss. I first visited the course shortly before the renovation started, and returned this year to see it finished, and it is good to see the course – which was a little down at heel before the work – now thriving.
Jones, of course, earned his reputation for building big, brawny championship courses, designed to test the best. With that in mind, Vidauban is an interesting example of his work. I won’t say it is an easy course, for it is not, but it must surely be as ‘minimal’ a golf course as Trent ever built; while one can see evidence of where earth was moved in places, in general the course is draped over the landscape in a way that one would not necessarily associate with the RTJ name. Perhaps I am being unfair, and Vidauban was just a naturally better piece of property than most of those Jones got his hands on, and therefore required less reshaping. But, bearing in mind that the ‘Jones style’ is perhaps a little out of fashion in this day and age, it is intriguing to see that he could do it the old way too.
The beautiful second hole, was designed by Bobby when he revised the front nine routing in 1991. In front of the teeing complex sits a rock outcrop, and a nest of bunkers on the left side of the fairway protect the ideal line into the green, which has a substantial trap at front right. But it’s the rear of the green that is most memorable, as another bunker is used to meld the green complex into more jutting rock. It’s a very pretty and very good golf hole.
There are plenty of other examples of this kind of thing going on at Vidauban. There’s a couple of places on the golf course too where, for me at least, the hand of man stands out a little bit. On the very strong par four seventh hole, a stream crosses in front of the green, and Gorman has overseen the building of a rock feature lining a watercourse – restored to replace a man-made pond. In my view this is a bit much, and would be better if lower key.
But this is a minor quibble in among all the good things to be found at Vidauban. Take the downhill par four tenth hole, which doglegs elegantly to the left, around typical garrigue vegetation, the pretty uphill par three eleventh, or the par five twelfth, where the drive is basically blind but on entering the fairway one sees the sweep down to the well-placed green.
Dealing with the Vidauban renovation was a difficult project, as Steve Briggs of contractor MJ Abbott explains below. One should also give a shout-out to agronomist John Clarkin of Turfgrass Consultancy, who fell so hard for Vidauban and the area that he moved his family from Ireland to Provence. Clarkin has worked at the course for many years – when I first visited, he was delighted to show me a test green, with many different grass strains and irrigation methods, designed to cope with the water restrictions the course faced at the time.
Owners Hilti and Davies know they are the custodians of a special place in Vidauban. They want to grow the membership, but not to change the culture of the place, and therefore are trying to recruit a relatively small number of additional members, each of whom will be required to buy a share in the club. I hope they succeed in their goal. Trent’s dream came close to ruining him, and what was eventually built was far from what he had in mind – but it is a heck of a place.
This article first appeared in Issue 46 of Golf Course Architecture