Restoring Colt at Saint-Germain

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By Richard Wax

Richard Wax describes an interesting project to restore Harry Colt's Golf de Saint-Germain course outside Paris.

Harry Colt's course at Golf de Saint-Germain, to the west of Paris, which opened back in 1922, is being restored by an exceptional fourball of contributors.

Philippe Delaune became chairman of greens in 1996, and took over as president of the club in 2000. Determined to restore the course, as far as possible, to its origins, he attended a meeting of the Colt Association at Stoke Park and organised exchange visits with club officials from Swinley Forest and Sunningdale. These links helped Saint-Germain establish some firm objectives in relation to the evolution of the golf course.

The second player is Stuart Hallett, originally from Somerset, England, whose greenkeeping background evolved into a fascination for the past masters of golf design and their classic courses. This led him to complete a two-year golf course architecture diploma course at Edinburgh University, accredited by EIGCA. His thesis was on the work of Colt. "The only architect here at Saint-Germain is Harry Colt and we are doing all we can to respect his design philosophy," says Hallett.

The third contributor is the club director, Jean-Pierre Desbrosses, who has Over this time, he has earned the full support of the 800 members. His knowledge of the game and club has made his role invaluable, facilitating a dialogue with the membership and liaising with the actors, key roles which have ensured a smooth passage of the proposed modifications to the course.

Fourthly, course manager Jean-Marc Legrand showed great enthusiasm for the project and has given his team of thirteen the motivating task of executing the majority of the works. He says: "Apart from some shaping work on the fifteenth and sixteenth holes, we have undertaken the construction work ourselves.We have just completed the first phase of a bunker renovation project, comprising 56 greenside bunkers. The second phase is due to start this autumn.We consider the finished shaping an art form. Hand work is directed by Stuart to achieve the desired forms. The maintenance team is fully aware of the objectives and they thoroughly enjoy the challenge presented to them." Hallett says the work proceeded in stages. "We carried out a course audit and identified objectives before carrying out works," he says. "A long term working programme is being implemented without perturbing the daily enjoyment of members. Holes were prioritised and cross referenced to parallel projects such as bunker renovation or woodland management in cooperation with the forestry authorities. The gradual progress allows us to analyse and re-analyse proposed modifications where restoration is no longer viable." Over the years, changes to the Saint- Germain course had resulted in the purity of the original design being severely compromised. Laurel bushes and ornamental trees cluttered the layout, so Delaune courageously took the delicate mission of tree removal. Playing surfaces had also changed in shape and size, particularly the greens. The project has seen Colt's characteristic false fronts restored to their former glory, amplifying the architect's trademark of trompe-l'oeil with hidden valleys subtly disguising distances and luring players into underclubbing.

A freak and powerful storm blew through the Paris region in December 1999, destroying tracts of woodland. Out of apparent disaster came the beginning of the restoration. Here was the opportunity to take radical steps to revisit the objectives of Harry Colt; the subtle strategy offering fascinating angles of approaches and the delight of strolling through a stately forest where the only construction visible from the course is the Sunningdale-like clubhouse. At Saint- Germain, there is a feeling of being away from it all, even though the course is only a short drive from Paris.

Hallett's course report looked closely at woodland management, with the aim of exposing Colt's intended perspectives and vistas and promoting native species such as oak and beech, while removing coniferous plantations. Delaunes' tree removal has been ongoing since 1996.

The club had tried to frame each hole, contrary to sparse wooded zones in earlier years. The course sits in the middle of a stately forest but the holes originally benefited from a comfortable openness.

Selective bunker removal was used to restore green surrounds to their orginal appearance. "We researched bunker styles from archives and on course observation," says Hallett. "Archaeological type digs helped reveal the original break between subsoil bunker floors and topsoil surrounds. Each individual bunker was graded from one to five for different criteria including form (capacity to divert water externally, grass noses and the importance of natural lines), interior drainage, risk of stone pollution and the measures needed for an acceptable bunker floor. Sand was tested to USGA standards." The renovation of 56 greenside bunkers, including the replacement of the sand and re-turfing was completed in five weeks, at a total cost of €60,000, including 400 tons of sand, drainage materials and turf.

Colt's description of the strategic challenges of the Old Course at St Andrews could just as well be taken as an outline of his design philosophy. "The pleasure," he wrote, "is not gained by successfully carrying gigantic hazards but avoiding comparatively small ones – and the difficulties consist not only of sand bunkers but also of undulations, small plateaux and swinging ground…there is always an advantage to placing the tee shot in a desired area so as to minimise the difficulties of the next stroke." The difficulties and undulations at Saint- Germain appear to be the work of Mother Nature, even where they are man-made. Colt excelled at this. He used earthworks intelligently to create a masterful golf course on what was initially a flat site.

The team at Saint-Germain has struck up friendships with fellow admirers of Colt's work, such as GCA contributor Bruce Critchley, who maintains his keen interest in the course. The project is sending out a strong message from Saint-Germain: that a rich golfing heritage must be strongly defended to ensure it does not disappear with the passage of years and successive well-intentioned greens committees.

Dominique Lacroix, who replaced Philippe Delaune as chairman of greens in 2000, enthusiastically assured political continuity.

Commitment to the restoration project is now a key criterion for future candidates to take on this vital role. What differentiates restoration from renovation is a constant source of debate in golf course architecture circles. Is restoration limited only to putting the golf course back to exactly the state in which it was left by the original architect? Or does restoration mean that the course should play in the way the designer intended? Nowadays the latter inevitably means extra length. "We feel that added distance should not be dismissed completely," says Stuart Hallett. "Where the flow of the golf course can be preserved, and space is available, some holes can once again benefit from the distinct strategic value, thus avoiding the creation of contrived features.

"On the par five fifteenth, the landing zone fell away to the right into a fairway hollow, eliminating the option of attacking with the second shot. This hollow had become redundant, because it was only 190m from the tee, and a fairway cut that was too narrow and central. The hollow was extended to 235m on a diagonal, respecting the general forms and cut as fairway. A bunker at 260m right, previously redundant and overgrown by rough, is now in play as the hollow kicks wayward and long drives to the right.

"On the par four sixteenth, we removed a screen of Douglas firs on the right side of the fairway. An add-on bunker behind the green was filled in and now acts as a subtle marker mound – mounding was often used by Colt to hide the straight lines of tee platforms behind the green. A new bunker at 220m on the left provokes choices as to how the hole is played, depending on placement of tee markers, flag or wind direction. The line of the bunker was resulting in negative golf as the rough far left provided the best line into the green. The bunker has resulted in a more varied playing approach to the hole." The project has sparked interest from numerous historic courses in France, including another Parisian Colt course, Saint-Cloud. Following site visits and a full 36-hole course report, Stuart Hallett is currently supervising the first phases of a similar restoration programme.

Host of nine French Opens, the club realises that Saint-Germain is no longer a prospective venue for men's professional tournaments. It is, however, a wonderful haven of peace for its members and visitors who enjoy the pleasures of playing a classic course, as Colt himself would have wished, despite the 85 years since he created it in the secluded and historic forest of Saint-Germain. At 6,120 metres (6,695 yards), though, the course remains a stern test for the top amateur events hosted regularly by the club.

Philippe Delaune's enthusiasm for his dream of restoring the club's heritage is infectious. He says: "If our club is lucky enough to possess a renowned architectural heritage, it is our duty to preserve its authenticity. The course can evolve but we must retain its original character. For this reason, we must be bold enough to reverse certain changes brought about by time and people, with the ultimate goal of bringing forth the gold nugget from the bedrock." Golf connoisseurs are indebted to the Saint-Germain fourball, worthy custodians of one of the game's masterpieces.

Richard Wax is a golf consultant based in Saint-Cloud, France

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