Les Bordes in France’s Sologne region is one of Europe’s most renowned but least known clubs. With its original course built for former owner Marcel Bich by Robert von Hagge, it has remained extremely private and low key throughout its history. Now, Les Bordes is expanding. Architect Gil Hanse, with Jim Wagner and Neil Cameron, has completed the construction of a second course, the New, which will open later this year. Richard Wax spoke with Hanse to find out more.
When you first visited the site at Les Bordes, which features attracted you?
Whenever we’ve looked at a site the things that are most obvious are the topography, the soil structure and the vegetation. While the topography is not overwhelmingly interesting, there was enough character in it. The soil structure is very sandy and the natural vegetation on site, the combination of the heather and the broom, and the trees: these were the elements that really caught my eye when I first walked the land.
We had a site that had some really interesting character, but one where we felt that features we created might actually drive more of the character and interest of the site than the actual topography.
We had always been intrigued by the style, and certainly the strategy and the brilliance, of Tom Simpson’s golf courses. There was the potential to create some bold and dramatic features and strategies or options on the golf course.
We could create a golf course that would be in balance with the low-profile nature of the site with these more dramatic hole features adding drama to the golf course.
You mentioned Simpson. Which golf architects inspire your work?
With Les Bordes, it was really Tom Simpson. We have read his book of course and admired his artwork for years but had not yet had the opportunity to work on a canvas that might be suitable for trying to evoke his style. When Les Bordes came about, we had the great fortune to go to Morfontaine, Chantilly and Fontainebleau. It just resonated with us that there was the possibility on this particular site.
On other properties, we have been fortunate to work on the restoration of some of the courses designed by the great masters, like at Los Angeles Country Club designed by George Thomas. I feel that we have probably learned more about golf course architecture and restoration as compared with any which we have done. He was a genius.
Stylistically, I think that Alister MacKenzie’s work and, the harmony of his features – working in the nature, character and interest – as well as the sense of humour and the playability, have always been attractive to us.
Of the modern people, obviously I worked for Tom Doak and I have a great appreciation for what he does. Also, Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw are tremendous.
With the passing of Pete Dye, we all realise how much we have been influenced by the methodology we employ, which we received from Pete. Also, from a character and strategy standpoint, I think Pete had a great influence on us.
The Loire Valley is known for its beauty and peacefulness and the site at Les Bordes has no visual or noise intrusions. How did you maintain this harmony?
Firstly, we were very cautious as to how we cleared the site. We felt that we were going to make very subtle transitions from the golf course into the natural vegetation, woods and, in some instances, the broom and the heather. We always feel that the golf course should gracefully transition from the shaped and built environment into the natural environment.
The great, old classic golf courses have a sense of harmony and a sense of balance with their surrounding landscape. Through our efforts to be really conscientious about how we tie back into the surrounds, gives the golf course a sense of place and sense of belonging. There is hardly a more idyllic landscape that we have come across than the one we have found in the Loire Valley.
What else is special about this project?
One of the main criteria for Jim Wagner and me when we look at a project is what is the motivation behind it? Is it to sell real estate? Is it to enhance some other amenity? Or is the project first and foremost about golf – which was the case at Les Bordes.
The owner at Les Bordes is a golfer who loves the game. When we first talked about the project, it was crystal clear to me that he wanted to create something truly special. When we asked for the width and the ability for the course to be dimensioned after observing Tom Simpson’s strategic thoughts, it got down to a point where we felt like we would need the space. He was willing to accommodate this. It is a testament to the owner and the ownership team at Les Bordes that they recognised that in order to create an exceptional golf experience we needed to have the space to do it in.
For a private members’ club like Les Bordes, will the result be different from a course which would host professional golfers?
We listen to every client and try to achieve their goal. With the owner being a very good golfer, we knew that there was an appropriate challenge that he would like for the golf course. Obviously, he plays with golfers with similar playing ability, but we don’t believe that there will ever be a professional event there. So, we were not concerned about that aspect of the course. Width and the ability to play the course from different angles and at different lengths creates paths for the less accomplished to make their way through the golf course.
We seek to provide a more challenging path, which is something we try to do on every project. We talk a great deal about the level of precision required to play a golf course. If you are a high handicap or average golfer and you have to hit your ball in a certain place, it should be possible to play the course in a fairly reasonable fashion.
But the level of precision required to post a score on that golf course, make birdies and play a really good round should be much higher. If we give you different options and different ways to play the course and deliver that precision and take on the challenge, you should be rewarded.
It was not some grand master plan or anything that I had thought of as a child. But I am very fortunate that it worked out.
When working on a new golf course, are you consciously making an effort to seek high marks from course raters?
We just try to build the best golf course we can. We have been lucky to find owners who don’t really push us in that direction, saying we want a high ranking. Most of our recent owners, including the owners at Les Bordes, say that the rankings will fall where they fall but let’s not be preoccupied by this. I would be lying if I said that we don’t pay attention. It is nice to be recognised but I don’t think we start off with this in mind.
Did you seek to create a course which would be in contrast with Bob von Hagge’s layout of the Old course?
Yes, that was very intentional. We wanted first and foremost for the members’ perspective to have two very different golf courses. I think they are very reflective of the style of the period at which they were created. In the 1980s, the style Bob von Hagge adopted for that property was very much manufactured, more penal with lots of water in play. It was heavily mounded. It is a difficult test of golf, yet it is presented in a very strategic way.
It is still very challenging and demanding. It is much more obvious where quantities of earth have been moved, but it makes no apologies for creating an artificial environment. Whereas our course is in the style of the times as they are now, which tends to be in our philosophy¬ – more geared towards the very low profile, more natural of a golf course in concert with its surrounds.
I think the Old course provides some strategic options as to how to play it. But the penalty, which is paid if you don’t choose the right option, is pretty final. We think our course is a little more nuanced and a little less obvious. That is a reflection of the different philosophies.
It was definitely very intentional for the two golf courses to be of a different style. We want our golf course to provide an element of fun to the members. The lure of improving one’s score from round to round provides players with an element of fun, without which the game would perish.
You have located the teeing grounds close to the previous green, which is refreshing and shows respect for the origins of the game.
It will obviously speed up play. One of the more subtle joys of playing golf is that you don’t have to cross paths or cross anything other than a nicely maintained footpath as they walk from a green to the next tee. Golfers will be walking across tightly maintained pathways. I feel that it is something that will certainly be appreciated by the golfers either because of the flow and the pace of play.
When you design the golf course do you think about how the course will play at different times of the year?
Yes, we do. Working with superintendent Lee Strutt on the selection of the turfgrasses, we will create different conditions at different times of the year. We focus a great deal on drainage. We focus a lot on trying to make sure that the golf course when it is wet will drain quickly through its soil or have additional drainage.
We believe that the best courses are the ones which will play differently at different seasons. So, you will know that when you play at Les Bordes in the summer, it is going to be firm and fast and bouncy like any links course for that matter. When you play in the spring, it might be a little wet, autumn is probably the perfect time of year. In winter it might play a little slower and a bit wetter.
By incorporating trompe l’oeil in green complexes, distances can be deceptive. What inspired you to use this design feature?
I had the very good fortune to work in the UK in the 1980s with Fred Hawtree. He was writing his book on Harry Colt and I carried out all the field research and visited all these courses. So, I think that this is an aspect of design which I learned from Colt, such as the way he used sand and diagonal hazards. This has been a great influence on my own work.
This first part of our interview with Gil Hanse appeared in the April 2020 issue of Golf Course Architecture. The second part, in which Hanse talks about other projects and his approach to design, will be published on our website next week.