Golf International de Roissy-en-France: Keeping the green

  • Roissy

    The Valley holes at Roissy include the par-three sixteenth, which plays to a green on the lake

  • Roissy

    Michel Niedbala designed the course, near Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris, France

  • Roissy

    The short par-four second hole is set in an area which can accommodate flood water, to protect local communities

  • Roissy

    The eighth (left) and seventeenth holes are separated by a lake

Richard Humphreys
By Richard Humphreys

Handling over 70 million passengers a year, Paris-Charles de Gaulle is Europe’s second-busiest airport. The infrastructure surrounding such an operation is overwhelming; the mass of roads, rail networks, freight operations, offices and hotels can be suffocating.

But in the central square of the small, leafy commune of Roissy-en-France, where locals sit outside a café, sipping coffee and browsing newspapers, it is hard to believe that it’s all so close. There are of course a few clues: the flight path might not be directly overhead, but the whir of jet engines still punctuates the silence every minute or so. And one of the main streets is lined with rather more international hotels than is normal for an otherwise completely traditional French village.

As you travel away from Roissy’s centre, you are quickly reminded of your proximity to the main transportation hub of one of the globe’s major metropoles. The streets are lined with giant warehouses and the corporate headquarters of some of the world’s major brands.

While this sprawling development plays a crucial role in French life, and the economy, officials of Roissy recognised the need to preserve the valuable remaining green space; to allow wildlife to thrive, give locals the opportunity to enjoy the outdoors and provide a detention area to protect local communities from flooding.

They decided a golf course was the best way to achieve this, and also had the capability to generate revenue from some of the many millions of passengers, workers and residents who pass nearby each day. In 2008 the commune issued a design tender, which was won by Golf Optimum, a French firm led by Michel Niedbala. Before setting up on his own design business, Niedbala spent 25 years laying out courses around the world for some of the industry’s best-known signature designers.

It would be nearly a decade before construction at Roissy could start, due to the lengthy process of acquiring each of the individual parcels of land that make up the property. But by 2017, Niedbala was given the green light and construction began with the excavation of water storage lakes.

By the time of GCA’s visit in late 2019, aside from a few holes, the course was grassed and growing-in ahead of its planned opening in 2020.

The site is known as ‘Vallée Verte’ and is exactly that, a green valley. A large modern clubhouse, currently in construction, sits on the top of one hill and holes play down towards the valley floor, where a series of lakes have been excavated, providing ample rainwater storage capacity to meet the course’s irrigation needs.

After the first two holes, a winding downhill par five then a short but perilous four, you traverse through some of the 16 acres of protected forest areas on the site. It’s the only long walk between holes on the entire course, but a pleasant one, if don’t mind the climb. Keep your eye open for the bat boxes that Niedbala added high in the trees.

The third tee is located at the top of the hill on the other side of the valley, along which holes three to seven and thirteen to fifteen play. There has been a huge earthmoving effort here to cut fairways and greens into the hillside. Some of these tiers are supported by retaining walls, using rock that also features elsewhere on the course and around the clubhouse area.

The lake holes will be the most memorable. The eighth is a reasonably short par four requiring what appears to be a quite terrifying drive to a small slither of land that crosses the lake. It is actually more generous than it appears, and big hitters also have the option of a heroic carry directly towards the green. Niedbala says that tournament organisers who have already visited the course were very excited by the drama this hole could offer.

In that same valley area of the course, the sixteenth is a downhill par-three, 185 yards from the tips, to an island-like green. Again, it’s much more generous than it looks from the tee. The green, like most at Roissy, is enormous, almost three clubs in distance between from front to back. It should therefore be relatively straightforward, but still very satisfying, to hit. But the sheer size and complex movement of the green means two putts cannot be taken for granted.

Niedbala has optimised water management on the course. A network of streams carries run-off from the airport and nearby towns to an organic purification system, where aquatic plants naturally purify the water.

Extensive work has been undertaken to improve water quality elsewhere, too. “We naturalised the bed of the stream over a length of about six hundred metres,” said Niedbala. “Concrete that made up the bed and the banks of the stream was removed and recycled. The bed and banks were then reworked to obtain a more natural flow, where natural riverbank vegetation could thrive.”

The closing holes for each nine run back uphill to the clubhouse. A stream separates them and both greens rise above a lake in front of the clubhouse.

Niedbala says that the Roissy club, which also has substantial indoor and outdoor practice and teaching facilities and a six-hole par-three course at its heart, overlooking the main course, will be crucial for nurturing the next generation of French golfers.

Operating firm UGOLF has partnered with pro golfer Jean Van de Velde for the academy facilities, and with the French PGA to bring young pro golfers together for a tournament at the club.

The operating license has fixed the price of a round at 40 euros, with children able to play for free. The commune, led by mayor André Toulouse, has also agreed to an initiative that will see thousands of local schoolchildren invited to the course to try out golf.

This community outreach extends to non-golfers too, with eight kilometres of public walking paths weaving through and around the course, connecting the villages of Roissy-en-France and Vaudherland and providing locals with the opportunity to walk and cycle through the countryside. A number of decks have been added along one side of the lake that sits between holes two and eight, which will be used for fishing.

This embracing approach is essential for public facilities to thrive.

This article first appeared in the January 2020 issue of Golf Course Architecture. For a printed subscription or free digital edition, please visit our subscriptions page.