The story of the creation of Les Bordes, not far from Orléans in the area of France known as the Sologne, is well known. How architect Robert von Hagge, having befriended golf consultant Yoshi Endo while working in Japan was told to expect a call from Baron Marcel Bich. How von Hagge, on returning to Texas, took a call from a Frenchman he could hardly understand; the only things he learned from that call being that the Frenchman (Bich) wanted to build a golf course on his estate and that there was a first-class Air France ticket to Paris awaiting him at the airport. And how the course was eventually built, at a cost that “exceeded the unlimited budget”, by an American design firm that had never worked in Europe before and a Japanese construction management company.
Throughout its history, Les Bordes has remained something of a mystery. Almost impossible for outsiders to play, but ranked among Europe’s finest courses by a lot of those who did, it existed in a state of semi-limbo for many years after Bich’s death in 1994. At one point about a decade ago, it was apparently being taken over by a group in which Greg Norman was involved. And then, in 2018, the course finally was sold, to a consortium headed by private equity specialist Driss Benkirane.
From the very start, Les Bordes was intended to be a 36-hole club. Von Hagge’s original concept plan for the site incorporated two courses, but that plan was lost in an office fire, and no-one can remember what it looked like. As late as 2010, the year in which von Hagge died, his firm, with his longtime associate and partner Rick Baril taking the lead, was supposed to be building the second course.
Finally, after the 2018 takeover by Benkirane, founder of private equity firm RoundShield, the club was reformed on a rather more solid footing. The clubhouse has been rebuilt – rather beautifully – and a number of cottages constructed to accommodate members and their guests. A programme of building some larger houses, which will be sold to members (and which can also be rented when their owners are not in residence), is about to start, and the chateau which was Baron Bich’s home is becoming a Six Senses hotel, expected to open in 2024, although interestingly, hotel guests will have no access to the golf courses, which are strictly reserved for members and their guests. And, finally, the second eighteen hole has come to fruition, along with a ten-hole par three course that goes by the name of the Wild Piglet, both designed and constructed by Gil Hanse’s team.
The Les Bordes property is enormous, around 1,400 acres, and as such contains a lot of different topography, soils and the like. Hanse’s new course is not near the clubhouse or the Old course, in fact it is a ten to fifteen minute cart ride away. This might not seem ideal, but there are consolations. Most prominent of these is the environment in which the course sits. Von Hagge’s Old course is quite low-lying and heavily forested; it has water hazards on twelve of the eighteen holes, and the soils are far from ideal for golf. Rick Baril says: “The soils were miserable and variable. It seemed like they would never drain.” Hanse’s New course is very different. If it is higher, it is subtly so, but it is much more open, and in places the soil is quite sandy. Although there is currently very little evidence of heather, it feels like a heathland.
“We were instantly drawn to the vegetation on the site,” says Hanse. “The beauty of the broom, the bracken, the heather, the trees, led us to believe that we had a terrific opportunity to plug a golf course into great mature vegetation. When we discovered how much of the site was sandy we knew we could use exposed sand to aid in the transition from features to existing landscape. All of these site-specific positives led us to building perhaps our most ‘lay of the land’ golf course.”
This lay of the land feel is what struck me most about Les Bordes New. Director of golf Jack Laws, who formerly worked at Sunningdale, compared the course to Harry Colt’s work at the famous old club. I can see what he means – the holes lie gently on the land as Colt’s course tend to – but in many ways it has been built with a much lighter touch than the great English architect would have. In particular, Colt pioneered the use of elevated greens, for visibility and drainage, and a course with most of the greens up in the air is a common sign of his fingers being on the design. Les Bordes New, by contrast, has most of the greens at grade level, at least at the front; if they are pushed up at all, it is usually at the back.
The light touch feel of the course is enhanced by the rapid growth of vegetation, which has helped to naturalise it and hide the inevitable construction scars. It’s true that most of this growth has been in the form of broom and, ultimately, if a heathland environment is the goal, the broom will have to be cut back severely to allow room for the heather to grow. But in the short term at least, it is no bad thing. Those greens, by the way, are contoured, but not dramatic: elegant is a good word to describe them.
The course has strategy aplenty. The short par-four fifteenth hole has two bunkers in the middle of its wide fairway, offering golfers a clear choice of route. What I liked about the hole was that the choice was in no sense clear-cut. Go right, the ostensibly easier tee shot, and the ground rises ten yards short of the green, creating visibility problems. Go left, though, and a small mound at the front of that side of the green makes the approach shot – even if only a chip – rather perplexing: should you hit a lob wedge above the trouble and attempt to bring it to a stop near the hole, or should one try a running shot up and over the contour? It is a hole that will take several plays to determine the better option – which will vary from golfer to golfer.
The long par-three fourteenth, as well as some beautiful bunkers short and right of the green, features a French version of the famed Devil’s Asshole at Pine Valley (where Hanse is a member) at back left – Le Cul du Diable, perhaps? It isn’t as deep as the original (though these things never are), but it’s certainly hazardous enough to make anyone who knows it is there steer well clear of that side of the green. The par-five closing hole features one of the few substantial water hazards on the course (a definite separator from the Old course). Though I can normally take or leave water holes, I did like the way the diagonal nature of the lake that protects the green offers golfers a range of choices, even if they have to lay up.
We should not finish without a mention of the ten-hole Wild Piglet par-three course. Such facilities have become a popular amenity at destination courses in recent years, a good way to give players something else to do beyond another eighteen full length holes. It is, in a way, a pity that Les Bordes is so private: courses like the Piglet are perfect venues for young golfers to learn to love the game. The greens are significantly more dramatic than those on the big course; if Hanse and his shaping team held themselves in check a little while building the New, perhaps this is where they let their more playful side out. Consequently, it’s a lot of fun, with plenty of ways to use contour to move the ball around the greens. I wonder if it is, in fact, a little bit too long for its purpose, of hit and giggle golf, but there is no doubt that it is a lot of fun.
When we heard that Les Bordes had hired Hanse to build the New course, and that the site chosen was in large measure sandy, there could be little doubt that the result would be excellent, and it is. I suspect one consequence of the creation of the New will be a substantial rankings drop for the Old course, which frankly looks very 1980s by comparison (and which, to be honest, I didn’t like at all – some of the mounding is way over the top for my taste). But if so, it will surely be replaced by the New.
This article first appeared in the January 2022 issue of Golf Course Architecture. For a printed subscription or free digital edition, please visit our subscriptions page.