The Albatros course at Le Golf National: Art fraud?

  • Art Fraud

    The Albatros course at Le Golf National in Paris, France, is hosting the 2018 Ryder Cup

  • Art Fraud

    Robert von Hagge’s contribution has not been fully acknowledged

  • Art Fraud

    Von Hagge died in 2010, a year before the French course was selected as host

  • Art Fraud

    “It is a von Hagge routing – accomplished independently – it came right out of our office” says his former colleague Rick Baril

By Frank Giordano

Frank Giordano investigates the strange case of the golf architect whose name was taken off the course that will host the 2018 Ryder Cup.

In a recent online notice about the upcoming Ryder Cup competition in France, I was concerned to learn that the French Golf Federation (FFG) had identified Hubert Chesneau as the designer of the Albatros course over which the competition will be staged. Similarly, the official website of Le Golf National identifies Monsieur Chesneau as the sole designer of the Albatros course. The absence of due acknowledgement, in the official writings of the federation and the Le Golf National resort, of the enormous contribution of Robert von Hagge and his associates in the final design of Albatros, strikes me as shamefully unfair and needlessly chauvinistic.

A brief history is called for here. Chesneau, a building architect with no experience in designing substantial tournament-worthy golf courses, was assigned in the mid-1980s the project of designing and getting built a course that might eventually become the permanent venue for the French Open.

A very undistinguished parcel of land was given to Chesneau for this project, a virtual frog that he was tasked to turn into a prince of a course. The original site was unrelentingly flat, with no natural features to influence the routing. However, the FFG’s ambitions required Le Golf National to be a true championship course, and they were specifically interested in a stadium style golf course that had to be challenging to all the best players in the world. This was no task for a neophyte designer.

The Federation, apparently uneasy with their selection of a novice designer, granted Chesneau the right to employ a consultant to assist in establishing the course’s layout. Enter Robert von Hagge Design Associates, the team led by a world-famous designer of, at that time, over 100 courses in North and South America. He had just completed his work on Les Bordes (1987), a new course that, upon opening day, leaped into the top five golf courses in France and among the very best in all of Europe, earning for itself the title of Best New Course in Europe for 1987.

Rick Baril, von Hagge’s on-site designer for the project, was at the original meeting in 1987, when Claude Roger Cartier, then president of the FFG, explained why the federation had requested the assistance of what was then von Hagge Design Associates. “Our involvement, according to President Cartier, was ‘needed and intended to provide the French Golf Federation a guarantee of success for this important and unprecedented project.’” With verbal assurances his expectations would be honoured (but without getting that assurance in writing, relying on the trust of the client), von Hagge and Baril immediately scrapped the preliminary layout Chesneau established, in order to produce a routing worthy of this national venue. “In fact, we simply disregarded the original routing, as it didn’t have any merit or value whatsoever. We started over – with only an entry road location, clubhouse location and a flat property. It is a von Hagge routing – accomplished independently – it came right out of our office; the routing wasn’t a collaboration!”

Because the Federation wanted the look of an American style TPC course, with a stadium-like setting at the dramatic final holes of the competition, von Hagge and Baril focused on an exciting solution for the final holes: the final act, as in a drama. Baril, once again: “We envisioned a huge amphitheatre where people could witness the drama unfold on the final holes. My ambition was to make as many of the final holes as possible viewable, where spectators would not need to move to see the action. This resulted in the configuration of holes 15-18. Once this portion of the routing was in place, the remaining holes were routed through the property.”

In addition to these most dramatic changes introduced into the design, von Hagge transformed the dull, flat terrain of Albatros with his characteristic mounds, moguls and elevation changes. Shapers added rippling fairways, creating all types of challenging lies – uphill, sidehill, downhill – for the world-class competitors to manage. Most significantly for the strategic character of Albatros, he and Baril endowed the layout with the types and number and locations of hazards usually found in true championship courses: virtually every tee shot was challenged by fairway bunkers or water, as were the landing areas short of and beside the greens. A long-time devotee of the aerial game in golf, von Hagge turned several greens into the archetypal islands of Pete Dye’s original TPC stadium golf course at Ponte Vedra: several of the holes are virtually surrounded by either water or sand or both. Mastering his craft on the courses of south Florida, the artistic von Hagge understood the aesthetic and the strategic value of sand and water. Both were found in abundance originally at the parkland Albatros, requiring competitors to plan their strategy and place their shots with thoughtfulness and imagination as well as precision. In the architectural drawings for each of the holes, von Hagge and Baril comment at length on the strategic issues with which the designs confront the competitors.

Many golf course aficionados have detected the similarities of Albatros to many other von Hagge courses, such as The Woodlands TPC near Houston and his works featuring water and abundant sand in south Florida. Virtually no one who has reviewed Albatros has suggested the course is replete with the characteristics that define and distinguish Chesneau courses. And that’s entirely understandable, as, in more than 30 years, he has done fewer than ten courses, not one of which is a distinguished design.

Which raises the very important question: “Who is the actual designer of Albatros, as opposed to the person originally commissioned and assigned the task of getting the course created?” Hubert Chesneau was, at that time, the FFG Director of Development. He prepared an original preliminary routing for the course, but his creative designing efforts nearly ended there, once the von Hagge team was commissioned. In the case of Albatros, the stickiness begins here, according to Baril: “The agreement we signed with the FFG states we will ‘consult and assist.’ This is the technical point which Hubert uses as an argument [to resist naming von Hagge as co-designer]. I’ve attempted to be objective about this situation, asking myself, ‘Are we over-reaching?’ In fact, we have been told Hubert – from the very beginning – has claimed sole credit for the design, and at every opportunity, he minimises our contribution.”

In a recent email to me, replying to my query about the FFG’s official position on von Hagge’s contributions to the design of Albatros, executive director Christophe Muniesa repeats the FFG’s original designation of von Hagge as the project’s consultant to the designer Chesneau. He even argues that the small fee von Hagge accepted indicates that his contributions to the design were limited. Muniesa could not consult with the primary leaders of the project, as President Cartier is dead, and Chesneau retired over a decade ago.

But if a course’s routing and location of hazards, its strategy and TPC-like characteristics, especially the final four holes configured as a stadium for viewing crucial late drama in a competition, have not been supplied by Hubert Chesneau – these design attributes which define the ways the game is imagined and played – how legitimate can any claim of his sole designership be? Anyone who knows and understands golf course architecture must be forgiven for their raised eyebrows, if not their incredulity, when told that Chesneau was the sole designer of Albatros. To the contrary, Nicolas Joakimides, a contemporary French designer and former professional golfer, recently replied very emphatically to my query about the design of Albatros: “It’s so obvious that Le Golf National is a von Hagge design! I know a Hubert Chesneau course: very different style. For me this course is 100 percent von Hagge.” Perhaps not quite 100 percent, as Baril, when asked to name a contribution to the design which Chesneau could rightly call his own, picked out the green of the par three eighth. “The eighth green was Hubert’s. If I remember correctly, it bore a likeness to one on a favourite links course of his. It’s a great green and always seems to be featured in French Open broadcasts.”

In the history of golf course architecture, there has been a long-standing, equitable, even generous tradition of identifying courses with the names of both collaborating designers. The tradition, in a commercial sense, enables two artists to take credit for important works and establishes both as worthy prospective designers for future design jobs. The courses are living, breathing, entertaining business cards, for establishing reputations and building the designers’ businesses. To deny the contributions of designers who performed significant roles, without their being the lead designers originally employed, represents an unfair suppression of an artist’s reputation and access to future business. What is so mystifying in the case of Albatros is that Chesneau virtually ended his career as golf course architect after Albatros was built. The FFG was doing him no great promotional service in permitting him to claim sole designership, as he was about to depart the design field rather than to exploit his celebrity for creating the course.

Finally, I’ve asked myself: ‘Am I just beating my gums here? Does the average golfer care whether or not Robert von Hagge is named a co-designer of Albatros?’ Well, many true golf fans do care. We care as much as we would that a da Vinci painting identifies him as the artist, and not Salai, his assistant, when we visit a museum. Surely golf aficionados care, as much as art collectors with fat wallets at a Sotheby’s auction, that a work of art properly identifies its true artist. And the just identification of a designer matters so much to Jack Nicklaus and Tom Fazio that, should a club wish to make a change they disapprove of to an original design, they insist on removing their names from the course.

Designing courses for national opens and prominent international events such as the Ryder Cup brings to the course and its designer both great prestige and the likelihood of future grand projects. For the FFG and the Le Golf National resort to minimise Robert von Hagge’s critical influence on the design of Albatros is terribly unfair and totally unjustified. It is a form of art fraud. France gains enough glory by staging the event; they must not subvert their genuine credit for that significant work by denying the valuable creativity of the chief designer of Albatros, Robert von Hagge.

The article first appeared in the July 2018 issue of Golf Course Architecture.