By David Taylor
David Taylor heads down to Provence to sample its fine wines and, of course, its fine golf courses too
Golf In Marseille - Pont Royal & Servanes
While the eyes of the golfing world were very much focused on Paris last September, it would have been easy to miss another French course making its mark on the international stage.
The Seve Ballesteros-designed Pont Royal, situated in Mallemort just 30 minutes north of Marseille, was a late-September stop on the Challenge Tour, and the future stars of the game were definitely not disappointed.
Earlier in the year, the club welcomed a less-celebrated group of golfers, and I was lucky enough to be among them.
Our two-night stay gave us ample time to experience the course and sample another of the region’s delights with a wine tour of Chateauneuf-du-Pape.
Fortunately, we started with the golf as my game is prone to collapse at the best of times.
The course was opened in 1992 and the first few holes wind around the Moulin de Vernègues Hotel and Spa, our base for the trip.
The layout really comes alive, however, when you reach the par-4 6th, which rises steeply to reveal stunning views of the Luberon and Alpilles mountain ranges.
I was joined on the course by David Payne, an ex-pat who retired to the region and is now Pont Royal’s vice president.
He kept us entertained with tales of Seve’s typically eccentric visits over the years and was also able to impart some valuable local knowledge, which helped keep my score respectable.
Another perk arrived at the 7th tee when David’s wife appeared from their house with a tray of coffee and biscuits before we got to play the hole.
This extra hit of caffeine was not enough to inspire me to take on the fearsome-looking canyon, which stood between us and the green of this sharp dogleg-left par 4.
Long hitters may be tempted, but the sensible play sees you aim for the fairway.
This also gives you slightly longer to admire the scenery, which is at its best as you wander down to the putting surface.
Another highlight is the 215-yard par-3 11th, which travels over a steep valley to a raised green.
With very little run-off behind the putting surface an accurate strike is crucial, and I just managed to hang on.
Another foot and I would have found the rocky abyss.
The course is tough but fair, and involves a decent amount of water and some pretty steep climbs through pine woods and typical Provençal countryside.
A buggy is recommended, and it certainly helped keep my energy up for the post-round wine tasting.
The whole region of Provence is a haven for wine lovers, and many choose to make the pilgrimage to Chateauneuf-du-Pape, 30 miles from Mallemort.
The village is overlooked by the ruins of a mediaeval castle and many of the wineries encourage visitors to take a tour and sample their wares.
Of course, wine is not the only attraction in this historic part of the world.
The city of Avignon is less than an hour away and the famous Pont du Gard, a spectacular three-tiered Roman aqueduct, is well worth a visit too.
Cycling fans may also like to try their luck on Mont Ventoux, arguably the toughest climb of all on the Tour de France – I have to confess that I was pretty glad our itinerary didn’t quite stretch that far!
As well as the only Seve-designed course in France, the Pont Royal complex also includes the 37-acre Durance Training Centre.
This comprises a two-storey driving range, a large putting green, a short-game practice area, a 1,039-yard six-hole course and a David Leadbetter Academy.
These additions have been part of a major investment programme which also included a new clubhouse, with further work promised over the next few years.
The four-star Moulin de Vernègues Hotel and Spa where we stayed is perfectly situated for the golf course.
It has 102 rooms, a pool and spa and a fine restaurant down in the cellar.
The main building dates back to the 13th century but the majority of rooms are housed in the modern extension, which is situated perilously close to the 2nd green.
There’s further accommodation in the village just behind the clubhouse, which also provides a fine selection of restaurants and wine bars to while away the evenings.
If you’re keen to experience the local cuisine, there are six Michelin-starred restaurants within 45 minutes of the resort and plenty more low-key but delicious options.
If you want to take your clubs further afield, the course at Servanes, a 40-minute drive from Pont Royal, offers a picturesque alternative.
This extremely friendly club is set at the foot of the Alpilles hills, which offer a spectacular backdrop to some lovely holes.
Provence is a region steeped in history and attracts visitors for countless reasons, from art to architecture to wine.
With the investment made in the course and facilities at Pont Royal, golf definitely now features ever more prominently on this very tempting list.
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