By Alex Narey
There are some courses that just carry an aura. You don’t have to play them – and in some cases you can’t – to acknowledge their history and character.
Take Augusta National. For most of us, we only get to see Bobby Jones and Dr Alister Mackenzie’s masterpiece once a year through a television set, and yet, via the trials and tribulations of The Masters, we understand its story.
Every hole. Every dogleg. Every sprawling sandtrap.
But what about those courses we don’t see? In many ways, their lack of exposure only adds to the mystery.
There can be no better example of this than at Les Bordes, a private members’ club where Robert von Hagge’s magnificent Old Course first set tongues wagging after opening to critical acclaim in 1986.
Just 90 minutes south-west of Paris in the Loire Valley region, Les Bordes is easily one of the best golf courses in France, and lies within 1,400 acres of the Sologne Forest.
Texan Von Hagge was commissioned to design the layout by Baron Marcel Bich - the co-founder of Bic ballpoint pens – and his business partner Yoshiaki Sakurai.
It was the Baron’s vision for Les Bordes to be recognised as the ‘Augusta of Europe’. But really, despite both courses’ stunning condition and setting, the only real similarity comes with their exclusivity.
Following the Baron’s death in 1994, ownership would change hands and Les Bordes opened to the public as a pay-and-play venue. But as the numbers swelled to play the course, conditioning ultimately went downhill and some of its aura was lost.
But since taking over the estate in 2018, further investments by the new owners – a consortium which consists of the principals of RoundShield Partners – have helped return the course to its brilliant best, and to complement Von Hagge’s Old course, there is a second layout of equal beauty.
Gil Hanse’s New course was opened for play this summer and brings more of a heathland feel to the American-style target golf of its older sibling.
Playing Les Bordes Old Course
Exclusive, expansive, expensive. Les Bordes ticks all those boxes. But what really enhances the reputation of its Old course as one of Europe’s most famed stretches of golfing terrain?
Quite simply: difficulty. It is a layout built to affirm its intimidating and imposing nature. From the word go, you are asked questions – and none are easy to answer. The opening hole – the course’s stroke-index-eight - requires a drive positioned left of the fairway before your approach to a green that is surrounded almost entirely by sand. It’s a regulation par - a false sense of security, perhaps...
Score: Bogey five
The run from the 2nd to the 6th – in the context of what lies ahead – perhaps offers some respite: a dogleg left par 5; a 350-yard par 4 with deep traps left; a short par 3 with water right, a long, uphill par 4 followed by another par 4 with sand running down its right side.
Scores: Bogey; Bogey; Par; Bogey; Double
Now for the mayhem. Standing on the 7th tee and glancing at the course planner, you realise you will be required to pull out three of the best shots you have in your locker. This may well be the Old’s stroke-index-two, but pound for pound, it is the hardest hole on the golf course and one of the most challenging you are likely to play.
It’s a par 5 that weighs in at 509 yards from the tips, but such is the shape of the hole as it twists 90 degrees to the left and almost back on itself – with the fairway bottle-necking as you approach the green – that mere mortals will have to play it as a three-shooter, as water comes into play for your second and third shots, and probably your fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh.
I would lose eight balls during my round on the Old, with three meeting a watery grave at the 7th as I hopelessly tried to navigate my way to the green.
Score: Don’t ask...
Somewhat shaken by this experience, matters continue to unfold on the Par-3 8th, where a full carry of over 150 yards is needed to reach a slightly raised green. My ball doesn’t make it. Meanwhile, the feeling of a bogey on the par-4 9th comes as something of a blessing, despite having to hit one of the narrowest fairways with overhanging trees catching the corner and more water right.
Scores: Double; Bogey
The 10th is a long, narrow par 5 with a green perched high on the banks with sand everywhere, while the 11th is one of those holes where local knowledge is your best friend. As the hole sweeps sharply to the left at 240 yards, strikes must not only carry a deep trap on the corner but also, anything that doesn’t have the required distance will trickle down into the water - so don't be greedy.
Scores: Double; Bogey
A short carry is needed over water at the 12th, but the approach is punishing with a huge, sprawling bunker hugging the left side. The 13th is another par 3 over water where playing long is your best bet.
Scores: Double; Bogey
Much like that devilish par 5 at the 7th, people may well question what Von Hagge’s motives were when he designed the 14th. The Old’s stroke-index-one, it is another three-shot hole and water lies everywhere. Only the very best players should be eyeing its island green up in two.
For big hitters who think they are up to task, the fairway pinches in tight at around 250 yards. Swallow some medicine, if you have any left, lay back and look for placement. Then lay up short of the bunkers on the right to leave a shot over water from 100 yards and from there, just hope for the best.
I do none of this and lose another two balls...
The closing four holes, while still serving up a fearsome test, are navigated playing bogey golf, with a grandstand finish at the 18th where I play arguably my two best shots of the day: a drive right-centre of the fairway that leaves a 5-iron approach to another green with water front and right. I make the putting surface in two, wave to galleries and then take three putts from 10 feet. It’s a victory, of sorts…
Scores: Bogey; Bogey; Bogey; Bogey
Despite its fiery and unrelenting nature, playing Les Bordes’ Old course is a challenge all golfers should aspire to take on. Like a first-time marathon runner or a cyclist climbing an Alp, it is one to tick off your bucket list.
It will beat you. But, it is an experience you will never forget – even if you want to.
Toughest hole: 7th Two superb shots are needed to reach this green in two, while even reaching the putting surface in regulation requires smart play and sweet ball-striking.
Best Par 3: 4th The shortest of the par 3s at 165 yards from the back tees, but 129-141 from the whites. Water lines the right of the green with a steep bank left.
Video: Les Bordes overview...
Did you know?
Did you know? Jean van de Velde held the course record at Les Bordes’ Old for many years with a score of 71, while members who broke 80 in competition would get their names on the clubhouse honours board.
Alex began his journalism career in regional newspapers in 2001 and moved to the Press Association four years later. He spent three years working at Dennis Publishing before first joining Golf Monthly, where he was on the staff from 2008 to 2015 as the brand's managing editor, overseeing the day-to-day running of our award-winning magazine while also contributing across various digital platforms. A specialist in news and feature content, he has interviewed many of the world's top golfers and returns to Golf Monthly after a three-year stint working on the Daily Telegraph's sports desk. His current role is diverse as he undertakes a number of duties, from managing creative solutions campaigns in both digital and print to writing long-form features for the magazine. Alex has enjoyed a life-long passion for golf and currently plays to a handicap of 13 at Tylney Park Golf Club in Hampshire.
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By Alex Narey •