GUYANCOURT, France -- There's no sign at the first tee warning golfers about the difficulty of the Albatros Course at Le Golf National. Maybe there should be.
Pascal Grizot, the chairman of Ryder Cup France 2018, compares the host course of the 2018 Ryder Cup to Bethpage Black. The message from the sign near the first tee at Bethpage Black applies to the signature course at the home of the French Golf Federation: Tee it up at your own risk.
Following a renovation costing 10 million Euros, the host course of the French Open 24 times since 1991 is ready for a bigger spotlight. It has been transformed from a "local course" -- as Le Golf National General Manager Paul Armitage called it -- to an international destination.
A year ago, the Albatros had no cart paths or carts, only a handful of rental sets of clubs and too few English-speaking staff. The on-site hotel was showing its age. All that has changed as Le Golf National attempts to cash in on future Ryder Cup fame, following the path laid by former Ryder Cup venues, the K Club in Ireland and Gleneagles in Scotland.
Golfing World (a United Kingdom publication) recently ranked the 54-hole Le Golf National no. 23 among the best golf resorts in continental Europe. Its stature is sure to rise with all the modifications taking place. If a golf trip to Paris wasn't on your bucket list, it certainly should be now.
Le Golf National: The courses
The Albatros Course was perhaps Europe's first TPC-style stadium course. Architect Hubert Chesneau and consulting architect Robert Von Hagge reshaped a featureless landscape just 45 minutes outside Paris by building spectator mounding and digging ponds. They moved 2.2 million cubic meters of dirt on leased farmland to accomplish the Stadium effect.
Greg Norman, Raymond Floyd and Jeff Sluman teed it up at the grand opening in October 1990, and many famous players have celebrated a French Open victory here since (Graeme McDowell, Frenchman Thomas Levet, Martin Kaymer, Colin Montgomerie, Sam Torrance, Retief Goosen and others).
At different times, the 6,649-meter (7,271-yard) course looks and plays like a hybrid of Bethpage Black, the PLAYERS Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass and Erin Hills Golf Course, the 2017 U.S. Open host in Wisconsin. What a fearsome threesome.
It hits the gas peddle from the get-go. The first two holes -- a par 4 and par 3 -- wrap around the same pond. The finish is legendary. The par 4s at No. 15 and No. 18 play to dual island greens attached to the same sliver of land in a lake. Watching Ryder Cup nerves handle these holes could be fascinating.
All these water hazards -- spread across 10 holes -- are an amateur's worst nightmare.
It might be the most intimidating course I've ever played. I lost a career-high 10 balls during my preview round and never felt like I had a chance against its monumental carries from awkward lies in heavy rough and rolling fairways.
Armitage said pros on the European Tour generally consider it one of the fairest tests of golf they play all year. Only 11 players finished under par at the 100th anniversary of the French Open earlier this year. Thailand's Thongchai Jaidee won at 11 under.
"You will think you are in a natural environment, a stadium environment. That was the vision from the start," Armitage said.
Most of the renovation work completed May 1, 2016, was in preparation to handle the largest crowds in Ryder Cup history, perhaps up to 65,000 spectators per day.
Fifteen kilometers of new roads and cart paths were laid. Nine kilometers of pipes now provide drinking water throughout the course. The irrigation system was completely modernized. Seventeen new bunkers were built and 28 original ones were reconstructed. Two new lakes and four new pro tees were added. New bulkhead edging now lines every water hazard, providing a refined look. Platform areas outside of playing areas were leveled for grandstands and corporate tents.
A few holes were tweaked as well. The first and 16th greens were redone to locate more pin placements. The biggest change is a new 11th hole with, yep, you guessed it, a well-bunkered par 3 guarded by a pond.
The rate to play the Albatros course will rise from 150 Euros to 175 Euros next year to include a cart.
The other courses at Le Golf National -- the 18-hole Eagle Course (90 Euros) and the 2,138-yard nine-hole Oiselete (30 Euros) -- are thankfully more forgiving and affordable but kept in similar shape. The Oiselete ("Birdie" in English) will be used for a village of corporate tents during the Ryder Cup and be redesigned once the event concludes.
Le Golf National: The hotel
Efforts to spruce up the four-star Novotel Saint-Quentin-En-Yvelines hotel are nearing completion. All 131 rooms have been modernized. They're more spacious than your average European hotel room.
Both the decor and menu of the Le Pitch restaurant just off the lobby have been refreshed. It serves breakfast every morning and numerous dishes for lunch or dinner. Other eating options, the Le Club House and the Novotel Cafe, are located near the pro shop just a short walk from the main lobby.
The next phases of renovations will transform the basement floor into a full-service spa and improve the dated exterior of the building. Once everything is completed in 2017 Le Golf National will be ready for the masses. The question remains: How many will come?
Armitage said tourism figures estimate that 30,000 corporate Americans visit Paris each day. If Le Golf National can attract even a small fraction of those types to play golf instead of another day at the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre Museum or the nearby Palace of Versailles, his place would be rocking.
When I asked Grizot if the legacy of the Ryder Cup will be more important to golf tourism or growing the game in France, he answered simply: "We want everything."