NORMANDY, France -- This was unlike any bunker I'd ever seen on a golf course.
The "bunker" to the left of the sixth green on the La Mer (translation: Seaside) Course at Omaha Beach Golf Club was deep and dark. Its walls weren't sod, sand or grass. They were concrete. Inescapable. Impenetrable.
The real sand bunkers were closer to the green. This was an underground German bunker from World War II that is part of a memorial to the 47 Royal Marine Commando that served in "Operation Overload" on D-Day, June 6, 1944.
Walking through the small underground corridors, I suddenly forgot about the round of golf I was playing. I've never felt such emotion before on a golf course. The fact that it was the 15th anniversary of 9/11 only added to the patriotism pumping through my body.
I peered through the narrow slit in the bunker that was a gunner's window, marveling at a beautiful view to the harbor below. For a moment, I wondered what it must have been like to have been a soldier down on that beach that day, trying to scale 100-foot cliffs while being sprayed with bullets. What a history lesson -- a reminder of all the sacrifices so many men made so I could play such a silly game.
A golf trip to France is full of surprises like this.
Let's be honest: How many golfers include France on their bucket list? Not many. Think of it another way: How many Americans have visiting France on their bucket list? Just about everybody. Why not choose France for your next overseas golf adventure?
Wouldn't you rather be touring the Eiffel Towel after golf instead of trying to warm up from a wet and windy day on an Irish or Scottish links?
France is treating the 2018 Ryder Cup as its coming out party to the golf world. France's golf culture isn't necessarily robust, but everything else about its culture is -- the food, the wine, the historical sites, the language. There are just enough world-class courses near cultural landmarks that playing golf while touring the country makes perfect sense.
My weeklong trip this fall explored three distinct regions -- Normandy in the north and Le Golf National, the site of the Ryder Cup, outside of Paris; followed by a short flight to Nice to relax in Provence in the south near the famous French Riviera.
Throw in a couple days sight-seeing in Paris, and this just might be the best golf itinerary France has to offer. Here's why:
My 11-hour, overnight direct flight from San Francisco to Paris on Air France, a sponsor of the trip, was a breeze. Some fine French cuisine and wine helped usher in some shuteye before landing. Free movies (even in my coach class seat) passed the time that I was conscious.
Upon landing, it was a short, hour-plus drive to Deauville, a charming beachfront city home to the renowned Deauville American Film Festival since 1975. After touring a local distillery, Domaine de la Pommeraie, to learn about Calvados (a French apple brandy distinct to the region), we explored Honfleur, a lovely seaside village where everybody dines outdoors on the harbor to soak up a setting that has inspired impressionist artists such as Claude Monet. We spent two nights downtown at the Hotel Mercure Deauville Centre.
Over the years, a who's who of Hollywood stars has visited Deauville, a Parisian holiday getaway. We almost rubbed shoulders with actor Jonah Hill -- in town promoting his new movie "War Dogs" -- walking the red carpet at the awards ceremony.
A few celebrities have even teed it up at the Golf Barriere Deauville, a pleasant 27-hole course by Englishman Tom Simpson, famous for classic works throughout the United Kingdom and France in the 1930s. Its rolling hills give glimpses of the English Channel at times. The course, adjacent to a fine hotel, is not impeccably maintained, but the character of the holes provides enough fun for an afternoon.
The morning round the next day at Omaha Beach Golf Club was beyond special. The 36-hole club promotes the military theme of the region. Each hole is named for a war hero. Players who tee off on La Mer, where the opening par 5 is dedicated to Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, march toward the sea. There are lots of nice views of the water throughout the front nine before the course moves inland for a very ordinary finish. You could easily play nine holes to enjoy the same experience I had, then move on to more pertinent D-Day sites.
My best advice is this: Don't tour Omaha Beach, the Normandy American Cemetery & Memorial or La Pointe du Hoc without a private guide. Our guide from Normandy Sightseeing Tours -- Philip, a Brit whose grandfather landed on the beach -- was so passionate and knowledgeable. He put into context what really happened at La Pointe du Hoc, where bomb craters and the massive concrete gun batteries called "pill boxes" will give you goose bumps. When he mentioned how many sets of brothers and fathers and sons are buried in the cemetery, the lump in my throat that I experienced earlier in the day returned, times 10.
Le Golf National
Golf fans might recognize the Ryder Cup venue from coverage of the European Tour's French Open on The Golf Channel. Or they might not.
The Albatros Course at Le Golf National, the home of the French Golf Federation, completed a 10 million-Euro renovation on May 1, 2016, to prepare for golf's biggest party.
The course was built as a "stadium course" in 1990 by Hubert Chesneau and Robert Von Hagge. They dug out lakes and built up mounding along the fairways to give a featureless site some definition and drama.
Much of the renovation focused on cosmetic issues and infrastructure, although a few holes did receive some critical tweaks: A handful of new back tees, two redesigned greens, bunker additions and a new 11th hole, a par 3 over water.
The new infrastructure will help Le Golf National handle the largest crowds in Ryder Cup history -- up to 65,000 spectators per day are expected.
Fifteen kilometers of new roads and cart paths were laid. Nine kilometers of pipes now provide drinking water throughout the golf course. The irrigation system was completely modernized. Platform areas outside of playing areas were leveled for grandstands and corporate tents. New bulkhead edging now lines every water hazard, providing a refined look for TV.
Pascal Grizot, the chairman of Ryder Cup France 2018, compares the difficulty of the host course to Bethpage Black. The interesting thing is Bethpage Black only has water on one hole. The Albatros Course is wet seemingly everywhere. Whichever team is heroic enough to take on the water hazards without blinking will likely win.
The first two approach shots on the par-4 first and par-3 second holes introduce intimidating, do-or-die carries over a pond. The finish was made for Ryder Cup theater. The par 4s at no. 15 and no. 18 play to dual island greens attached to the same sliver of land in a lake. The par-3 16th hole requires another water carry. If you're not sharp, it can be a long day of lost balls. My golf bag certainly got lighter by the end of the day.
The 45-hole Le Golf National hopes to cash in on its impending fame. The club has purchased a new fleet of golf cars and hired new English-speaking employees to prepare for the surge of American golfers.
The four-star Novotel Saint-Quentin-En-Yvelines hotel adjacent to the course has been refurbished, too. The 131 renovated rooms are larger than most European hotel rooms. The new lobby and restaurant are done with a spa coming online early next year.
Le Golf National's proximity to Paris (40 minutes) and Versailles (15 minutes) are perhaps its biggest selling points.
A behind-the-scenes VIP tour of the stunning Palace of Versailles might have been my favorite highlight of the whole trip. We walked through the gardens, the Hall of Mirrors, the King's chambers and more before lunch was served at the grand opening of Ore, one of several restaurants in the palace. The palace -- the center of political power and brief home of the royal family, starting with Louis XIV in 1682 until the French Revolution in 1789 -- will host its fair share of Ryder Cup private parties and galas. Those will be the most coveted invites of the week, no doubt.
Play away in Provence
No trip to France is complete without a visit to its top golf resort. In fact, the Terre Blanche Hotel Spa Golf Resort was recently rated the premier golf resort in all of continental Europe by Golf World, a UK publication.
The Air France flight from Paris to Nice in southern France took a little longer than an hour. The 45-minute ride from the airport to the resort offered a glimpse of the beautiful countryside known for its wines, cheeses and authentic villages. There's so much to do that it's unfortunate we didn't have time to drive an hour to Monaco, Cannes and the rest of the French Riviera.
The resort delivers on all accounts -- secluded and spacious accommodations in villas set away from the main building, a marvelous spa, two fine resort courses that regularly host professional tournaments and dining that takes French cuisine to the highest levels. Your taste buds will do somersaults dining at Le Faventia, a Michelin-starred restaurant. The resort's collection of artwork is the best I've ever seen. It adds such a touch of class.
The golf courses, both designed by Dave Thomas, famous for his work at The Belfry, a three-time Ryder Cup venue, are works of art as well. Man-made water features splash visual appeal upon both the Le Chateau Course and the Le Riou Course. Most critics rate Le Chateau higher. It's longer and tougher. I tend to enjoy more scenic and playable courses, which is what Le Riou offers. Its hillier terrain is more interesting.
Terre Blanche might be a haven of leisure, but some golfers come to work hard on their games, too. The combination of one-of-a-kind practice facilities, a David Leadbetter Academy and the technology of Biomecaswing has attracted pros from around the world, including Matt Kuchar, Mike Weir and Ian Woosnam, and serves as a training ground for aspiring French pros and top juniors. The tools in Biomecaswing, founded by Jean-Jacques Rivet, can analyze the biomechanics of the body, helping players identify weaknesses that can be improved through physical fitness.
Me? I'd rather sit on my terrace, a wine glass in hand, instead of grinding out a grueling range session. That's the Terre Blanche -- and France -- most of us come to see.