The crowds at the 2018 Ryder Cup are expected to be as loud and boisterous as ever.
That much is certain when golf's grandest show visits the Albatros course at Le Golf National in Guyancourt outside Paris Sept. 28-30. What's less certain is the legacy the Ryder Cup will leave behind in France.
The French are indifferent to golf. They don't despise it, but they don't much care for it, either. Every golf pro I talked to during a 2016 tour of golf resorts in three distinct regions of France all shared the same woeful tale: Every day they battle apathy toward the game. The same message came loud and clear from Franck Riboud, the tournament director at the Evian Championship, the LPGA Tour's fifth major held at the Evian Masters Golf Club near France's border with Switzerland earlier this month.
"I'm going to be very nasty with my country," he said. "My country is not a golf country. Even if we have the Ryder Cup, it's not a golf country. We don't have the culture."
Michael Lorenzo-Vera, a top French pro along with Victor Dubuisson, was the first to throw shade at his country's attitude toward golf in June prior to the French Open held at Le Golf National, which is one of the hardest courses I've ever played.
"People don’t care about the Ryder Cup," Lorenzo-Vera told The New York Times. "Honestly, nobody knows there’s going to be a Ryder Cup in France. Only the golfers know. That’s it. There won’t be many French there. There will be so many more from England or Spain. Golf is a very private thing for people in France. Private courses for only rich families or rich people — that’s it."
Can one golf event change an entire country's perception of a sport? Probably not, but if anything has a chance, it is the Ryder Cup. Nothing else can compare except the Olympics. The patriotism and passion shown by the fans and players at a Ryder Cup can get the blood pumping. I wasn't much into golf either until I watched the 1999 Ryder Cup at The Country Club at Brookline. That comeback by Team USA sparked something in my soul. I've been writing about the game ever since.
NBC Golf Analyst Johnny Miller believes that this is the best American team he's ever seen and possibly, the best European Team, too. Could that pending collision of star power lead to something profound? We sure hope so.
We need something ... a champion who is pushing the young people (to) develop the sport.
Le Golf National is the home of the French Golf Federation, which made big promises in order to land the Ryder Cup - the construction of dozens of short courses throughout the country to help grow the game. Even if you build it, how many players will come? The Federation currently touts slightly more than 400,000 member golfers and more than 700 affiliated courses, statistics taken from its website.
Riboud believes France needs its own version of Tiger Woods before golf takes root. The hopes for a Frenchman to win a major championship died in the Barry Burn at Carnoustie Golf Links for Jean Van de Velde in 1999 and in a bunker in the 2002 playoff at Muirfield for Thomas Levet.
"I think we need a project for the young French player to be sure we will have a champion within five years," said Riboud. "We have to target that. Okay, within five or 10 years. We have French player, a very good player. We need a champion. That's all."
"That's what (former tennis stars) Yannick Noah, Roland Garros, Jean Claude Killy, or, I don't know all the guy(s), and so on and so on. We need a champion. Why I am really saying that? Because as a businessman I need a market. I need a golf market. The pros, they need a golf market and a teacher needs a golf market. The people producing the club, they need a golf market."
Italy, the host of the Ryder Cup in 2022, will certainly test his theory. Italians don't care much for golf, yet they already have a hero - Fransesco Molanari, a three-time Ryder Cup participant who won The Open earlier this summer and is ranked sixth in the world. He and his brother, Edoardo, both played a part in Europe’s Ryder Cup victory at Celtic Manor in Wales in 2010.
France sports great untapped potential as a golf destination. It's already got the off-the-course lifestyle down pat - the luxurious wine and food especially. During my visit, I played five different courses. Despite some beautiful fall weather, I only saw a handful of players sharing the courses with my group. None of the pros we met at the clubs came to play with us. They were happy to share the French tradition of long lunches of wine, cheese and bread, but none teed it up - which was an opportunity lost. I never saw any golf employees normally found at most U.S. courses - no caddies, rangers or starters. The practice ranges were empty.
What a shame, too, because France has some very strong golf courses. Morfontaine, a private club, is one of continental Europe's most celebrated classics. Seaside courses such as the La Mer (translation: Seaside) Course at Omaha Beach Golf Club and Etretat Golf Club are perched on or near the spectacular 100-foot cliffs of Normandy. Terre Blanche, home to two courses, is one of the most elegant golf resorts I've seen in all my travels. GolfNow has expanded into continental Europe for the first time, offering tee times at roughly 50 courses in France, so the opportunity to play more is there for anyone. Some of the headliners include Golf des Yveline, Le Touquet Golf Resort and Golf d’Hardelo - all managed by the Open Golf Club - and Golf de Courso, Golf du Chateau de Cel and Chateau de Rochefort - managed by UGOLF.
When I asked Pascal Grizot, the chairman of Ryder Cup France 2018, 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."
It's probably better to scale back those ambitions. Let's hope golf in France gets "something" out of the Ryder Cup. The Evian Championship and the French Open on the European Tour will continue on, no matter what. Maybe, though, a seed will be planted for the next generation, inspiring a few young French boys and girls to do big things in a game their parents probably care little about. Only then can the 2018 Ryder Cup be considered a victory for anybody in golf.