What a golf course. A strange one, certainly, to look at on TV and obviously for the American team of strangers to play than it was for the Europeans. As a test of elite play it had its moments. As a spectator experience it functioned beautifully – better than most championship venues.
Going into the event the biggest controversy about the golf course had to do with its design lineage. The par-71 layout, measuring 7,183 yards, was the product of an unusual design process involving architects Hubert Chesneau and Robert Von Hagge, with the collaboration of Pierre Thevenin.
The exact mix of credit due remains controversial. This being an example of creative European land art, it’s better to think of the place as the product of Picasso’s “Green Period" or inspired by cubist deconstruction. Halfway through Sunday’s telecast I expected to see a trailer on the screen, paraphrasing Rene Magritte: "This is not a golf course."
The important thing is that somehow a dead flat site on the western outskirts of Paris got massaged by an army of bulldozers into an exaggerated version of stadium golf, replete with ribbony fairways framed by spectator mounds and lots of lateral water. In a faux gesture of parkland influence, they even managed to sprinkle in enough hardwoods to make one hole on each nine look classical.
No doubt the Europeans had home field advantage. Every one of the squad’s 12 members had played the course in recent years during a French Open - including the event’s last two winners, Ryder Cup teammates Tommy Fleetwood (2017) and Alex Noren (2018).
There’s no doubt the set up favored target golf with irons off the tee and worked against the American team’s strength of power, aerial, “bomb and gouge” golf.
However studious the Americans were in their practice rounds, their unfamiliarity with the layout’s quirkiness under championship conditions put them at a disadvantage.
The issue was compounded by a setup overseen by European team captain Thomas Bjorn (a prerogative of all home-field Ryder Cup captains) that featured green speeds no faster than about 10 on the Stimpmeter, Barbie Doll-waist fairways, and incredibly dense, thick rough.
This is not to blame the American team’s loss on the setup. The course presented distinct challenges that were obvious to everyone. The U.S. squad simply did not hit the requisite shots or make the putts needed. But there’s no doubt the setup favored target golf with irons off the tee and worked against the American team’s strength of power, aerial, “bomb and gouge” golf.
Le Golf National is not a model for golf design. It is, however, one inventive solution to the problem of players who drive the ball 330 yards. Just put a pond at 340 yards and watch them all lay up. Of course for the average golfer out there the issue is how to get the ball over that cross hazard in two.
Only a few putting surfaces allowed even the slightest space for ground access. Almost everywhere, players faced perched greens heavily defended up front and that spilled off in convex fashion on the perimeter. The world’s best professionals can handle it – or should be expected to. But your average golfer will come away in a state of shock, as well as 10 golf balls lighter for the round.
All of which made for great drama because the Ryder Cup shows the emotional intensity of match play. In such events the golf course performs best as a neutral stage. This time it was a theatre of the absurd.