Matt Nicholson hops across the channel to visit Les Bordes, one of the most exclusive sporting country estates in France, which is now home to two world class 18-hole layouts following the opening of the much-heralded New Course
I’ve been lucky enough to tick off a few bucket list golfing venues in my life, but there are still quite a few that have gone unchecked – Pebble Beach being one of them and Augusta National, of course, being another. However, one of those at the top of the pile has always been Les Bordes. I’ve lost count of the number of stories I have listened to over the years from some of my esteemed golf industry colleagues regaling me with the quality of its fabled Old Course, and the beauty of its surroundings. So, when a last-minute opportunity to visit the legendary Loire Valley club arrived in my inbox early one October morning, I jumped at the chance to put a tick beside this iconic venue and create some stories of my own.
The reason for the invitation was largely driven by the opening of the club’s aptly-named New Course, a which launched earlier this summer, alongside the opening of the renovated clubhouse and member’s accommodation, all of which had been carried out following a change in ownership.
The trip started off in suitably exclusive fashion with a flight on a 8-seater private jet from Farnborough airport which transported us in comfort for the 60-minute hop over the channel to Orléans. From there we had a 20-minute transfer to Les Bordes, whose 1,400-acre estate is located 100 miles south-west of Paris in the depths of the stunning Sologne Forest.
The idea for Les Bordes was first conceived by Baron Marcel Bich, co-founder of the Bic company, who made his millions from ballpoint pens, cigarette lighters and razors. Bich, an Italian-born Frenchman, was joined in the enterprise by Japanese businessman Yoshiaki Sakurai, with both men married to the idea of creating a private club where they could invite their family, friends and fellow wealthy business types to enjoy a bit of luxury in total privacy.
The original plan was to build two golf courses on the estate, but Baron Bich was so delighted with the Old Course, which opened in 1987 and was designed by Robert Von Hagge, that plans for the second course were shelved. Bich died in 1994, leaving the club in the ownership of Mr Sakurai, before he too died in 2008, and it was sold on. It was later sold on again in 2018 to RoundShield Partners, a London-based private investment firm, who are now the current owners.
The latest landlords wasted no time in drawing up plans to invest in the estate, with one of the first considerations being the construction of a second 18-hole layout to complement the Old Course. American architect Gil Hanse, among whose most notable projects include Castle Stuart in Scotland, the Black Course at Streamsong Resort in Florida, and the course that hosted the 2016 Olympic golf tournament in Rio, was brought in to the design the New Course, as well as an additional 10-hole short course which goes by the fabulous name of ‘The Wild Piglet’.
But before we could tackle Hanse’s handiwork, we had the small matter of taking on the challenge of the Old Course. So, after an excellent lunch in the stylish clubhouse, and a warm-up on the magnificent Tour-standard practice facilities, we nervously headed off to the first tee of Von Hagge’s masterpiece, which holds a reputation for chewing through a golfer’s credibility as fast as it does their stock of golf balls. There is a board displaying the names of everyone who has ever broken 80 on the course. There aren’t many names on it and most of them have played top class professional or amateur golf
The early holes provide a pretty clear indication of what lies ahead here, with the opening hole serving up an island green ringed by a massive waste bunker, followed by two narrow long holes and the first of the eye-catching par threes, the 4th, with its small target pressed up against a pond.
The back nine has more water than the front and probably shades it a little in terms of excitement, with memorable holes including the beautiful par-three 13th and the two-shot 17th, which bends through the ancient birch forest. Also noteworthy is the typically bruising closing hole, which features a long, all-carry approach across water and into a shallow green with a steep step.
That I came off the course having lost just three balls, while some of my partners had to fully replenish their supplies before embarking on their next round, is worth mentioning in dispatches, but, needless to say, the Old Course is as tough as I was led to believe, perhaps more so, and I came away with new-found appreciation for the talents of Jean Van de Velde, who apparently holds the course record of level par.
In need a bit of R&R after the trials of the Old Course, we enjoyed a superb dinner in the clubhouse after which we retired to the welcome comfort of our luxury lodgings for the night, the newly-renovated member cottages. Kitted out by the same design company that did the interiors for Soho House, a private members’ club which has outposts in Oxfordshire, Los Angeles and Berlin, they were every bit as comfortable as you’d expect at a five-star hotel.
The following morning, after a late breakfast and another trip to the driving range in a desperate bid to sharpen up my skills, I headed for the first tee of the New Course to see what Mr Hanse had conjured up. Where water features prominently on 11 of the Old Course’s 18 holes, the New’s defences are characterised by deep pot bunkers and the overall feel is more English heathland compared to the Old Course’s American lakeland style. Featuring large bunkers, subtle elevation changes and vast green complexes, the layout measures 7,211 yards from the back tees. While there is generally plenty of room off the tee, the big test for many will come on the greens, where sweeping contours punish anything that does not hit the right part of the putting surfaces. And while the generosity of the fairways allows the driver to be used, it will need to be hit hard if you’re to make a dent in the yardage on some of the longer holes.
That’s certainly the case at the second hole. Measuring a stamina-sapping 580 yards from the tips, this snaking par five asks you to find a fairway guarded by bunkers left and right before making a sharp left-hand turn uphill for the lay up, and firing at an intimidating green that runs away from the player, with a steep runoff for pulled shots and a couple of bunkers down the right for players who fan their approach. It’s championship golf of the highest order.
There’s no let up at the par-4 5th – the hardest hole on the card – which measures a brutal 499 yards from the white tees, while the layout’s eclectic nature comes to the fore two holes later with a dinky 126-yard par three. What the hole lacks in length it more than makes up for in the fiddly nature of the green, with anything hit long running off the back, leaving a very difficult up-and-down for par.
The back nine is far more tree-lined and, as such, more demanding from the tee, while a number of deep bunkers serve to keep you honest on your approaches to the greens. It’s also where the drama really steps up a gear, with the stretch of holes from 13 to 17 being the strongest part of the course – deftly bringing out the best of the topography’s natural features.
The driveable par-four 15th, with a cavernous bunker front and centre just 50 yards short of a narrow green that slopes off on both sides, is notable for its fun as much as its strategy. It all sets up for a grandstand finish with the closing hole, a stunning par five where water comes into play if you chose to take on the green in two.
There’s no doubt that Hanse has done a brilliant job here, carefully sewing together the lumps and bumps of the natural terrain to craft an outstanding course that feels like it was shaped by the elements rather than a digger.
The previously mentioned Wild Piglet course is a condensed version of the New – with all the same strategic challenges in miniature. None of the ten holes measures more than 150 yards, but good things often come in small packages and that’s certainly the case with this delightful little course.
Golfing challenges ticked off, the new-look Les Bordes is very much a country sporting estate, with the owners having introduced a host of new facilities, including a swimming lake with a white sandy beach, enhanced equestrian facilities, boating lakes, archery, fishing, cycle and electric quad paths and a new tennis centre. Children are catered for, with a go-karting track and a zipline being just some of the activities on offer for kids big and small.
Les Bordes has also announced that the château the Bichs stayed in during their visits will soon be transformed into a Six Senses resort. Expected to open in 2024, the building will include a restaurant, bar and spa facilities, with branded suites and villas hiding among the woodland around the property. Phase one of its Cour du Baron development project will see a number of properties built throughout the estate to offer members a more permanent ‘home away from home’ when they are visiting to play the course. As part of the ownership, members will be able to offer their home back to the club to rent out when the property is vacant, should they so wish.
With just 200 members currently on the books, and no visitor play allowed except as a member’s guest, Les Bordes offers golf at its unashamedly most exclusive, but if you ever get the chance to go, clear the diary and make the pilgrimage. You won’t be disappointed, and you’ll have some envy- inducing stories to tell your friends for many years.
For more details about Les Bordes, go to lesbordes.com. Matt flew from Farnborough to Orleans with Jetfly, the leader in fractional ownership of private jets in Europe for both business and private aviation, with a fleet of 50 Pilatus aircraft that can land at international airports and local airfields. For more details, visit jetfly.com.