Ivan Morris Column - Lessons to be learned from French golf

Limerick Leader golf columnist Ivan Morris
In his weekly Limerick Leader column, Ivan Morris looks at some of the trends in French golf as the country gets set to host the Ryder Cup in 2018.

In his weekly Limerick Leader column, Ivan Morris looks at some of the trends in French golf as the country gets set to host the Ryder Cup in 2018.

In France, nobody is allowed to step onto a golf course unless they are in possession of a carte verte (license) from the French Golf Federation (FFG), which costs a hefty annual levy of €49, with graduated reductions for juniors. That’s before any fees are paid to a Golf Club.

Beginners are obliged to undergo professional instruction at their own expense before undertaking an exam in competency under the supervision of an FFG accredited professional. The applicant must show ability to play nine holes in under two hours and pass a basic examination in the rules and etiquette. The number of strokes taken doesn’t matter so much; common sense applies. €3 from the fee is ring-fenced towards the cost of bringing the Ryder Cup to France in 2018, the purpose of which is to ‘grow the game.’ Furthermore, a doctor’s medical certificate must be produced before you are allowed to play in an open competition. That’s more expense.

Playing golf in France in September is enjoyable because the courses are well-maintained and the weather is perfect; similar to our best summer days. French courses are surprisingly busy but instead of playing in competitions on weekends, families play or practice together and dine in the clubhouse afterwards.

The French are dedicated ‘practicers’. Every course has extensive practice facilities. The French enjoy practicing in groups. French golfers are courteous and knowledgable. They are technique-minded but not competitive, which does not help them to play better.

Golf has grown exponentially since 1950 when there were only 4,000 licensees and 58 golf courses, compared to 600,000 licensed golfers playing on 637 courses currently.

Still France, a sports conscious country that is 15-times larger than Ireland lags behind in developing its latent, golfing talent. Consequently, only one Frenchman has ever won a major; Arnaud Massey in The Open at Hoylake in 1907. Only one Frenchman has ever played in the Ryder Cup, Jean Van De Velde in 1999.

I wouldn’t be betting on the Ryder Cup to help much. The biennial affair between Europe and USA is a relentless money-making machine that exploits rather than shares its dividends with what it calls its ‘partners.’ There has been no boom in golf participation as a result of the Ryder Cups played in Ireland or Wales. While the Ryder Cup Match in 2018 is bound to give the game in France a boost – the long-term outcome is anybody’s guess?

The reality is, like here, French golf will be dependent on how the French economy performs over the next few years. Golf remains an expensive game and, like Ireland, cost is the big stumbling block as well as the length of time it takes to play 18 holes.

In my opinion, the FFG would be better off if it used its huge resources and ‘colossal’ staff of 140 persons to develop domestic club golf in France, particularly cheap, public, pay and play courses that would be both fun and affordable. In France, top amateurs and pros come from mostly well-to-do backgrounds. Tiger’s with full bellies do not make the best hunters!

Traditionally, French golfers have looked on golf as an enjoyable, relaxing walk in a beautiful garden rather than suffer the self-flagellation and embarrassment that can arise from playing in tournaments.

Ormesson Golf Club in Paris is a peculiar example from an Irish perspective. Twice the French and European champions in recent years, Ormesson’s members rarely play in competitions. Ormesson hadn’t a single domestic competition this year! The Ormesson team that won those championships was made up of ‘imported mercenaries.’ The owner of Ormesson must have thought they were running a professional football team! The foolishness of that gambit is manifested in no Ormesson team taking part in this year’s French championship – no sponsorship, no players!

At the moment, the economy in France is similarly ‘flat’ to ours. French tourism is down 7% and it shows. I was shocked by the lack of ‘buzz’ on the streets of Paris and by the number of sales posters and cheap, poor quality goods in the stores. In that environment, ordinary people simply cannot afford the expense involved in taking up golf.

Despite all of that negativity, the Golf National course where the Ryder Cup will be played is stunning. TV does not do it justice. With so many risk and reward holes, it’s perfect for match play and spectating. The players will be on tenterhooks walking on tightropes between never-ending water hazards. Any missteps will result in a ball and a hole going down the drain.

For generations, those who could afford to play golf in France kept it a closely guarded secret by making the game invisible, expensive and inaccessible probably because it suited the upper class, exclusive image they wanted to project. If the Ryder Cup can help to change that disposition it will be no bad thing.