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La Petite Balle Blanche

Carnegie's fellow Scotsmen constructed the course at Le Phare with something of the same thought in mind. The design is deceptively simple, the terrain mostly flat, the fairways passing each other in polite rows between parallel lines of trees, and the whole of the morning or afternoon walk contained within a setting that could be mistaken for a city park. Par is sixty-nine and the course a modest 5,913 yards in length, but the small greens and deftly placed bunkers punish what its Protestant builders regarded as the sin of pride (i.e., the effrontery of a golfer who refuses to know what he can and cannot do). In a dead calm, the course rewards a player's intelligence, but when the wind blows in from the Atlantic Ocean, as it almost always does at Biarritz, even an accomplished golfer would gladly accept a score of eighty.

Before playing my first round at Le Phare, I knew enough about the social scenery in late-nineteenth-century Biarritz to imagine the course decorated with portly gentlemen wearing tweed suits, also with a few women dressed in long black skirts and very large white hats, but I hadn't come across Willie Dunn's account of his meeting with Vanderbilt on the tee at number fourteen. Had I done so, I might have taken more care with the shot. Still misreading the distances on the card, confusing the French measurement in meters with the American rendering in yards, I made the mistake of playing a sand wedge. The ball fell into the Chasm, from which I was lucky to rescue a dismal five.

The numerous courses lying along the Basque coast within a fifty-mile radius of Biarritz present the player not only with a set of fine transitions between the links and woodland holes but also with a continuing commentary on the history of the game. As the dates of construction keep company with the genius of invention (wooden clubs replaced by those made of steel and graphite, the balls becoming livelier, the hazards more intimidating), the fairways narrow, the greens broaden and begin to show second and third tiers of elevation, and the player attentive to the lesson printed in the grass finds that instead of relying on the middle irons, he must depend upon the driver, preferably titanium, and the wedge, in all of its degrees of loft.

Two miles north of Biarritz in the suburb of Anglet, Chiberta was built by Tom Simpson in 1927, the same year that Bobby Jones won his first British Open at St. Andrews. Although not overly long (6,217 yards from the championship tees), Chiberta ranks as one of the ten best courses in France. And of all the courses that I managed to play in April, it was the one I most admired. Maybe I admired it because the wind wasn't blowing, which meant that I could reach the greens in the suggested number of shots, or maybe because Simpson's emphasis on simplicity (the holes shaped to fit the found landscape, the greens made to a classical rather than a baroque design) reminded me not only of Seminole and Cypress Point but also of the incomparable Bobby carrying no more than nine clubs, among them a mashie and a cleek, followed around the Old Course by a crowd of young men wearing argyle socks and knickerbocker trousers.

Chiberta divides into two parts: eleven links holes wanderingacross the sand barrens along or just behind the beach, and seven holes on the inland side of the public coast road, set among the quietness of pine trees. Par is seventy, with four of the five par-three holes on the back nine and the seaward side of the card. Simpson placed only a few small bunkers (usually two, never more than three) beside the spacious greens, but he placed them in such a way that they cannot be trifled with. Nor is it possible to discount the rough, which extends the grudging courtesy of a thin first cut, but quickly smothers under heavy grass any ball hit more than five yards too far to the left or right. The holes that seemed to me the loveliest were the second (a short par four that presents the first, sudden view of the sea), the fifth (a long par three, uphill from an elevated tee to an even more elevated green) and the eighteenth (a long par four, dog-legged left through a narrow avenue of trees). At Chiberta I also came across a refinement that I hadn't seen in the United States--a practice tee from which the player hits balls at flags and yard markers floating in a pond. It's much easier, also a good deal more satisfying, to measure the distance of one's shots by watching where a ball splashesinto water than where it falls on grass, but I never discovered how the management recovered the balls or whether anybody thought it worth the trouble to dredge the pond or send a diver with an oyster net.

Another thirty-five miles north of Biarritz but still on theBay of Biscay, the course at Moliets (par seventy-two, 6,789 yards, built by Robert Trent Jones in 1989) proceeds along the lines of the modern game and follows a design that could only have been made with heavy machinery. Except for three holes that open abruptly onto sand dunes and the sea, the fairways have been forced through tall stands of pine trees. The long and often steep portages between green and tee make the use of a cart an unfortunate necessity. But four of the holes (the fifth, a long par five around a pond; the eighth, a short par three dropping steeply downhill to a concealed green; and the par fours at numbers ten and thirteen) I thought as fine as any I've ever seen.

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