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La Petite Balle Blanche

Moliets ranks as one of the fifteen best courses not only in France but also in the whole of Europe, and so does the course at Seignosse, a few miles farther south, also built by an American, Robert von Hagge, in 1989. The two courses didn't appear in the same pine forest as a matter of blind chance. The late François Mitterrand was an enthusiastic golfer and a native of southwestern France. As president of the country, he was obliged to assist the tourist industry, and if golf courses were meant to drum up customers for the hotel and restaurant trades, why not build them at points convenient to his residence in the Landes?On the day that I had arranged to play Seignosse (par seventy-two, 6,736 yards), the weather turned foul, a fierce wind off the Atlantic bringing hail as well as rain. But I borrowed a cart and drove around the course's eighteen holes, none of them easy or dull, the large greens stepped with higher and lower terraces, the dogleg holes turning at angles considerably sharper than those at Chiberta or Le Phare, and three particularly dramatic par-four holes (two, fourteen and seventeen) confronting the player with approach shots to water-guarded greens.

The French go to no small trouble to accommodate the passions of the touring amateurs to whom they refer as "les amoureaux de la petite balle blanche," and had time permitted I would have liked to play the courses at Hossegor (1930) and Arcangues (1991), as well as the one at Chantaco (1928), five miles south of Biarritz near the fishing port of St. Jean de Luz. Even in the crowded summer season of July and August, the green fees don't come to much more than fifty dollars, and it's remarkably easy to schedule a tee time at any one of the twelve courses in the vicinity of Biarritz to which road signs, as prominent as those pointing to Bordeaux and Bayonne, indicate the direction of le golf. All the good courses are public, and for golfers who wish to see something of the countryside "hors limite" (i.e., beyond the out-of-bounds stakes), the hotels gladly arrange expeditions associated with a secondary interest--"Golf et Vin," "Golf et Gastronomie," "Golf et Vie aux Chateaux," etc. The French don't make much use of caddies--in four days I saw only two, both women--and they prefer the pullcart (un chariot) to the golf cart (une voiturette) because a day's walk in the country counts as athletic exercise (le sport) and fits the traditional form of the game (l'esprit Britannique de ses concepteurs).

But despite their willingness to listen to Anglophones talk about how all would have been well if only the second shot at number fifteen hadn't gone missing in the rough, the French tend to think of golf as a foreign game, and they suffer the tales of its victories and defeats in the way that they might smile at jokes in Japanese. They don't mind supplying the instruments of self-torment--their courses mostly designed by Englishmen or Americans, their golf magazines intent upon recommending oracular swing thoughts similar to those sprung from the godlike brows of Claude Harmon or Johnny Miller--but their feeling for the game doesn't rise to the pitch of an obsession. The little book of rules presented to a player at Le Phare describes the course as "le golf de dialogue," a diverting arrangement of trees, grass and sand meant to encourage conversation. The architecture of the clubhouses bears out the impression of a game not to be taken too seriously. In contrast to the mansions in the grand American manner, the buildings are small and unpretentious, the restaurants impromptu collections of café tables, the golf shops nothing more than standard conveniences, like the scorecards and the bars.

Curious as to why I had never seen the name of a French player in the higher ranks of the PGA or European tours, I asked the question of an American professional, Michael Ma-gher, who conducts a golf school at Ilbarritz, a village two miles south of the city of Biarritz and ten miles north of the Spanish border. The school stands on a picturesque bluff at the edge of the sea, laid out across seventeen acres of well-groomed grass in the form of a broad oval around which a succession of thirteen tees offer shots of different lengths at varying angles (from 200 yards, 190 yards, 180 yards, etc.) to three interior greens surrounded by water and sand. From any point on the oval, the views of the coastline resemble those along the Monterey Peninsula, and were I to go again to play the courses in southwestern France, I'd begin with a day at Ilbarritz, working my way around its stations of the cross.

Unfortunately it was raining heavily on the afternoon that I showed up with the hope of correcting what I'd begun to guess was a mistake with the start of my downswing (the same day I'd missed the chance to play Seignosse), but I found Magher at the clubhouse, reviewing the recent Masters tournament on a tape he intended to employ as a teaching device.

The French, he said, still consider golf an amusement, a pastime for the children of the more-or-less-idle rich, and so they shirk the long hours of obligatory practice. Most of them also have learned what he called "the left-sided game," prompting them to hit the ball on the low trajectories convenient to Le Phare but futile at Moliets. Loyal to the theory of David Leadbetter, Magher teaches "the right-sided game," of which the Spaniards, among them Seve Ballesteros and Jose Maria Olazabal, apparently enjoy a better understanding than the French. He wasn't sure why--possibly because as boys most Spaniards play the Basque game of pelota and thus instinctively grasp the proper movement of the shoulders and upper back.

Together with the directeurs de golfs at Chiberta and Moliets, Magher hoped that the attractions of the game along the Basque coast might one day compare with those on the shores of Scotland or North Carolina. Maybe the courses wouldn't be as numerous or as difficult, he said, but the food is better and so is the wine. The observation doesn't brook much argument. The district of southwestern France encompasses the whole of the province of Aquitaine, bounded on the south by Le Pays Basque, in the north by Bordeaux and the vineyards on the estuary of the Gironde. The chefs in and around Biarritz make exuberant use of the wine from Medoc and the Dordogne, the duck from Pèrigord, the ham and chocolate from Bayonne.


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