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Le Jeu Provençal

On the other side of that hill is Bandol. It's known for great wine. After we play we could have some at L'Oulivo, the best local food you can get, but, malheureusement, it's closed today." With an apologetic shrug, François Levy delivered a blistering drive toward the tenth hole at Golf de Frégate, one of the busiest--and prettiest--golf courses in the South of France.

Golf is not the word that comes to mind when one thinks of Provence. Wine, perhaps. Or Cezanne. Food, certainly--ratatouille, aioli and, as Emile Zola once reminded Gustave Flaubert, "bouillabaisse, my friend, the food of a thundering God breathing fire into my body." But, curious as it sounds, like the rest of the civilized world, France--and Provence--have gone golf crazy.

The rumor was that the French federal government even set a goal to build two thousand golf courses by the year 2000. It has made it more than a quarter of the way. Five hundred eighty-five courses now flag the map from Brittany to the Côte d'Azur, a real improvement when you consider that in the 1980s there were more golf courses in Palm Springs than in all of France.

These days, there are some fifty courses on the glaciated coastal terrain from the Rhône River east to the Italian border. Built into the rocky red earth of old vineyards and olive groves, they are surprisingly true to the abstract Provence that Americans carry around inside their heads. With seventeenth-century castles ennobling the farther vistas, your fairway drives follow the green geometry of mourvèdre and grenache grapevines, draw hard, white lines across the dusky lace of olive trees and carry over stone walls built by the land's first farmers. Esters of crushed wild thyme and rosemary perfume your forays into the rough, and hilltops greet you with an astonishment of lavender, the fields laid out in purple ribbons along the bright blue cloth of the Mediterranean.

Few Americans have discovered golf-en-Provence, but France's 300,000 native golfers have, as have other Europeans. A clutch of Dutch golfers at the Nice International Airport offer their own emphatic list of favorites: Sainte-Maxime! Sainte-Baume! Saint-Endréol! Barbaroux! The names ring out, more liturgical than sporting. How to choose?

One criterion might be, Which course can you find?The French, in their artistic genius, have neglected to provide accurate directions--printed, roadside or otherwise--that translate into an ETA. Promotional brochures are charmingly opaque. One says "Drive in France is Open!" Then there is the endearing "Golfy Club" with its "Golfy Leadbetter Academy," available to "golfers of all different horizons and morphological parameters." If those of us fortunate enough to have spent our entire junior year of college dashing around southern France on a mobilette cannot make our tee times, God help the child who studied Spanish in Des Moines.

"Yes, it's a problem," agreed Levy. A scratch golfer himself, he recently spent seven years in San Clemente, California. He misses American-style golf. But he is also enjoying his membership at Le Frégate, where he plays almost every day.

Le Frégate is built into hill vineyards facing the sea between the coastal resort towns of Bandol and St.-Cyr-Sur-Mer. An officially rated eighteen-hole championship par seventy-two, it is known for its terraced tees (five per hole), curvaceous Brigitte Bardot fairways, grassy bunkers and swing-stopping panoramas of the wild, blue Mediterranean yonder.

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