Teeing off on eighteen, I hit a scorcher down the center of the fairway, its low trajectory biting into the wind. As I stood admiring my drive, all of a sudden I heard that sickening thwock that every golfer keeps stored in his closet of auditory nightmares--the sound of dimpled spheroid concussing solid rock. My shot, it seems, had collided with the upper few inches of a four-foot-high stone wall that ran athwart the otherwise pristine fairway. I watched the ball rebound a good thirty yards straight toward me, cancelling any hope of par.
What right, you may ask, has a stone wall to trundle across the fairway of the closing hole on any sanely designed course?The answer pertains to where I was playing. This was no resort complex in Aspen or Vail, no Nicklaus special among the Florida mangroves. I was at Château de Chailly [shy-EE], in the Burgundy region of central France. The stone wall had been built centuries ago to demarcate royal ground. The course itself was only ten years old, and had its architects set out to dismantle the wall that interfered with their finishing par five, they would have been arrested for despoiling the patrimony.
Château Golf: The phrase itself, while hinting at oxymoron, reverberates with inklings of the sybaritic. That perfect fall afternoon, I was in the middle of a blissful week of dining and sleeping where kings had once cavorted with their mistresses, then striding forth at dawn to do combat on some of the finest golf courses in France. In recent years, nine historic Châteaux around France have formed a loose consortium, offering visitors Michelin-rated lodgings and cuisine conjoined with golf to write home about on grounds where courtiers used to stalk the partridge and the fox. VoilÀ: Château Golf.
One does not at first think of France as a place to play golf. Over the years, I had played on a half-dozen public courses scattered around l'Hexagone (as the French like to call their six-sided country), finding them uniformly short, narrow and gimmicky. On the whole in France, land is so precious, and golf so underappreciated, that the notion of carving 6,500 yards of fairway, green and tee out of rolling fields or glimmering woods offends all sorts of Gallic sensibilities. Yet as the nation par excellence of connoisseurs, France also contains an influential cadre of golfing diehards who would no sooner settle for a scruffy pub-links than for a Mouton Rothschild uncorked before its time.
I began my idyll at the Domaine de Bélesbat [BAIL-eh-ba], a fifteenth-century castle that claims a woodland adjoining the sleepy little burg of Boutigny-sur-Essonne, thirty miles south of Paris. The name derives from the Old French verb s'esbattre (to get excited)--and the Château's hedonistic past lives up to its name. Here, after 1498, the Hurault family, nobles among Louis XII's in-crowd, supervised frequent ébats (frolics). Here Henri IV, who took the throne in 1589, fled the tedium of civil war and the ennui of royal marriage to loll in the arms of the beautiful Henriette d'Entragues. Here in 1725 Voltaire organized a masquerade at which he got the local priest so drunk, the cleric signed over to the agnostic author of Candide not only all his worldly belongings but also the right of succession to his ecclesiastical sinecure.