NORMANDY, France - Sixty years on from D-Day, Normandy on the northern French coast is a region of natural beauty where man's inhumanity to man is recalled with passion and dignity - but many of the wounds are bound by some of the better things of life, golf not least among them.
Omaha Beach, where U.S. forces suffered the heaviest casualties of the landings, is now a 27-hole golf complex where each of the nine holes in the loop closest to the sea, known as La Mer, are named after famous World War II war heroes, among them Churchill and Eisenhower, Patton and Montgomery. So, stand to! Eye on the ball!
The signature hole is the sixth, a dog-leg par 4 with large bunkers on both sides of the fairway. Look closely and you still see the concrete plinths of the other sort of bunker, the concrete gun emplacements which made life hell for the invading army, many of the survivors of which attended the commemorative events.
The sixth green is perched on the cliff edge, scaled 60 years ago by the heroes of General Bradley's First Army. Across are spectacular views to the historic remains of Mulberry Harbour.
Over a 40-mile stretch are the landing beaches of other American, British and Canadian forces - Utah just to the west, Gold, Juno and Sword to the east.
Parts of the golf course itself were used by Stephen Spielberg for his memorable film 'Saving Private Ryan'. Explode out of your bunker and you are glad to live when you do.
The best loops to play are La Mer and Bocage, set in an apple orchard, though the very word probably brings a chill to veterans of the bitter campaign that followed the landings.
Bocage stands for the earth and stone buttressed hedges which criss-cross the interior rural landscape - natural defence lines which made life a nightmare for invading forces.
The Etang 18-holes more illustrate the water hazards of the neighbourhood, but a friendly clubhouse quickly calms a fevered golfing brow.
Normandy is famous for its dairy produce, not least its creamy cheeses - Pont l'Eveque and Camembert to name but two - and for apple orchards producing Calvados, the apple brandy which will hit the spot any time you shoot par. Fish, seafood and Charolais beef steaks are other conquering items.
"Do you have many German visitors?" I once disingenuously asked the Omaha Beach golf director over a very agreeable lunch. He smiled: "Yes, and Dutch and Scandinavians, too. The war was a long time ago."
QED. All the same, the commemorative events, especially those around June 6, were a sobering reminder of the high price paid, so subsequent generations pursue their pleasures in peace.
Normandy is divided into two regions - Basse (lower) and Haute (higher) - with a lengthy coastline bordering the English Channel - La Manche, of course, to the French.
The many air and sea routes from England across the Channel were supplemented ten years ago by Eurotunnel, and France's national tourist office has backed a huge explosion in golfing facilities.
In 1960 France had 95 courses. Now there are 523, and, as the British soon found, they come relatively cheap, well maintained and accessible.
It's no surprise U.S. architects like Pete Dye, the Trent Joneses, Ronald Fream, von Hagge and Jack Nicklaus have contributed in no small part to modern French design. Normandy has all of 37 courses - some of them nine-holers, it's true, but a goodly few are in the top rank.
Much of this is to the benefit of visitors. In spite of the tour success of Jean van de Velde, Thomas Levet and Raphael Jacquelin, there are little more than 300,000 French golfers in a country almost twice the size of Great Britain - which boasts nearer four million regular players.
New auto-routes from the cross-channel ports or from Paris have further reduced journey times to the invasion beaches, and the historic cities and towns of Rouen, Deauville, Caen, Bayeux, Falaise, Mont St Michel and Honfleur, from which Samuel de Champlain set out to colonise Canada.
Nor does the golfer lack for the vaunted French cuisine, in clubhouse or restaurant. Here there's all to play for, and, as prize for the local weekly medal, that may include a pair of giant live lobsters. C'est vrai! I've seen it for myself!
Omaha Beach, naturally. The 1985 design of the prime two loops - Mer (Sea) and Bocage (Hedgerow) (6,571 yards, par 72) - are simple and unfussy with the emphasis on good driving.
Hilly in places, this means foot-up, ball-down stance, or the reverse, on quite a few shots. But if you pull or slice them, keep it in perspective. Admire the Channel views and be glad you are doing what you are doing.
There's always Etang for the odd wild drive after a very good lunch in the companionable clubhouse.
Houlgate (6,309 yards, par 72): Just inland from Gonneville sur Mer, top British designers Peter Alliss and Dave Thomas cleverly contrasted wind-swept hill and bosky valley in the grounds of the Chateau de Beuzeval.
Deauville - St Gatien Golf Club (6626 yards, par 71). Englishman Tom Simpson used his brilliant parkland design flair for a course up there with the horse racing, yearling fair, world polo championship and American film festival.
Also the Planches - a plank promenade running the whole length of the beach, made of azobe, a dark, purplish wood from equatorial Africa, on which, since the 1860s, the feet of countless Parisians have regularly strutted their stuff.
The course? Three loops of nine, the red and white being the true 18, but Henry Cotton's later Blue nine are well worth a bash.
L'Amiraute (6,660 yards, par 73). Americans will surely relish this no-expense-spared modern lay-out, with huge fairways and well protected greens in a valley close to Deauville.
Maybe best for matchplay or stableford. Plenty of water, sand and - a novel hazard - contemporary sculptures. Mostly flat, so it can be walked, though carts are readily available as with most French courses.
Saint-Julien (6,638 yards, par 71). New ownership has transformed the farmhouse-clubhouse nine miles south of Deauville-Honfleur, and the course has matured in to a serious challenge.
Fairways have been cleverly reshaped for accurate, open-shouldered driving, some holes re-ordered and trees and shrubs subtly introduced. Fast greens are in excellent shape.
Etratat (6,680 yards, par 72). A cliff-top sensation 31 miles north-east of Deauville and 42 miles west of Dieppe, Etratat was the home of Armand Massy, France's lone Open champion.
A tight, if straightforward start warms up along its downland way, offering sensational views across oddly-shaped chalk cliffs to the busy Channel.
Easy on the feet, though with a stiffish set of climbs around the turn.
Dieppe (6,440 yards, par 70). World War II and Rommel's Atlantic Wall put paid to Willie Park's 1897 lay-out, but the modern course on Normandy's eastern border with the Pas de Calais region has steadily gained popularity.
It incorporates nine inland park-style holes and nine cliff-top holes with magnificent sea views. A port as well as a resort older than St Gatien Golf Club, Dieppe saw the raid of 1942 which, at the cost of 7,000 mainly Canadian dead, wounded or captured, had the Allies successfully rethinking their strategy for the 1944 Normandy landings. The sacrifice was not in vain.
Champ de Bataille (6,160 yards, par 72). Well worth the 35-mile trip south of Rouen, this stunningly beautiful course in the grounds of a 17th century chateau demands every club in the bag for its narrow fairways, prolific water and testing dog legs.
Two plain-Jane start and finish holes have been eliminated, and a new clubhouse adds a note of luxury.
La Vaudreuil (6,434 yards, par 73): Near Louviers, a stunning thatched manor house serves as clubhouse and Hawtree-designed holes serve to test the better player.
Le Havre (6,143 yards, par 72): Flattish parkland, protected from Channel breezes by a ring of conifers.
Caen (6,658 yards, par 72): Uncomplicated lay-out set in a woodland valley halfway between Omaha Beach and Deauville.
Deauville - St Gatien Golf Club (6,669 yards, par 72, 9 holes 3,338 yards, par 36): Challenging holes through a forested valley in Deauville, others climbing on to a plateau.
Saint -Saens (5,945 yards, par 70): Enjoyable, not-too-difficult, but a tough, watery start out of the Chateau clubhouse.
Rebetz (6,475 yards, par 73); Modern, links-style lay-out in middle Normandy.
Golf Parc (6,863 yards, par 72): 20 miles south of Evreux, well worth a detour for sculpted, tree-lined fairways - buggies necessary, but included in green fees.
Le Prieure (West: 6,931 yards, par 72; East: 6,773 yards, par 72): 11th century Priory clubhouse, private club, but visitors welcome for parkland courses which have hosted a recent French Ladies Open.
Evreux (6,925 yards, par 72): Ten-year-old course in hilly, watery terrain is maturing into the French big league.
French hotels frequently incorporate top-quality restaurants. Michelin, the tyre company, are equally famous for their national and regional hotel and restaurant guides.
These are as good a starting point as any for Normandy. See www.ViaMichelin.com.
Other info: www.normandy-tourism org; www.franceguide.com
French courses and the handicapping system are under the direct control of the French Golf Federation with each course designated a slope value, as with the USA.
English is widely spoken, and almost universally at golf clubs. Soft spikes are encouraged if not obligatory. Buggies are widely available.
Tourist offices, hotels or operators may provide discounted golf passes and tee booking services. See www.calvados-tourisme.com
Average mid-season weekday round is 38 Euros, and 41 at weekends. Mid-season is April-June, September-October. Away from Deauville, high season of July-August may not see crowded courses. Much of Paris makes for the south.
Maison de la France, the national tourist organisation, offers valuable general service on www.franceguide.com
The French Golf Federation offers club details and other services on www.ffgolf.org
June 11, 2004
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