2018 Ryder Cup: Team Europe seeks home-field edge at Le Golf National

Francois Mori/Associated Press

2018 Ryder Cup: Team Europe seeks home-field edge at Le Golf National

2018 Ryder Cup

2018 Ryder Cup: Team Europe seeks home-field edge at Le Golf National

There was no déjà vu for Justin Thomas and caddie Jimmy Johnson when they played Le Golf National’s Albatross Course for the first time during this year’s HNA French Open.

The pair couldn’t think of an American course comparable to this year’s Ryder Cup venue. Thomas is only 25 and could perhaps be forgiven for not playing enough American courses. The same can’t be said for Johnson. The former Tour pro counts Nick Price, Charles Howell III, Adam Scott and Steve Stricker among players for whom he’s caddied over the past 21 years. He’s seen a few courses in his time.

“We were trying to think of a golf course that this reminds us of in the States, and we had a hard time,” Thomas said. “There’s so many different variables this golf course has that make it so unique to a lot of the golf courses I’ve ever played. It’s very difficult to compare it to a course we’ve played in the States.”

The official line is that French architect Hubert Chesneau designed Le Golf National with Robert von Hagge consulting on the project. Von Hagge’s colleagues contest that story, arguing Von Hagge, who died in 2010, was more than a consultant. Whatever the truth, the result is a good 7,247-yard, par-71 golf course that’s staged 26 French Opens since it opened in 1990.

Thomas’ inability to find a comparable U.S. course is surprising because water comes into play on 10 holes, especially over the closing holes. It’s also an archetypal stadium course.

The humps and hillocks providing good vantage points are not natural terrain, but the result of much earth moving. Stand to the right of the seventh hole, high above the fairway, and the view across the fairway is to flat farmland typical of the landscape around Versailles.

The stadium-style setup is most notable around the aforementioned water holes 15, 16 and 18. They sit in an amphitheater that should provide good viewing Sept. 28-30.

Perhaps Thomas struggled to find a U.S. equivalent because the course is so different to the wide-fairway, driver/wedge layouts that proliferate on the PGA Tour.

“It’s just a hard golf course,” he said. “It’s very narrow. You have to hit the fairways to have birdie chances into the greens.

Jim Furyk and Thomas Bjorn will see their teams tee it up in Paris starting Sept. 28. (Andrew Redington/Getty Images)

“I knew right when I got here it was a very difficult golf course. I knew that you had to hit it in play. You can get it snowballing pretty quickly out here if you’re not careful.”

Thomas found that out in the opening round when he missed the fairway of the par-4 fifth with a 4-iron. His ball landed 2 yards from the edge of the fairway and kicked left into a horrible lie in deep rough. He made a double-bogey six.

Even medium hitters don’t pull driver often around Le Golf National.

“I’m not hitting driver on a lot of these holes, and I would be average in the field in terms of length compared to some of the other guys,” Ian Poulter said. “They’ll be nudging irons around the golf course.”

Poulter made his 13th French Open appearance this year and said accuracy off the tee was more important than in his previous 12 appearances. “They’ve definitely pinched in a few of the fairways.”

European vice-captain Graeme McDowell agreed.

“It’s not a driver golf course; it rewards good iron play,” said McDowell, winner of the 2013 and 2014 French Opens. “I paced the seventh fairway at 275 yards off the tee and it’s 18 yards wide. The sixth fairway and the fifth fairway are very similar. These fairways are elusive.”

Tight fairways should, in theory, favor the European team because it doesn’t have the same firepower as the U.S. side.

“The old theory is tight and scruffy,” McDowell said. “They (U.S.) set it up wide with short semi-rough and middle-of-the-green pins. We always like to set it up a little tighter and a little tougher, and maybe not have the greens quite as fast.”

Poulter endorses that theory.

“The setup needs to be tight in our favor,” he said.

“If you look at how they’ve set their courses up, Medinah (2012) was no rough, Hazeltine (2016) was no rough.”

Matthew Fitzpatrick made his Ryder Cup debut two years ago and was emphatic Le Golf National favors the European team. “One hundred percent so,” he said. “We play a few more golf courses where it’s tighter off the tee. I would say the American courses I’ve played – without meaning to be rude – tend to be one-dimensional in terms of ball flight: just hit it high and long.”

America’s bombers won’t be doing much of that in Paris. Throw in slow greens that are part bent, part meadow grass and that run about 10 on the Stimpmeter, and the European team thinks it has a tailored playing field to try to win back Samuel Ryder’s prized chalice.

(Note: This story appears in the September 2018 issue of Golfweek.)

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