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Inside Les Bordes: Europe’s most exclusive golf club

Welcome to Les Bordes: a private golf club in France’s Loire Valley that is one of the most exclusive in Europe. Ben Winstanley is granted a rare visit to golf heaven

Les Bordes Golf Course review

There’s a moment on every journey to Les Bordes where you wonder whether you’re heading in the right direction at all. Driving through a never-ending corridor of trees somewhere deep in the Loire Valley with no golf course or signage in sight, the 90 miles to Paris feels like a world away. The mind starts to get a little jittery: I’ve seen Deliverance – City folk aren’t built to be lost in the wilderness for any length of time, and it’ll be dark soon.

The question nags: surely one of the most exclusive golf courses in continental Europe, a place spoken about in hushed tones by those who’ve had the fortune to step across its boundary, would have some kind of grand entrance? A big archway with L E S B O R D E S spelled out in pristine white letters? A little Magnolia Lane magic à la Augusta National?

Nope. Instead, ‘Les Bordes – Golf International’ is written on a small sign on a five-exit roundabout, with just a strip of tarmac ushering you further into the woodland. Or at least that’s what I’ve heard. Google Maps takes us to the delivery entrance where I ask the gate attendant sheepishly if they can grant us entry.

Once you do make it to this one-of-a-kind golfing destination, though, the understated arrival starts to make perfect sense. This is not a place where the country club elite go in their sports cars to make business deals on the 18th green; the very point of this fabled location is to leave the outside world behind and get lost in the forest. What awaits you as you step through the wardrobe is 46 holes of immensely high-calibre golf – this much you can probably figure out without having been – but, more than that, the promise of a freedom that only anonymity brings.

The story of Les Bordes begins with its charismatic founder Baron Marcel Bich, the entrepreneur who turned the Bic ballpoint pen and disposable razor into billion-pound phenomenons in the middle of the 20th century, and his desire for a private retreat where his family and friends could enjoy themselves away from the public eye.

Les Bordes Old Course golf review

Typical of a man who once spent many millions obsessively pursuing the America’s Cup, the most prestigious prize in yachting, Bich wasn’t looking for any old party pad. Instead, he fell in love with a 1,400-acre estate in the Sologne Forest in France and instructed American architect Robert Von Hagge to create a stand-out 18-hole golf course on it – a place where the best French golfers could train to be internationally competitive (Bich was a one-time sponsor of Jean Van de Velde).

Bich told Von Hagge to spare no expense in his pursuit of perfection, and Von Hagge duly obliged. “I’ll never forget that when I told [Bich] what the 16th hole cost – over $1m for a par three – he nearly fainted,’’ Von Hagge once joked. “He said, ‘I gave you an unlimited budget, Robert, and somehow you’ve managed to exceed it.’’’

But the baron’s faith (and chequebook) was well placed. By 1987, the ambitious design was complete and, as promised, it was quite unlike anything France had ever seen. The holes meandered through the forest, intersected by vast bodies of water that the player must tackle head-on if they are to score well. There were vast swathes of bunkering and mountains of earth moved to create dramatic changes in elevation, including the volcano-like green complex of the 10th hole, which juts upwards from the fairway like a jagged rock. In all, 12 of the 18 holes brought water into play – from the very first tee shot on the 1st to the challenging final approach to the 18th green – it was, and still is today, an utterly marvellous creation.

There are approximately 200 members now – and they’re an eclectic mix, but each is united by a deep passion for the history and culture of the sport

To play, it compares favourably to TPC Sawgrass, the home of The Players Championship on America’s east coast, but replaces Floridian palms with French woodland. In its best light – just as dawn breaks or dusk sets in – the fairways bask in a golden hue as the sun dances on the water. It’s no wonder the course has taken on mythical status among European golf fans. Von Hagge would go on to design Le Golf National’s L’Albatros course, the Parisian host of the 2018 Ryder Cup, but it is Les Bordes that remains his lasting masterpiece. It’s also a parting gift from Bich himself who passed away in 1994.

In the intervening years between the baron’s death and today, Les Bordes has remained exclusive to a secretive cohort of Bich’s inner circle and a handful of members, with access limited to other prestigious French golf clubs and the occasional golf journalist persistent enough to get an invite. Exclusivity remains paramount to this day, but the estate as a whole has lacked a clear direction – struggling between its status as a private club and as the Bich family’s one-time personal sanctuary – until recently. Control of the estate was taken over by the partners of private equity firm RoundShield Partners in 2018, and things have changed at a drastic pace.

Since then, Les Bordes Golf Club has officially formed as a private club, accessible exclusively by its members and their guests. There are approximately 200 members now – bolstered by an increased local membership during the pandemic – including golfers from the UK, neighbouring European countries, and the United States. It’s an eclectic mix, but each is united by a deep passion for the history and culture of the sport.

Much like Bich’s original lofty ambitions, the new owners of Les Bordes have long-term aspirations of offering the best private club experience in Europe. As such, they’ve completely redesigned the clubhouse and member cottages – undertaken by respected architectural practice Michaelis Boyd, the company behind Soho House in LA, Berlin and Oxfordshire – as well as introducing a host of new facilities, including a natural swimming lake with white sand beach, enhanced equestrian facilities, boating lakes, archery, fishing, cycle and electric quad paths and a new tennis centre. Hell, there’s even a go-kart track and ziplining for kids.

Les Bordes clubhouse
Les Bordes clubhouse

Les Bordes has also announced that the château the Bichs stayed in during their visits to the Sologne Forest will soon be transformed into a Six Senses resort. Expected to open in 2024, the building will include a restaurant, bar and spa facilities, with branded suites and villas hiding among the woodland around the property. There is one small caveat for hotel guests: the golf is off limits. That remains firmly members-only.

Speaking of members, Les Bordes is about to begin Phase One of its Cour du Baron development project, which will see a number of three-seven bedroom properties, also designed by Michaelis Boyd, built throughout the estate to offer members a more permanent “home away from home” when they are visiting to play the course. As part of the ownership, members will be able to offer their home back to the club to rent out when the property is vacant, should they so wish.

It doesn’t take a lot of reading to realise that Les Bordes 2.0 is set for a string of changes that ultimately will rank it as one of the most well-furnished private golf clubs in all of Europe. Does such ambition run the risk of denting the club’s exclusivity? It’s too early to really tell. But with a cap of just 500 members, you can be certain that the golf course will remain on the wishlists of many well-heeled players all over the world.

And that’s before I get to the best bit. This August, Les Bordes unveiled a brand-new 18-hole championship golf course and a ten-hole par-three course, both created by legendary architect Gil Hanse. For those among you who are not too clued up on your course design, let me tell you: this is an incredibly big deal.

Hanse has carefully sewn together the natural terrain to craft an outstanding course that feels like it was shaped by the elements rather than a man’s hand

Hanse is the world’s foremost expert on golf course restoration, and has spent the last few years returning US Open venues like Winged Foot and Los Angeles Country Club back to their sparkling best. He’s also a damn good architect in his own right, having designed the 2016 Rio Olympic Course, Scotland’s Castle Stuart, and the spectacular Black Course at the Streamsong Resort in Florida.

He is a master craftsman, a student of historic golf architecture, and possibly the best in the game right now. And the layout he has built here – oh, the layout! – I’m going to rush ahead to the spoilers to tell you that the New Course (Von Hagge’s design renamed the Old, naturally) is the most exciting to have opened in the last decade. Maybe longer. Seriously, it’s that good. The hows and whys are a little difficult to explain without gesticulating wildly at drone shots, so bear with me here.

In search of sandy turf and subtly undulating ground, Hanse has located a totally different piece of property to that utilised by Von Hagge – in fact, the two courses are a 15-minute buggy ride apart from one another, so far did the architect stretch the boundaries of the 1,400-acre estate on his mission to find the perfect ground from which to create the course.

Les Bordes New Course – golf review

Hanse has carefully sewn together the lumps and bumps of the natural terrain to craft an outstanding course that feels like it was shaped by the elements rather than a man’s hand. The effect is twofold: it creates a startling continuity with the landscape within which it sits, and makes for a rip-roaring design where each and every shot offers its own unique test.

Take, for instance, the 2nd hole. Topping out at 580 yards from the tips, this snaking par five asks the players to find a fairway guarded by bunkers left and right before making a sharp left-hand turn uphill for the layup, and firing at an intimidating green that runs away from the player, with a steep runoff for pulled shots and a couplet of bunkers down the right for players who fan their approach.

It’s a hole that requires immense concentration from the second you step onto the tee box, each shot asking its contestant to plot their way through to completion: make a mistake, and you’ll have a harder time of making par, but get it right and you’ll be rewarded with a chance of birdie. It’s my new favourite par five in world golf, and I didn’t make par in three attempts during my visit. It’s a beauty, alright, but it’s a worthy adversary too.

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Hanse’s New Course is in many ways a tale of two halves. The sandy lowlands of the front nine, somewhere between a Pinehurst and Streamsong in disposition (it’s not a coincidence both courses feature on the architect’s CV), give way to a woodland walk on the back nine more akin to the heathlands of Surrey than what you might expect in France.

Hanse specifically references the great architect Tom Simpson, responsible for the likes of Sunningdale New and New Zealand in Surrey, and the great Morfontaine just outside Paris, when talking about Les Bordes: “We had always been intrigued by the style, and certainly the strategy and the brilliance, of Tom Simpson’s golf courses,” he says. “There was the potential to create some really bold and dramatic features and strategies on the course. We had the opportunity to create a golf course that would be in balance with the low-profile nature of the site with these hole features adding to the drama.”

The back nine is where this drama really steps up a gear, with the 13th to 17th holes the strongest part of the course – deftly bringing out the best of the topography’s natural features. The driveable par four 15th, with a cavernous bunker front and centre just 50 yards short of a slim green that slopes off on both sides, is notable for its fun as much as its strategy. Hanse asks players to pick their poison: hit the hard shot now, in this case avoiding the bunker short of the green, or a more challenging second shot to a green that isn’t the easiest to stick it close. It’s an absolute thrill to try and figure out.

Elsewhere, the par-three course, called the Wild Piglet, is a condensed version of the New – with all the same strategic challenge in miniature. None of the ten holes exceed 150 yards, but that doesn’t stop the experience being an unbridled joy. So with all that said, could you play all 46 holes in a day? Speaking from experience, absolutely – and you’ll have a blast doing it. Trust me when I say: it’s worth that journey.

For more information: lesbordesgolfclub.com

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