The very fact that playing golf is a status symbol in France ought to induce bourgeois Frenchmen to try the game. "After all," says Jacques L�glise, president of the French Golf Federation, "who would have thought 10 years ago that the wine-and brandy-drinking French would adopt Scotch whisky as a national beverage? Why not now the Scots game of golf?"
Enough golf is played in France to provide a livelihood for 120 professionals. The proportion of Basques among these pros is about as high as that of Irishmen on the New York City police force. French golf pros are obliged to earn their living giving lessons because there is no professional tour. In fact, 1963 was considered by French pros as an exceptionally good year for tournaments, because there were seven of them instead of the usual two or three. The top prize of $5,000 or $6,000 is also regarded as pretty good. Not that French pros are unaware of the American golfers' pro tour and their fabulous winnings. But they don't complain, undoubtedly because they do well giving lessons. For fear of "le fisc" (internal revenue department), French pros will not publicly estimate their earnings, but the better ones probably make $10,000 to $15,000 a year.
As the number of golf courses has risen from around 55 in 1946 to the present 80, French golfers have tripled their ranks from 5,000 to 15,000. The latter figure is accurate, because the document-loving French hand out "licenses" to anyone practicing any sport, from ping-pong to pole-vaulting. Fully a third of France's 15,000 golfers are women, and the general quality of their play is good. Many take lessons for months before playing their first round.
Led by a lady
There have been no Bobby Joneses in French golfing history, nor is there a Palmer or Nicklaus on the scene today. Only once has a French player won the British Open, and that was Arnaud Massy way back in 1907. The names of the French competitors in the Canada Cup, Jean Garaialde and Jean-Claude Harismendy (both Basques), are unknown outside their golfing circles. Sport followers recognize only one name in French golf—that of Brigitte Varangot, 23, who, despite tonsilitis, won the British women's amateur championship at Newcastle, Ireland late last month. L'Equipe splashed the story of her victory under a front page headline: FRENCH EXPLOIT IN GOLF.
The course on which host pros Garaialde and Harismendy must confront the world's best next week is located half an hour from Paris and hardly a tourist's walk from Versailles. The nearest villages are Saint-Nom and La Bret�che, hence the name of the club. This lovely region is known as Ile-de-France. Nowadays scout troops and Sunday picnickers wander over the area's green rolling hills, but for centuries it was a favorite section of Bourbon kings and their courtiers. That explains why the clubhouse of Saint-Nom-la-Bret�che cuts so superb an architectural figure, ancient barn though it is.
If the clubhouse is a distinctive two centuries old, the course is not, and more's the pity. Five years ago the fairways of Saint-Nom-la-Bret�che were hilly slopes planted with beets and potatoes. Like a good wine, a golf course should have a few years to mellow, and five years are not enough. Saint-Nom-la-Bret�che has almost no trees—there is but one short lane of them on two holes and a golfer would have to work very hard to get into trouble among them. The course is liberally trapped but, unaccountably, some of the traps were built backward. Their high side is away from the green, while their low side flows toward the putting surface, making it a simple matter to putt or chip out of them. A 6,821-yard par-73 layout, it has three very easy par 5s that big hitters are going to birdie frequently.
On the other hand, its fairways are fine at any time and are now especially lush—thanks to a wretched summer in which there has been nothing but rain. The greens are both good and treacherous. They are extremely fast, and this may in the end prove to be the most important factor in deciding who wins this year's Canada Cup.
In Palmer and Nicklaus the U.S. has as strong a team as has ever represented it—and five of its previous teams have been good enough to win. The inclination is to think this pair will prove unbeatable. But if Saint-Nom-la-Bret�che's greens stay extra fast, the safest way to hit into them may be with pitch-and-run shots instead of irons smacked boldly to the pin. Americans are less familiar with this pitch-and-run style of play than most foreign golfers and don't much care for it. This could counterbalance some of the U.S. advantage off the tees—no two-man team has ever hit woods any farther than Palmer and Nicklaus—and make a close match of it.
Prince Michel de Bourbon-Parme, admittedly a prejudiced observer, considers the advantage of local knowledge and says the U.S. may rightly worry about teams with such internationally experienced players as Bob Charles, Roberto de Vicenzo and the especially dangerous Gary Player on them, but says Palmer and Nicklaus had better not forget the French. He points out that the Japanese won in Tokyo and the Australians in Melbourne, and he claims there is an excellent chance for a French victory at Saint-Nom-la-Bret�che. Louis XIV would like that.