Since there are only 15,000 golfers in France out of a population of 46 million, most Frenchmen are inclined to agree with George Bernard Shaw's description of the game as a "wonderful walk spoiled by a little white ball." More exactly, the French regard golf as an Anglo-Saxon gentleman's pastime for the rich, the old and the fat.
But next week an important golf tournament will be played in France at Saint-Nom-la-Bret�che, an attractive if not exactly elegant course located on the site of one of Louis XIV's farmyards near Versailles—the clubhouse was actually a large barn on what was Louis' "royal farm." Built in the 18th century of roughhewn stone, it is replete with ivy and roses, fountains and a moat from which swans trumpet at golfers on the first tee. There are now indications that what is going to happen at Saint-Nom-la-Bret�che will have considerable influence on the French view of golf. The event is the 11th International Golf Championship. Thirty-three countries have named two-man teams to compete for the trophy known as the Canada Cup, and the fact that the best golfers in the world will be on display at Louis' farm is exciting the French press.
Until recently French newspapers totally ignored golf. The country's sports fans had never heard of Arnold Palmer or Jack Nicklaus. They knew Ray Charles, but who, mon dieu, was Bob Charles? Lately, however, the conservative morning newspaper Le Figaro and the sports daily L'Equipe have been running golf articles almost every day.
Just how many French spectators will turn out to watch Palmer and Nicklaus, who are representing the U.S., and three score and four other players go around Saint-Nom-la-Bret�che four days in a row is still a mystery. Alert to every opportunity to increase the gallery, the tournament committee has let it be known that the Duke of Windsor, ex-King Leopold, Italian Prince Ruspoli and Prince Michel de Bourbon-Parme may well be following the play. The committee also made arrangements to employ a number of girl caddies dressed in blue uniforms topped off by red berets. Such moves should help with those segments of the French sporting public that are royalty-minded or girl-minded—i.e., about all of it.
Advance ticket sales have been brisk—in American circles. The U.S. Army and SHAPE report keen interest in the Canada Cup from Barcelona to Berlin. Chartered planes and trains are expected to bring thousands of golf-loving American soldiers to Saint-Nom-la-Bret�che. So Arnie's Army will be regular Army.
The Canada Cup may put golf on the sports map of France for the first time, but historians can point out that golf was being played in France when St. Andrews was still a sand dune. The first reference to the game dates back to 1421 and the Hundred Years' War. A Scottish expeditionary force had come to help the French, who were besieged by the English at the town of Baug� in Anjou. It was Easter, and a holiday truce was declared. Saturday evening the English treacherously attacked, confident that they would surprise the Scots at the dinner table. But, taking advantage of the truce, the Scots were miles away playing golf. They spotted the English assailants, sounded the alarm, and the attackers were routed.
The history of golf in France seems curiously linked to wars with the English. The officers of a Scottish regiment under the Duke of Wellington played golf in the meadows around Pau in the Pyrenees in 1814, and it was at Pau in 1856 that the first French golf club was founded. By the turn of the century, the formal-minded French were playing golf in scarlet coats with gold buttons at Mesnil-le-Roi near the horse racing town of Maisons-Laffitte, and the sport had spread to Biarritz and Cannes. At the outbreak of World War I France had 32 golf courses.
Today there are about 80 courses in the country, a dozen of them in the Paris area. Several more are under construction or in the blueprint stage, and the sport would be doing even better if the last war had not caused damage at a great many courses. Antiaircraft batteries, for example, took over La Boulie, near Versailles, while courses at Etretat, Deauville and Cannes were truffled with land mines. Cabbages and leeks sprouted from fairways at Le Havre, Divonne-les-Bains and Nancy. Even now, there is not a single public course in France. Many courses, like Saint-Cloud and Saint-Nom-la-Bret�che, are owned by golf-playing shareholders. A mineral water company is proprietor of the Evian course, and hotels own one at Deauville. Institut de France, the famous cultural institution, inherited the Chantilly course and runs it, while Mont-Agel belongs to the Monte Carlo Casino.
Yearly club dues in France range from a low of $80 to $600. Green fees vary from $3 during the week on one of the less swank courses to $15 on weekends at the best clubs. That seems like a lot of money to Frenchmen, who are accustomed to paying 40� or 50� for bleacher seats at soccer games or bicycle races.
"Most unfortunately," says Prince Michel de Bourbon-Parme, president of the Saint-Nom-la-Bret�che club, "it is very expensive to play golf in France. Another brake on golf's popularity is psychological. If you are a Frenchman who does not play golf, you think it is the silliest game in the world. Golf has a great future in France, but first the middle class must cease to regard it as an upper-class pastime akin to polo."