Les Bordes Golf Club earned a big reputation in the 1980s for its outstanding (and outstandingly tough) golf course. Today, it's being transformed into a family-friendly home-from-home in the Loire Valley, with horses, go-karts and even an inland beach, plus a new course that's even better — and much more forgiving — than the original. Toby Keel paid a visit.
It’s dawn in the Loire Valley. The morning mist rises off the lake, at the side of which a perfectly-manicured green creeps out into the water. The sun is coming up behind the distant trees, while a swan paddles lazily here and there, looking for an early breakfast. Listen carefully and you might just hear the distant thwack of a ball as a different type of early bird tees off from the nearby 1st tee. At moments like these, Les Bordes — a private members’ golf club a couple of hours from central Paris — feels like a very special place.
It also feels like the antithesis of what we think of as ‘golf property’. That phrase usually conjures an image of a ribbon of green fairway — probably in Spain or Florida or the Algarve — flanked on either side by identikit villas wedged in almost on top of each other, with the intention of maximising the developer’s profits at the expense of the residents’ quality of life.
It doesn’t have to be this way, and at the best places they’ve known that for a long time. The great golfing residential estates of Surrey — Wentworth and St George’s Hill — were conceived by the builder W.G. Tarrant, who knew full well that close-but-not-too-close was the ideal distance for a house to sit from a golf course. As Les Bordes completes a transformation from place to play golf into a place to come and enjoy the good life, Tarrant’s vision seems to be the inspiration, with the new houses pleasantly separated from the facilities. This iconic golf club is still a place where golf is loved, but now it’s one where golf is only part of the story. And that story is heading in a very promising direction.
The club was founded in 1986 by Baron Marcel Bich, the man who bought the patent for a clever pen design created by a Hungarian-Argentine inventor called Laszlo Biro, tweaked it to his own liking and created the pen that launched the Bic company, amassing a colossal fortune as he did so. Bich, an Italian-born Frenchman, used his wealth to buy the 1,400-acres Les Bordes Estate, commissioning and American golf course architect named Robert von Hagge to create a course that, right from the start, has won a reputation as being among the very best course in Europe.
It’s also one of the hardest: for years, the course record (held by Jean van de Velde) was 71, and any member managing to break 80 had the feat commemorated on an honours board in the clubhouse. Les Bordes was, quite simply, an elite golf course for serious golfers.
Fast forward 35 years and the club is changing, and quickly. Since 2018 it’s been owned by a London-based RoundShield Partners, a private equity firm founded by keen golfer Driss Benkirane, who has a completely new vision for the place that centres on the ‘Cour du Baron’ residences. This is a string of 32 properties (in the first phase) being spaced out across the estate, ranging from three-bed homes just under 2,000 sq ft (and starting at around €800,000) up to six-bedroom houses of two and a half times that size — with prices to match.
There’s no getting away from it: that is a lot of money, especially in the context of local prices. Not far away in Selles-sur-cher we came across this 14-bedroom chateau with 35 acres of land plus a pair of gites for €850,000 — albeit with a lot of work to be done, but still… Throw in the cost of Les Bordes club membership itself (unpublicised, but similar clubs ask for mid-five-figures for a debenture on joining, then annual subs of mid-four-figures) and it’s clear that this is a place that’s looking to a well-heeled, high-flying clientele. Serving this market has served international-focused clubs such as Augusta National and Loch Lomond well, as they’ve long attracted members from across the globe; and Les Bordes is trying to capture those golfers as well as catering for those seeking a second home as well as a second golf club.
In that sense, it’s making its case in a distinctly 21st century manner. Gone are the days when golfers would regularly leave wives and families behind as they headed off to play for a few days with friends; Les Bordes is a place where the family can come too, and be just as happy to be there as the those content to chase a small ball around a glorified field.
This is not so much a millionaire’s playground as a millionaire’s family playground. Instead of just a super-tough golf course, there is now horse riding, a go-karting track and a boating lake with natural swimming pool and artificial beach off to one side.
Did we mention tennis? Not yet, but there are a string of courts that look capable to staging a small tournament. Archery, fishing, quad biking and an adventure playground are also available, while some giant ziplines are apparently being created.
There’s even an exotic petting zoo that has a touch of the medieval menagerie about it, with giant rabbits, miniature horses and exotic-looking South American chickens to amuse and delight the children. A spa is in the works, and a shopping village is planned which will showcase the finest local produce — cheese and wine are top of that list, given the location in the Loire Valley.
The plan seems clear: keep the non-golfers happy, and the golfers will be able to get far more out of the place. Instead of leaving their nearest and dearest behind, or dragging them reluctantly along to a place where golf is the only show in town, Les Bordes is aiming to become a place that the entire clan will be only too happy to come for a few days away, and a place where you’ll meet up with friends you’ve met at the club.
That’s the plan, at least. While most of the fun stuff is up and running, but the spa doesn’t yet exist, no does the little shopping village, and the houses are as yet unbuilt — they’re being sold off plan only to members, who’ll have first refusal until some time later in 2022. The club isn’t actively soliciting new members, either; since the sotto voce word around the club is that they want to make sure that those who come here really buy in to the vision, so much so that they’re willing to make a leap of faith.
Bigger groups will soon be welcome too, as a rather magnificent 19th century folly, the Château Bel Air, is being turned into a Six Senses hotel, with the project being handled by architects Michaelis Boyd, of Soho House fame, and interior design house Morpheus & Co, who created the stunning Six Senses Courchevel residences, among others.
That architect-interior design team is also responsible for the Cour du Baron houses (they’re building both contemporary and traditional options) while the existing lodges near the clubhouse have already been refurbished in the style which the rest of the club will follow.
It’s heady list of projects, one which could almost make you forget about the golf — almost, but not quite. For the crown jewel of the new-look Les Bordes is the New Course, a beautiful track that’s been created by renowned golf course architect Gil Hanse, who (with partner Jim Wagner) has renovated seemingly half the courses that host the US Open, and has created from scratch places including the magnificent Castle Stuart in Scotland and the 2016 Olympic golf course in Rio. The New Course is Hanse’s first layout in mainland Europe, one inspired partly by the heathland courses of Surrey and Hampshire, and partly by Pine Valley in New Jersey — a course long ranked in the top three courses in the world, and a place where Hanse himself is a member.
The contrast between the Old and the New courses is stark. The Old reflects the penal, target golf that was particularly popular in the 1980s, with forced carries, huge bunkers and even a Sawgrass-style island green; the front nine particular is thrilling and brilliantly done, but it’s a battle. Tee it up on the New Course, though, and you’d think you were in a different country: it’s a rolling, elegant layout that’s very evidently been fitted in to the gently undulating landscape that Hanse and his team first found when they visited.
It’s much easier, too, without being a pushover. There are almost always options from the tee: a tougher line might offer a better route to the pin, while an easier shot off the tee can leave you with a nerve-wracking approach shot. Hanse has acknowledged his debt to the great course architect Tom Simpson, one of the pioneers of strategic design in the 1930s, and it’s not hard to see the influence: while the Old Course is tough enough to make even a single-figure handicapper cry, the New is a course that’s fun for weekend hackers while still being a test for top golfers. Not an easy trick to pull off.
It’s a wonderful mix with two slightly different nines: the front has an open, heathland feel that’s not unlike playing at Hankley Common or West Sussex — holes such as the meandering par-5 6th could fit easily into either layout, and you’d say the same of the beautiful set of par-3s.
The back nine is a little tighter and more wooded, and reminiscent of the courses at Sunningdale or Woburn, with holes such as the double-dog-leg 11th — carving its way through trees and around wasteland bunkers — that leave a lasting impression. Comparison with such storied layouts as those aren’t spurious, incidentally: the US-based Golf.com recently elevated the New Course at Les Bordes into its list of the world’s top 100 golf courses; it’s almost unheard of for a new track to gain entry so quickly.
There’s another facet to the golf at Les Bordes, though, which serves as the dessert to the main courses offered by the Old and New. It’s a ten-hole par-3 course named the Wild Piglet — and it’s not just good. It’s great, already being talked about as one of the finest short courses in the world, and probably the most fun I’ve had on a golf course for years. Glorified pitch and putt will never offer the same satisfaction as crashing a driver and plotting your way round a full-sized course, but for sheer grins-per-shot it’s unbeatable. What’s more, it’s probably the ideal place to get your kids into golf — something which you could now say of the entire club.
An ambitious garden re-creation complements the architecture of perhaps the most celebrated château on the Loire and has linked it
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