SAINT-QUENTIN-EN-YVELINES, France – We're still a day away from the first shot being struck at the Ryder Cup, and we've already got our first controversy. Thankfully, Pete Willett, Danny's brother, and Phil Mickelson have avoided a case of foot-in-mouth disease this time around.
No, this controversy has nothing to do with American crowds or Hal Sutton's captaincy, but rather who deserves credit as the architect of record at Le Golf National.
In what can be characterized as nationalism at its finest, the French Golf Federation and the course's website proudly claim Frenchman Hubert Chesneau as the designer behind the stadium-like setting of the 42nd Ryder Cup and perpetual home of the French Open plus 12 annual French amateur championships.
This story dates to the 1980s and the early years of Claude Roger Cartier's presidency of the federation (1981-1997), known by its French initials FFG. Cartier championed the creation of a permanent home for the French Open. Even before a site was picked, Chesneau, the FFG's director of development, sketched out a rough idea for the future 45-hole complex.
Given Chesneau's inexperience as a course designer (he was trained as an architect of buildings), Robert von Hagge Design Associates, whose American namesake is credited with the design of more than 250 courses in 20-plus countries before his death in 2010, was hired in the role of consultant.
"From my first ‘drafts,’ I conceived the overall plan of the three courses," Chesneau said on Le Golf National’s website. "I then exchanged my sketches with von Hagge, who had agreed to act as consultant for the main course."
Von Hagge could have starred in the Dos Equis "Most Interesting Man" beer commercials. He was a commercial artist, made cameos in several Hollywood movies and did a stint as the Marlboro Man.
During a 1987 meeting at French Golf Federation headquarters in Paris, it was determined that von Hagge's design assistance was needed to ensure a "guarantee of success" for this "important and unprecedented" undertaking.
Yet the first time von Hagge stepped foot on the undistinguished, flat cornfield, he expressed his concern for the project: "You want to play an Open on it?"
Von Hagge proved up to the task, and Le Golf National opened to rave reviews in 1990. A few years earlier, he had received a phone call from Baron Marcel Bich of Bic pen fame, who told him that a pre-paid first-class ticket to Paris would be waiting for him. At age 72, Bich was advised that he needed to exercise for health reasons and took up golf and hired von Hagge to build his own course, Les Bordes, on Bich's private hunting preserve in the Loire Valley. (On a side note, architect Gil Hanse is building a second course at Les Bordes that is scheduled to open in 2020.) Les Bordes was named Best New Course in Europe in 1987 and was one of two French projects that von Hagge was building at the time. His design philosophy is best summarized in this von Hagge quote that Rick Baril, the onsite project manager, keeps on his company's website: “We know we have succeeded in our design if it elicits fervent, borderline fanatical reactions (either positive or negative*).”
While Chesneau is factually correct with his claim of taking the first stab at the preliminary routing, his original sketches never saw the light of day, according to Baril.
"In fact, we simply disregarded the original routing, as it didn't have any merit or value whatsoever," Baril told Golf Course Architecture magazine. "We started over, with only an entry-road location, clubhouse location and a flat property. It is a von Hagge routing, accomplished independently. It came right out of our office. The routing wasn't a collaboration.”
Von Hagge configured the design of the course around the final four holes, building towering dunes that form amphitheaters and the type of risk/reward drama that would make architect Pete Dye blush at the less-than-accidental resemblance to his house of horrors at TPC Sawgrass, which had opened 10 years earlier to great acclaim. Some have gone so far as to nickname the Albatros Course TPC Paris, in part because the 15th and 18th holes play to greens surrounded by water, sand or both. Von Hagge designed similar holes at The Woodlands TPC near Houston as well as TPC Prestancia in Sarasota, Fla. Chesneau went on to build fewer than 10 additional courses, but none achieved anywhere near the level of repute as Le Golf National. Michael Smelek, a partner in the Texas-based design firm of Von Hagge, Smelek & Baril, doesn't mince words in saying his partner was wronged.
“If you look at the other courses von Hagge designed at the time, you can see that Golf National has his stamp all over it. It is highly unlikely that Chesneau could have come up with that design on his own," Smelek told Global Golf Post. "With the best will in the world, he did not have the background for it. You cannot suddenly produce a course of the caliber of Golf National."
Frank Giordano, author of an article entitled "Art Fraud?" in Golf Course Architecture, reached a similar conclusion.
"Anyone who knows and understands golf course architecture must be forgiven for their raised eyebrows, if not their incredulity, when told Chesneau was the sole designer of Albatros," he wrote.
It's an opinion backed by Frenchman Pascal Grizot, the president of Ryder Cup France. He spearheaded bringing the Ryder Cup to the Albatros.
"Legally, yes," Grizot said of Chesneau's claim to course designer. "Artistically, no."
Adding to the mystery and intrigue of who deserves credit as the actual designer, von Hagge's office was struck by lightning and burned to the ground in 1989, and all plans, contracts and other documents were lost.
And further muddying any resolution are the latest comments from Chesneau, who is sticking to his story. In January, he responded to an inquiry into the paternity of the Albatros Course from Global Golf Post:
"I really appreciated Bob’s contributions and advice during the final elaboration of the course and his few construction site visits.
Alas, led by some of his collaborators, a controversy over the 'paternity' of the drawing came to light until Bob and I decided (Sept 2008) to put an end to it and to remain on the original responsibilities of each one:
Hubert Chesneau, Architect and Bob Von Hagge, Consultant.
Unfortunately Bob is dead and cannot confirm my words, but you will understand that I want things to be clear and accurate and that I am attentive to the respect of these facts."
So, while visitors to the Louvre can be assured that Leonardo da Vinci painted the Mona Lisa in the early 16th century, the debate rages as to who is the true artist of the masterpiece on display this week at the Ryder Cup.
Adam Schupak has written about golf since 1997 for the likes of Golfweek, Golf.com and The New York Times. He is the winner of the National Sports Media Association's "Golf Article of 2017," and the author of Deane Beman: Golf's Driving Force. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @adamschupak