News & Opinion

Le Golf National favors brains over brawn

SAINT-QUENTIN-EN-YVELINES, France – “I don't think you'll go anywhere else where you'll see as many fist-pump pars as you'll see this week.”

American Jordan Spieth may be on to something.

Le Golf National, the host venue for this week’s 42nd Ryder Cup, is set up as hard as any major-championship venue, with high rough, narrow fairways and seemingly enough water to supply the Tennessee Valley Authority.

Winners of the HNA French Open have plotted their way around a course that was carved out of a 343-acre plot of formerly flat and featureless farm land that was transformed during three years of construction. The Hubert Chesneau-Robert von Hagge design opened in 1990.

To create the mounding that is a main characteristic of the course, 5.25 million cubic feet of soil was hauled in via 300 truckloads a day. Some 2 million cubic feet of soil was used to create the water features that run throughout the course.

American Bubba Watson, one of the longest drivers in golf, expects to have to gear down beginning on the first tee, which he says could mute the U.S. fans in attendance.

“I've been told that I can't get the crowd to rev up, because it's an iron off the tee,” Watson said. “It's a lot easier when it's a driver off the tee, but this hole, this is a different golf course, different setup.”

The conventional wisdom is that both teams are going to play from the same areas, with ball position and control the requisite strategy at Le Golf National. Aggressive play and birdie opportunities will come only from the fairway.

“The way this rough is kind of mown toward you or cut toward you, you have to hit the fairways,” Watson said. “So even if you're a long way away, but in the fairway, it's better off than being in the rough and way down there.”

That philosophy is antithetical most weeks on the PGA Tour, where players routinely use driver to hit the ball as far as possible, even if it ends up in the rough.

The European Tour has played 26 of the past 28 French Opens at Le Golf National, so any wow factor with the course has been minimized.

For the 12 Americans, though, the setup is foreign. U.S. captain Jim Furyk has spent most of his summer preparing his players for the quirks of Le Golf National. Now, with two days of practice under their belts, the Americans understand what will be expected in the matches, which begin Friday.

“Being a short, straight hitter, I always liked when I got on a golf course like this and felt like, well, Wow, it doesn't matter how far you hit it,” Furyk said. “We are all going to play from the same spot.”

For those who play well and control their shots, Le Golf National’s setup should be appealing. The course doesn’t favor a long hitter over a short one, but it forces competitors to hit attacking second shots to win holes and eventually points.

“This course takes driver out of your hands, for everybody,” said Justin Thomas, who tied for eighth in this year’s French Open as the only American Ryder Cup member to compete in the event. “It's just everyone's hitting it to the same spot, and then everyone's hitting a short iron on the green and then whoever hits it close, makes the putt, wins the hole. I think that's just what this course is. It doesn't favor one team or the other. It just favors whoever is playing the best.”

Alex Miceli is the founder and publisher of Morning Read. Email: alex@morningread.com; Twitter: @AlexMiceli