If you want to get a taste of what it would be like to compete in the first Ryder Cup to be held on French soil, then save up the sous and book yourself a tee time at Royal Mougins Golf Club.
The American Robert von Hagge created both Royal Mougins and Le Golf National tournament course north of Paris that will host the 2018 Ryder Cup. I’ve played the two, and they are both tough numbers‚ bunkers the size of beaches and plenty of water are the signatures. On both courses, each hole has its own distinct identity and difficulty.
When playing Royal Mougins, you come quickly to the hole that will stay in your mind long after you’ve played: the par-3 2nd. Each hole on the course has a fitting name and this one is Le Saut de l’Ange, the Angel’s Leap. From the back tees, you look down a tree-lined gully to a postage stamp of a green protected by water and bunkers in front. If the mistral is blowing, you’ll need a driver. Today there’s no wind and we are mercifully not on the championship (black) tees, and the club’s captain, a good-looking chap by the name of Andrew Pearce, takes out an 8-iron.
You don’t have to play off single figures to notch up a good score at Royal Mougins, but it sure does help. Suckered by fear into over-clubbing, I find myself playing my second shot from the edge of the 18th fairway. Scary, like being at the Masters, there is a grassy knoll between me and the green (thanks so much Mr von Hagge), and, just like the 12th at Augusta, the green slopes steeply towards water. I hit the perfect shot, killing the ball into the bank, it pops up and lands on the green, out of sight. I stride up the hillock and expect applause from my partner, instead he points at the water and rocks into which my ball has relentlessly trundled.
Do not mess with this golf course.
Royal Mougins Golf Club opened in 1993. It’s a baby compared with the Riviera Reporter’s last featured club, The Old Course at Mandelieu, but it has bedded in beautifully and looks and plays as if it has been around for much longer. It occupies a hidden valley, the Vallon de l’Oeuf, and the original character of the old terraced landscape has been preserved as a backdrop. At the lowest part of the course, which has been privately owned by Rattan Chadha, founder of fashion label MEXX, since the end of 2003, runs a little river.
The “members” of Royal Mougins pay a large sum for the playing rights – droit de jeu – and an annual fee. Many are residents, owning one of the discreet villas nestling into the hillside, the most pricey of which would set you back at least five million euros.
Mr Chadha is not afraid to spend money increasing the value of his asset, and recent years have seen major investments in the on-site luxury hotel and the clubhouse.
I ask Andrew Pearce where he would like to see future spending.
“I have strong belief that there should be an investment in the youngsters, who are the future of the game,” says the 53-year-old South African from Durban, himself the father of two girls and a boy.
“I would like to see a golf academy established at Royal Mougins to develop kids’ talents and integrate them into the life of the club.
“I feel I have a mission to establish a first-rate teaching facility , and I wish most fervently that when I finish my time as captain that will be my legacy.”
Andrew and his French wife settled on the Côte d’Azur after he decided that he'd had enough of the living-on-planes style of life that went with working for a major international corporation based in Holland. A big attraction for him in the great variety of sporting opportunities the area offers to a sportive family.
“It hit me one day at the club how privileged we are as a family to live here. Here I was playing golf in glorious weather as my son was wakeboarding and one of my daughters was skiing, all in the same department.”
As you might expect for such a high-end establishment, Royal Mougins has had more than its share of celebs gracing the fairways over the years. In the days when big names in the film world had a little more time for some civilised R&R, Michael Douglas and pals would fit in some hotly contested matches during the Cannes Film Festival. McLaren Formula One boss Ron Dennis and tennis star Stefan Edberg have been regular players.
Famous golfers have had their highs and lows on the course, one of the most memorable incidents involving the Mrs Doubtfire of international golf, Colin Montgomerie. Reaching the top of the green on the eighteenth, which shares a huge green with the third, he faced a long putt to the hole situated at the bottom corner. The greens at Royal Mougins are excellent, and pretty fast in tournament trim. The ball finished in the lake front right. He was not happy, cursing the course, the conditions, anything and anyone but himself. As I said to Andrew when he told me the story, it couldn’t have happened to a nicer bloke.
As I finished my round with Andrew, putting all the way across the double green from a place I shouldn’t have been, I realised what makes this course and club special. It isn’t the clink of gold bracelets against a champagne flute on the terrace, the calm efficiency of the staff or the privacy that comes with privilege, but the pure golfing experience of playing a challenging course that can make you feel like a champ – or a chump.