EVENING STANDARD, May 1999
"Make it fly!" urged my charming instructor. Another chunk of French soil took to the air. Unfortunately my little ball stayed earthbound, gazing up reproachfully like an eyeball on its stalk. But this was only my first golf lesson, and had never played before. I was taking part in an organised golfing weekend for women. I and five other women, professional women aged between thirty and fifty and all more or less golf-virgins, were eager not only to discover the joys of the green, but to find out more about French attitudes towards female golfers. Would we be taken seriously? Would it be possible to play golf and be seen as an individual rather than as a husband-appendage or as a threat to that bastion of male buffers, the Golf Club? Would we be expected to wear jumpers with dazzling diamond patterns?
We were staying at the Hotel du Golf International de St. Denac, 4 miles inland from the smart seaside resort of La Baule in the Loire-Atlantique. The week-end, organised by Brittany Ferries, had started with a somewhat arduous journey of 17 hours by train, ferry and a minibus driven by a friendly member of the Salvation Army. The hotel is a complex of extraordinary rural golf temples - 2-storey buildings with neo-classical facades and thatched roofs - set amidst its own landscaped golf course on the edge of the national park of La Briere.
My luxurious suite of rooms, (larger than my London flat), included a personal safe and a collonaded balcony carpeted with astro-turf for casual putting. Graham Le Saux, the English football team's left back, slept in my enormous bed. In June 1998, that is. The hotel was the team's headquarters during the World Cup. At our first lunch, at the Golf Club nearby, I sat next to Eric, French golf champion of the late 60s and now a club director. He had played at La Baule with one of my early heart-throbs, Sean Connery (handicap - 6). I asked him about women golfers. He assured me that women were often better players. "They have more concentration, less aggression ... golf is in the mind." he said.
In the restaurant urbane men with inventive comb-overs did male bonding and maybe a deal or two while over made-up women flicked through copies of "Madame", poodles tucked carelessly under their arms. The Club's foyer was hung with large photos of the famous doing their stuff at La Baule - Jack Niklaus, Balesteros, Prince Rainier - no women. Of the 700 club members, one hundred are women.
After lunch we visited the golf shop. Here you could buy Big Berthas, Cobras, complicated Ping clubs ( for sophisticated retro action) and Soft -Joy shoes with lolling fringed tongues. Then we were led to the practise green. Here we danced, crouched, hunched, lurched and swung, trying to do the golf/mind thing, using three types of golf-club. One, I later discovered, was a mashie-niblick, whose name conjured up images of P.G.Wodehousian plus-fours and loud checks. In La Baule golfing apparel was disappointingly tasteful - lots of cashmere cardies in soft earth colours.
Our instructor was a positive sort of person. "Wonderful!" he beamed as my ball plopped dolefully into the sand 2 feet away. But sometimes the whole thing worked, and I felt an immense pleasure when the ball actually did defy gravity, and went roughly in the right direction. From then on our itinerary was intense. Our golf- training involved a special diet of Veuve Clicquot, Puilly-fume, rum-babas and tarte-tatin. Large quantities of sea-creatures were dismembered and eaten with gusto and little pronged instruments. Between golf lessons we were distracted by local sights. We were whizzed round the La Baule area, past 19th century villas (in Gothic, hunting-lodge or Heidi-style) to the salty enclosures of the Guerande. Here fleur de sel, a sea-salt especially rich in minerals, has been extracted since Roman times. Little hessian bags of it appeared at mealtimes. The local delicacy, a tiny green wormlike vegetable called salicorne, is grown in the oeillets, or salt-pans.
I paddled in the waters of the Bay of Biscay lapping the long sandy beach of La Baule. It is rimmed with white appartement blocks with, incongruously, the occasional sliver of an ornate 19th century house wedged in between. We visited part of the Casino, disappointingly a hall of noisy slot-machines with dismal players glued to games of "Go Bananas". Preparations for the rigours of the green included a visit to the Thalgo clinic. We were led through its soothing marble and blond wood decor to be covered in green slime or plunged into bubbling vats of algae extract controlled by a complex system of dials, levers and nozzles. What did one do with the rubber strapping and large hose between one's knees? Ignorant of spa etiquette I had an acute fit of red-faced giggles as my back, bottom and calves were pummelled and massaged delightfully by power-jets of marine goodness. After a rigorous sea-water hosing we joined impassive-faced Frenchwomen with perfect coiffures and matt maquillage in a large sea-jacuzzi. For extreme cases, I was told, the clinic specialises in a treatment called 'the M4'.
At last, toned and nourished to the nth degree, we were allowed to leave the practise greens and try the real thing. Resin-scented pine trees edged the startling green of the fairway, and the little blue pennant of the first hole fluttered enticingly in the distance. And we were .. "Wonderful!" At least our instructor said so.
We had been cossetted, charmed, indulged and encouraged in every way. As we left the course on the final afternoon I saw a little map on a board. Coloured circles indicated where players should tee-off, according to handicap. There is one circle closest to the hole. For women and children.
A golf break
of three nights organised by Britanny Ferries, including ferry return
with car, hotel room + bathroom, continental breakfast and green fees
costs £179 per person (September price). The beginners' golf clinic
which includes a video for analysis (and after-dinner viewing?) at the
Academie Philippe Mendiburu costs 1700 francs for 4 days. The 3 thalassotherapies
cost 455 francs altogether.
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