The character-packed face breaks into a smile and the eyes shine with pride.
“This is the soul of the Old Course,” says Jean-Pierre Martin, pointing at a centuries-old umbrella pine that seems to thrust through the very walls of the venerable clubhouse.
“The trees are what makes this course, and they always come first. This one, it hasn’t been touched except to lop off dead branches.”
So it’s the clubhouse that has to make way for the tree, and they have been living that way for 122 years. The Old Course, as its always been known although the International Golf Club Cannes-Mandelieu (www.golfoldcourse.com) is its official name, is the most ancient of all the Riviera courses, and it is because of this that we have chosen to make it the subject of the first of the Riviera Golfer course profiles.
Jean-Pierre is the club captain, and has been a member for 37 years. “The club has a very international feel, many of the 350 members are English-speaking and of course we always have a warm welcome for visiting players.”
It has been estimated that 60% of the rounds in a year are by played by English-speakers.
“Nearly all of the 45 competitions we will be holding this year are open to non-members who have a handicap certificate from their home club, or are members of the French Golfing Federation.
“There are three sorts of competitions, ludique – more for fun than anything else, serious stroke play events and what we call the prestige tournaments, which are usually sponsored and can run over three days with a grand dinner at the Carlton or Majestic for the prize giving.”
All this would have pleased the man who first drove a ball down these links-like fairways, Grand Duke Michael of Russia, exiled by the Czar and wandering Europe in search of sporting challenges. In Scotland to shoot partridge and grouse, he stumbled upon St Andrew’s, and like so many who came after him, he was smitten by the love of golf.
The Grand Duke’s chief residence in exile was in Cannes, and it was here, by the sea, that he recreated his vision first seen in the birthplace of golf. It became an instant institution, and noble society quickly gave the Old Course a cachet it has never lost.
There have been changes through the years, as the original 9 holes was turned into a full 18, then a further 9-hole course, the Grand Duke, was added, but they have not altered the character of the place. As the player today marvels at – and sometimes swears at – the magnificent pines that line the fairways, he or she can picture himself on the coast as it was centuries ago, for this is the way the foreshore looked all the way from the Esterel to Le Suquet, before the builders moved in.
“The life of the club took a big leap forward when new owners took over 14 years ago,” says Jean-Pierre. “ Since then there have been numerous improvements to the course itself, many of which, such as those to the drainage and watering systems, than are not immediately noticeable.
“Our trees are beautiful, but they present problems, particularly where roots intrude on the fairways and in some cases greens, and these have to be dealt with expertly so as to retain good playing surfaces but safeguard the health of the trees.”
Jean-Pierre is keen to stress the importance of what he terms “course management”, referring not to an individual player’s approach to the course, but to the smooth running of rounds. “It is true that sometimes the course is quite busy, and having two par threes following the opening par 4 could lead to players bunching up if it wasn’t for the magnificent work of the Starter.
“I don’t think that a strict disciplinarian approach by Starts and Course Marshals does anyone any good, and we prefer a gentle approach to maintaining order and smooth play.
“We want visiting players to experience the warmth of welcome that is taken as a matter of course by our members.”
Having sweated buckets lugging my clubs up hilly courses in the hot days of the Riviera summer, I appreciate the easy walking offered by the Old Course. I raise my eyes to the lovely San Peyre hill that dominates the western part of the course, which once was the home of a hermit, and I know that if this course had been laid out within the last 20 years some sadistic course designer would have found a way to put a tee on the top of it.
The improvements Jean-Pierre mentioned are nowhere more noticeable than in the public areas of the clubhouse, the restaurant and bar have been transformed from dowdy Scottish mock-baronial into a light and airy style, linking with the lovely terrace overlooking the 18th fairway. As you would expect, the food is excellent, created by a chef pinched from one of the grand establishments just up the coast.
And to think all this might have been replaced by a sea of tents and caravans if the Old Course hadn’t come through victorious in a match in which the stakes couldn’t have been higher – life or death.
In the early Sixties the start of mass tourism and the universal entitlement to annual holidays recently established in France cast a dark shadow on the sunny fairways of Cannes-Mandelieu. The camping site of La Pinède had overflowed onto the course, and play no longer became practical – the course closed.
The local political decision-makers had to make a choice between the inevitable spread of modern tourism and the preservation of what had become part of the history of the Riviera. The first grass tennis courts in France had been in Cannes, but they had long since disappeared under a wave of development. Would it be the same for the Old Course? In what was considered in some circles an elitist decision, the powers that be came down on the side of golf, and a large sigh of relief echoed round the famous fairways.
And so we come back to today, when we can give thanks to those who created and nurtured a course than is fully in harmony with the natural landscape it has helped to preserve. Here’s to the next 120 years.