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Chic Biarritz makes an elite game accessible

After a dismal decade, golf gains popularity in France.

Mrs. Marshall and Mrs. Ralli in Biarritz to play golf in September 1923. (Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

BIARRITZ, France — My first stop each morning was to the boulangerie to buy fresh, buttery croissants. After breakfast, my destination was a golf course.

Although the British exported their game to this southwestern tip of France more than a century ago, the game has only gained traction here in the past few years. Now France is turning the elite, exclusive pastime into democratic pursuit. French golf courses are financially stable, the number of golfers is growing, and most of the best layouts are open to the public and charge reasonable green fees.

Biarritz is the epicenter of this transformation. Ever since Napoleon III built a hotel here in 1855 as a summer retreat for his wife, Eugenie, this French beach town 15 miles north of the Spanish border has ranked as one of the world's greatest resorts, attracting nobles from all over Europe. The British built the town's first golf course in 1888. Today, 10 first-class links lie within a half-hour drive and Biarritz boasts what may be the continent's most modern golf training center. The mild winters and summers provide good year-round playing conditions.

The original Biarritz layout, called Le Phare because it located just inland from the town's main lighthouse, remains in operation. The par 69 course is short, only 5,376 meters, direct in tone and tempo, and provides a gentle, relaxing venue.

Newer courses are much more demanding, particularly designer Robert Von Hagge's killer layout at Seignosses, which, with its numerous water hazards, sculpted earth rolling fairways, and wide sand traps, resembles a Florida course on steroids.

Traditionally, few continental Europeans grew up swinging a driver and tapping in a putt. Yet this began to change in the 1980s when banks financed a course-building boom. Since 1985, the number of courses in both Germany and France has more than tripled, to a total of about 1,000.

Unfortunately, many of Europe's new links came on line in the early 1990s, just as the first Gulf War-fueled recession hit hard. In France, the results were catastrophic. Many of the newly built golf courses went broke and the game's image took a nasty hook out of bounds.

Slowly, surely, the economic recovery fueled a fairway rebuilding. Only a few of the bankrupt clubs went of business. Many returned to business and shed their debts by offering low, attractive green fees and memberships. Courses here in Biarritz charge green fees, even in high seasons, of less than 70 euros (about $100 at the current unfavorable exchange rate). Most players carry their own clubs or use pull carts.

The French Federation of Golf modernized: Instead of requiring country club membership to become a "licensed" golfer, it permits green-fees-paying public course affectionados to sign up — on the internet and for only 10 euros (about $13). A license permits holders to participate in tournaments and training sessions throughout the country. Today, the Federation has more than 400,000 members and the quality of play is fast improving. Throughout France, from April through October, clubs put on high-level Grand Prix events to encourage talented young golfers to improve.

My own son Samuel, just 16, played in half a dozen of these events last year and found them exhilarating. While the best junior golf tournaments in the United States cost up to $350, he paid a mere 20 euros to play in a Grand Prix, all of which were held on top-flight, well-maintained courses.

France is not the star European performer in popularizing golf, either. That award would have to go to Sweden, a country of only 9 million that counts 600,000 registered golfers, and little Holland, with 300,000 golfers, up from only 40,000 two decades ago.

The next step is to build better quality golf courses. Traditionally, most French and European layouts have been straightforward, with less than stellar upkeep. Now money is being poured into upgrades.

A good example here is the historic Chiberta links just north of the Biarritz town center on the coast. Designed in the 1920s by renowned architect Tom Simpson, club officials say its greens fell into disrepair and the classic holes were marred by uneven fairways. In the past few years, the club has made a major effort to improve the quality of greenkeeping. Many of the signature links holes along the seaside have regained their original splendor.

The Ilbarritz Golf training center represents another significant step forward. It is the first European golf training center, built in the same style as the existing centers in Japan and the United States. The 35 acre complex is divided into 13 practice areas that recreate the different types of slopes, bunkers, water, bushes and trees, and ground variations with different types of rough and greens found on a course. Best of all, the center's setting is spectacular, on top of the cliffs overlooking the Atlantic Ocean.

Biarritz, of course, offers much more than just golf. Surfers have discovered that the Basque coast has the best waves in Europe, and the elegant dowager of a resort has become a hip, youthful destination, complete with attractive young women sporting tank tops and tattoos sauntering by fashionably-attired middle-aged women wearing giant sapphires and diamonds.

Of course, if surfing or golf isn't on your daily menu, you have two stand-bys: those croissants and great Basque cooking.

William Echikson's new book on junior golf, "Shooting for Tiger: How golf's obsessed new generation is transforming a country-club sport" is being published in May.

More by William Echikson on GlobalPost.

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/france/090121/chic-biarritz-makes-elite-game-accessible