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France's Elite Junior Program Appears on the Upturn

ST. ANDREWS, SCOTLAND | Italy is basking in the glory of three world-class golfers, two of whom, the Molinari brothers, have already catapulted their way into the world’s top 50, and it is only a matter of time and opportunity for the third, and likely the most gifted, Matteo Manassero, to join them.
Looking out from their Paris HQ, such success being enjoyed by their smaller continental neighbor must grate some in the French Federation of Golf (FFG) that oversees about 400,000 golfers – including 40,000 registered juniors – playing on nearly 600 courses. Nearly a decade after the introduction of an elite development program, only one French golfer appears in the men’s world top 100 professionals, and he, Gregory Bourdy, is clinging on to 100th place. In corporate speak, it is scant return on a significant investment that has run into millions of Euros.
That said, if the R&A’s World Amateur Golf Ranking is any guide to future success in the pros, perhaps the tide is about to turn. France has three players ranked in the top 20 and another at No. 56. Indeed, those four can boast four national championship successes and the European individual title in the past 10 months.
Fifth-ranked Victor Dubuisson, the charismatic reigning European champion who has been a beneficiary of four years of direct support, has mixed views about his country’s elite development system.
“Given the resources available,” observed Dubuisson after the second round of the Links Trophy at St. Andrews, “they could do a lot more to help us in individual competition, which is largely funded by our individual clubs. I am turning professional on the Monday after the Open, primarily because I can’t afford to play the amateur circuit, though also, because I feel I am ready to compete at the next level.’
As an example of the FFG’s approach to funding, Dubuisson referenced to his participation in next month’s Open Championship for which he is exempt as European champion. “They pay my airfare, half of my accommodation costs and only some of my living expenses. There is no money for a caddie. As I will be representing France, albeit as an individual, I anticipated full-funding for such a special honour that reflects well on France and the FFG.”
His colleague on the French squad, Alex Levy, No. 56 in the world, pursued a different route. Unlike Dubuisson, who was identified for national support at 16, alongside Alexander Kaleka and Benjamin Hebert (both now struggling professionals), Levy came through the FFG-sponsored National Training system, which involved morning school and afternoon golf from the age of 14 to 18. Now 19 (turning 20 in August), he remains in full-time education at a business administration college and very much part of the FFG’s-supported golf program.
Levy’s place on their Eisenhower Trophy team is all but assured, and making the cut in the Links Trophy will only have enhanced his chances. Asked if he plans completing his education, Levy, with the help of Dubuisson’s interpretation, responded, “It would be nice to do so, but if my golf results permit, I would like to consider the professional game sooner rather than later.”   
The FFG may be systematic in their approach to elite development – there are usually 56 players supported at seven regional training centres around the country – but they have also been determined not to create a “welfare-state” mentality. Christophe Muniesa, executive director of the FFG, is aware of the problem of “dependence” and to try to address the issue, there is an ongoing review.
“Every April,” he said, “we decide who is going to enter and who is going to exit the program. This assessment is based on schoolwork and golf results. Twenty- to thirty-percent of our players go out every year, so an equal number of new players are recruited.”
Somewhat revealingly, no French player has a PGA Tour card, and only two have any type of LPGA Tour privileges. “Having more French players on the PGA Tour and LPGA Tour is our main target for the near future,” Muniesa said, “and to that end the FFG provides financial support for transitioning players, in the form of coaching (€500,000), entry fees to qualifying schools (€50,000), general expenses (€150,000) and administration.” 
Of the 13 elite French amateurs who gained entry to last week’s Links Trophy, only four (Levy, Romain Wattel, Jerome Lando Casanova and Dubuisson) made the halfway cut. Perhaps, beyond a certain point, the comfort of a European base, million-Euro annual income and French cuisine will be perpetual impediments to the emergence of a dominant world-class French professional, no matter the investment made in their development.
Wattel, 19 and No. 12 in the world, already is a prolific winner of international titles, including the Junior Orange Bowl in Florida, where he overcame Manassero, the Argentine Amateur and last month’s Scottish Open Stroke Play, may be the exception. Certainly, he has the talent and support, but only time will reveal if he has the required unwavering ambition and commitment


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