My friend Philippe Chassepot is a French golf writer, a species more rare than a beloved American in Paris. More people follow the literary stylings of Frenchman Albert Camus and it’s unclear which the French misunderstand more: golf or existentialism, two equally baffling concepts for the uninitiated.
The Ryder Cup is coming to France for the first time in 2018, and most French people don’t know the difference between a bogey and a Bordeaux or between a bunker and a bechemel.
The most famous French golfer is best known for being the victim in a horrible self-inflicted sporting tragedy and it only figures that Camus would have found just as much reason to write about Jean van de Velde as Philippe does.
Instead, part of Philippe’s job is to write in French newspapers about the likes of Gregory (I beat Tiger Woods at Pebble Beach) Havret and Thomas Levet, the two best French players on the European Tour.
You wouldn’t know about Havret and Levet if you didn’t watch Golf Channel early on weekend mornings. And they certainly don’t merit headlines on the sports pages in Le Figaro or Le Monde. Which means that Havret and Levet might be better known in the U.S. than they are in France.
Yet, Philippe is hopeful that his native people will begin a seven-year crash course to learn about what he considers the greatest game on earth.
“We are still a young country when it comes to golf,” says Philippe, who has a low single-digit handicap sense of humor. “A lot is still to be done to educate French people about the game. But as Martin Kaymer King said a few decades ago: ‘I have a dream…’
“Here is my dream: We need to tell (French) people that golf is a wonderful game. We don’t care if it is a sport or not, it’s much more than that. It’s the game of a whole life. We have six or seven years to convince everyone in the country that golf is an unbelievable thing. And the result will be unbelievable, too.”
The good news is that French National is a tournament-tested course and won’t have to be tweaked much, if at all, to stack up as a quality Ryder Cup venue. And, of course, visitors to Paris for the 2018 Cup will have more than enough culture to last them until the next time the biennial event comes back.
But the French being the French – it’s the only thing wrong with Paris, it is said – they’ll have to think they invented the game if there is any chance for them to embrace golf by the time the Ryder Cup rolls around.
Even so, Philippe is confident that his countrymen will grow to support golf fully in the next seven years. He says:
“In 2011, if you ask someone in the street about the Ryder Cup, he will answer, ‘Ryder what? Is that a new dance?’ In 2018, the same guy will answer, ‘Oh, you mean the dramatic competition between Europe and United States? Awesome!’
“In 2011, when a spectator watches a professional golfer sending his ball into a water hazard, two out of three will say, ‘Oh, it reminds me of Jean van de Velde in 1999. What a pity.’ In 2018, the same people will say: ‘Nnnhnn (with Irish or Scottish accent, as you like), this is sometimes a cruel game isn’t it?’
“In 2011, the man who does not play golf really thinks that golf is the most expensive sport on earth. In 2018, he will tell you: ‘You were freakin’ right, dude (Scottish accent please), this is less expensive than a freakin’ week at the freakin’ winter sports!’
“In 2011, if you organize a Ryder Cup in France, please book a charter the day after and ask for the political asylum in Ouganda to hide yourself, because you will be full of shame watching the behaviour of the spectators. In 2018, when you organize a Ryder Cup in Paris, please be sure it will be a wonderful event. And not only because the attendance will be crowded with Irish, Scottish and American people.”
The French lead the league in sauces, cheeses, wine, art, pommes frites and flat out history. A trip to Paris should be on anyone’s bucket list and those fortunate enough to attend the 2018 Ryder Cup will have a memorable trip, regardless of the outcome of the golf.
But there are only 400,000 golfers in the entire country, many of whom will make the sojourn to Paris for the Ryder Cup in 2018. Whether they will be sophisticated golf fans by then will be largely up to the French Golf Federation and people like my friend, Philippe.
It will be the difference between golf today in France – c’est la vie – and what could be – c’est bon.