With the Ryder Cup now less than a year away, Le Golf National is not only prepared for the sport’s greatest team event, but is also boasting an unparalleled future – Ross Biddiscombe talks to general manager Paul Armitage
By the end of the 2018 season, Le Golf National will have staged two HNA French Opens, one Ryder Cup and a European Seniors Tour event within the space of 15 months. The course’s general manager Paul Armitage is proud that no other course in the world has had such a calendar of tournaments in such a short space of time. “Then we will also start planning to benefit from the post-Ryder Cup period as well as build up for the Olympic Games in 2024,” he said. “Le Golf National is truly on the map.”
Armitage – born and raised far away from France in Scunthorpe, Lincolnshire – has spent all his career managing golf courses and projects across the Channel. He came on board at Le Golf National in August 2014 with the job of establishing the course’s position as one of the top destinations in Europe and the world for both pro and amateur golfers.
He said that just being designated a Ryder Cup course is not enough. “Of course, the Ryder Cup makes us a destination for amateurs and we already had one of the pros’ favourite courses on the European Tour, but the rest of our operation needed help.
“We had no buggies, no caddie master and the environment was aged, 25-30 years old. We needed to spice things up, make it more exciting for visitors from countries like America.” Armitage was appointed by the French Golf Federation and is paid by them, so the outcome of his work resonates across the whole country. “My job was to put in a business plan for pre and post Ryder Cup and make this a healthy golf place in the long term, help put France on the world golf stage.”
He faced some hurdles and some opposition. “When I arrived, I had only one or two members of staff who spoke English and a lot of very cheap green fees for local people. We had to have a more international attitude, say goodbye to some of the benefits for the local golfers and become a premium brand for the Albatros course, whilst keeping accessible golf to local market on the two other tracks.”
Understandably, his necessary strategy upset some local members, but most regular players have enjoyed the new plan that Armitage likens to running an airplane, with business class, premium economy, economy and low-cost flying services all in one place.
Armitage has set up the Albatros 18 holes (i.e. the Ryder Cup course) with a much improved pro shop, a caddie master, marshaling, tee gifts and fewer golfers teeing off so visitors receive a luxury day out. The Eagle course is cheaper and has fewer facilities readily available, with players teeing off every ten minutes. Meanwhile, the 9-hole course accepts only online bookings and is treated like a budget airline where any extras are paid for on top of the value-for-money green fee.
“That system been very successful,” said Armitage, “because each type of golfer gets what he or she wants. It’s like going to St Andrews – not everyone wants the Old Course and there are plenty of alternatives but still under the same name.”
One clear indicator of success is that income on line has grown from €60,000 to €360,000 in three years.
“The plan has helped enormously, allowing us to lower services in one place and raise them in another. On the 9-hole course, there are no free manual trollies, no warm up balls, no showers – it’s €10-12 for a round of golf and the locals love that. We’re keeping that market happy. Beforehand, they could get on all courses at Le Golf National for €20, but that can’t happen anymore. People have to pay more for the championship course,” said Armitage.
However, Armitage remembered that the plan was something of a risk because the course was closed for 10 months.
“On 1st May 2016 we re-opened with an ambitious double figure increase in our budget and we hit that target even after being horrendously impeded by the extensive work,” said Armitage.
However, despite all the progress at his course, Armitage believes still France has a long way to go in terms of developing golf, although the number of golfers in the country has held relatively stable at 410,000 for the last several years.
“We’re creating a lot of golfers, but losing a lot as well. We’ve got to find 25-30,000 young golfers a year just to grow,” he said. But he doesn’t believe a superstar champion would solely make the sport explode in the country. “That hasn’t happened in countries like Germany. The French need a modern product, one that develops to the customer, especially later in his or her golfing life. Players under 45 can’t usually afford the time or the money and we haven’t got the product right for them yet.”
Having said that a superstar is probably not the only answer, a French player in the Ryder Cup team will definitely help. “If not, then it will be a disappointment,” said Armitage who has watched Alexander Levy and Romain Wattel win for France on the European Tour so far this year.
A French player in next autumn’s event would also be a boost for the French media which is lukewarm about golf. One of the national terrestrial channels, France 3, sent a crew to Golf National to film daily reports of this year’s French Open for the first time, while regular golf tournament coverage remains on the pay TV channel Canal Plus which has some 400,000 subscribers compared to Sky’s 10 million in the UK.
“With the Ryder Cup and its effects on our brand, plus the Olympics in 2024, we can expect more coverage of the sport and more players,” said Armitage. “There’s no question that France is certainly an exciting place to be for golf.”
(Images supplied by Le Golf National)
Le Golf National https://www.golf-national.com/en/
Ross Biddiscombe http://www.golfontheedge.co.uk/Golf_On_The_Edge/Home_2017.html