2 July 2010

British inspiration helps French owner realise his dream

Alfred Seydoux, owner of Les Aisses Golf in France, is soon to complete a major renovation project which started back in 2006, as Ellie Tait discovers.

Recognised as an area of outstanding natural beauty, the Sologne region of north-central France has been a venue for sporting activities since the mid 19th century when Napoleon III began reclaiming the area’s naturally marshy ground accompanied by the planting of thousands of Scotch pine, silver birch and oak trees.

Although hunting, shooting and fishing remain favoured pursuits for residents and visitors to the region today, it is championship golf that Frenchman, Alfred Seydoux, is hoping to attract to his new 18-hole course, constructed over the past 18 months by British golf course and sports turf contractor, MJ Abbott Limited.

Known as Les Aisses Golf, the course and its discreet, single-storey clubhouse are situated among 270ha of mature woodland some 20km south of Orleans, a little over 150km south of Paris. The site’s sandy soils, vibrant heathers and attractive mix of conifers and deciduous trees endow Les Aisses with the look and feel of a traditional English heathland course, features that Monsieur Seydoux was keen to re-create when he purchased Les Aisses in 2005.

Designed originally back in the early 1990s by a French architect on behalf of corporate Japanese owners, the complex was laid out initially as a loop of three nine-holes courses known individually as White, Red and Blue.

All three courses started and finished close to the clubhouse enabling any two to be played in sequence to provide a full 18 holes of golf. The initial design of the three nine-hole courses has been described as being overformal and unnatural, highlighted by narrow, tree-dominated fairways, American-style mounds and banks around the greens, composite buggy tracks and hard-edged water features. In simple terms, a complete contrast to the wonderful natural landscape all around.

As a golfer and conservationist, Alfred Seydoux was determined to produce on the site a top-class 18-hole golf course that was worthy of its magical setting. In 2006, he selected golf course architect, Hawtree, to help him achieve his goal by re-modelling the White and the Red nine-hole courses to produce a single championship standard 18-hole course. The nine, lower-lying holes of the existing Blue course would remain much as they were to create a stand-alone Academy course.

A fundamental part of the overall re-design process involved visits by Alfred Seydoux to a number of well-known English heathland courses. Arranged and accompanied by Martin Hawtree, these visits proved a huge inspiration to Monsieur Seydoux, in particular the fact that all of the courses he saw were, in his words, “clearly working fully in harmony with nature.” During a visit to Sunningdale, Monsieur Seydoux was introduced by Hawtree to MJ Abbott who were remodeling a number of bunkers on the famous Surrey course. Impressed by the many similarities between Sunningdale and Les Aisses and the attention to detail being demonstrated on site by MJ Abbott, Monsieur Seydoux invited the firm to France to assess and quote for his own course reconstruction project.

That was in November 2007. One year later, with extensive tree-felling permissions granted, course design plans finalized and the construction contract signed, MJ Abbott returned to Les Aisses to prepare for a starting date in January 2009. Contracts Director, Steve Briggs, takes up the story: “Abbotts have carried out many similar golf course reconstruction projects in the UK and overseas over the past 30 years so it was a straightforward task to get the machinery and staff in place ready for the required commencement date.”

Briggs explained that all of the specialist groundworks and drainage machinery needed for the duration of the project was transported to site by lorries from the company’s base near Salisbury, Wiltshire, and from other locations used by the firm across the UK. A total of 20 MJ Abbott staff were engaged on the project’s first phase which involved draining, reshaping and re-modelling the White course to create holes ten to eighteen of the new 18-hole course. Completion of phase one was scheduled for July 2009, followed by a further ten to 11 months’ growing-in of the reconstructed and newly-seeded greens, tees and other reshaped areas across the course.

Although MJ Abbott was prepared and equipped to carry out the planned groundworks without interruption, one aspect of the project which produced a surprise was the ambient temperatures experienced during the early months of 2009. “Night-time temperatures on site dropped regularly to minus 17 degrees with day-time temperatures struggling to break zero,” recalled Briggs. “We provided our staff with all necessary protective clothing, so it was simply a case of putting on extra layers to stay warm in the bitterly cold conditions.” By contrast, monthly summer temperatures in the Sologne region of France are on average around five degrees higher than that in the UK.

This necessitated the installation of the planned new Rain Bird irrigation system at the same time as the course was being drained and reshaped and the nine new teeing areas, nine new USGA greens and 53 bunkers were being constructed. Fed by natural ponds and pools located across the site, the ready availability of programmed irrigation for the fairways, tees and greens proved essential to ensure strong, even germination and establishment of the newly-seeded areas in the face of high summer temperatures. Completed on schedule in mid 2009, the back nine holes of Les Aisses Golf’s new 18-hole course opened for play in June 2010 to existing club members.

Meanwhile, work on holes one to nine of the new course commenced on the former nine-hole Red course in January 2010, with monthly weather conditions and temperatures following a similar pattern to the previous year. Those who had experienced the conditions in 2009 were well prepared for the second phase which required an additional four staff and two months to complete, due primarily to the construction of five extra bunkers and the presence of water features alongside six of the nine holes. Edged originally with rocks and timber, the existing ponds and lakes have now been blended into the landscape by MJ Abbott with the help of natural rolled grass surrounds.

Phase two is set for completion in August 2010, with all 18 holes planned to be open for play by July 2011. Those who knew Les Aisses Golf prior to its transformation, as well as those visiting the course for the first time, will discover a beautiful heathland-style course, where mature trees complement rather than crowd the fairways and individual specimens have space to grow.

Alfred Seydoux is looking forward with anticipation to the day when his new and transformed golf course is completed and fully in play. “Our collective aim was to achieve a more natural look, integrating the course within its very special surroundings,” said Seydoux. “I believe this has been achieved fully thanks to the professionalism and dedication of all involved in the project.”

Golf club website: http://www.aissesgolf.com/

As published on golfmanagementnews.com

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