Le Peugeot est mort! Vive le Rolex?

Up to a point …  but the late and much to be lamented Peugeot Guide to Europe’s Top 1000 Golf Courses was so much better in almost every respect than its successor the Rolex Guide to the World’s 1000 Best Golf Courses, I salute its passing with about as much enthusiasm as England greeted John Count of Mortain as successor to Richard the Lion Heart.

peugeotThe Peugeot Guide was one of those rare events in travel publishing: a reference book that was an original piece of work, much needed and very well done.  It was a formidable research achievement and a triumph of design and disciplined editing.   For this achievement, I assume we have to thank the leadership, expertise and editorial skill of no less a man than Gaëtan Mourgue d’Algue of St Nom La Bretèche, a pillar of the French amateur golfing noblesse d’épée

In case you are unfamiliar with it, the Peugeot confined the entry for each course to a single page, with a description in the local language and an English translation (or French, for courses in English speaking countries).   The courses were graded out of 20, 12 being the lowest mark worthy of inclusion in early editions.  The bar was later raised to 13.   

Wisely, no explanation was given as to how that score was calculated.   It was an overall rating, the understanding being that everywhere mentioned in the Guide is worth visiting.   The ratings, however inscrutable, had the great virtue of simplicity and as with any good guide book, by using it you learnt to read between its lines and understand what was meant by its marks.

The Peugeot set out to be golf’s equivalent of the Michelin or the Good Food Guide, and to a remarkable degree succeeded.  Its judgements were authoritative, anonymous, consistent, discerning and nearly always right.  If a traditional view of the game lay behind it, that suits golf well, and the guide resisted the temptation to lecture or bang the drum for any particular ‘philosophy’.   The best new courses and resorts were celebrated but without the exaggerated praise that their lavish marketing and press entertainment budgets were designed to stimulate.  Parkland golf had its place alongside the good old links and heathland game.  The Peugeot was The Bible. 

Naturally, it had its weaknesses and anomalies.  The maps were poor and I was never convinced by its hotel and restaurant recommendations. Perhaps it tried to do too much.  The closer you looked to home, the easier it was to pick a hole in its fabric.  To cite a single example in my home area, the high rating (15/20) awarded to the pleasant but unpretentious and essentially modest West Berkshire Golf Club always struck me as bizarre and remains a mystery.  That put West Berks on an equal footing with courses of genuine class such as Huntercombe and Wimbledon, and I am quite sure it would not claim to be in that league.  Somehow, my humble local track maintained its exalted rank through all the Peugeot’s editions, regardless of feedback from me and I expect many others, recommending a reappraisal.  The West Berks Question was enough to undermine faith in the Peugeot guide’s research methods, of which I know nothing.  But we all make mistakes.

Now Peugeot has given up the project and Rolex has taken over, expanding the coverage from Europe to the world, with a ‘network of 200 inspectors’ spreading themselves thinly around the golfing globe.

Being able to compare in one volume the relative merits of St Andrews and Pebble Beach, Pinehurst and Sunningdale … may be good fuel for an argument after dinner.  It might be a worthwhile project for a coffee table book, and fun to research. But it is not particularly useful.  All it adds to the sum of our knowledge of golf is an opinion, to add to those of many others who have given their six penn’orth.   It is not as though the Rolex guide is a thing of beauty or a good read.  It is only a reference book.

It was on the lower rungs of the ladder that the Peugeot proved its worth, and those rungs have gone.  If you were driving through Europe, or planning a holiday somewhere, you could flick through its pages and find out if there were any half decent courses in the vicinity.  As the clever Michelin brothers did all those years ago, Mourgue d’Algue and his Peugeot team encouraged readers to get out on the road and explore.

Make the cathedral your line. Albi Lasbordes

Make the cathedral your line. Albi Lasbordes

The disappearance of the Peugeot gives me the chance to look back with gratitude at all the lovely places it took me to.  Who would have thought of playing golf beside the Tarn at Lasbordes, forgetting the conundrum of my next shot for a moment to gaze across the fairways and meadows at the towering red stonework of Albi cathedral?

La Bresse is no masterpiece but its location near the motorway to the east of Lyon is perfect for a golf break in a journey; a friend and I managed a game there on a warm March day and still made it to Chamonix in time for supper.  Perhaps most surprising of all was Les Bois, up in the wilds of the Swiss Jura where you would have no right to expect good golf.

These courses and many other treasures have failed to make the cut in the Rolex, because they are merely good.  France has about 130 entries in my edition of the Peugeot, and 23 in the Rolex World’s Top 1000. Switzerland has six.  That may be a fair reflection of their place in the golf world and I have no argument with the new system of scoring and the individual ratings.  But as a guide for the golfer on the road, it is not much help. 

You may say I am not comparing like with like.  True: it is like with dislike, or like with couldn’t much care. 

Horses for courses, you say.  Rolex is a posher brand than Peugeot, only to be associated with the very best in breed, on the world stage.  Fine: give America and the Orient the Mourgue d’Algue treatment in new guides to take their place in the library alongside Europe.   But Editions Mourgue d’Algue has given up on most of Europe; thrown away the best of it.  All that precious research, wasted.

Is there a need for new editions of the faithful old Peugeot?  Do golf courses come and go, rise and fall, like hotels and restaurants?   It is true that many traditional members’ clubs go on and on from year to year, coping as best they can with the ups and downs of the weather and the economy; adding the occasional bunker and changing the barman once every thirty years.

But even in the age of European austerity, new courses do come to fruition, and it would be good to know where they fit in the pantheon.  And in the world of holiday golf, where hotels and resort courses change hands regularly, standards do go rapidly up and more often down.   I have heard it said that the last edition of the Peugeot (2008/9, whatever that means) was not quite as up to date as it should have been, in reflecting changes since the previous edition (2006/7).   Perhaps the research budget was already being cut back by the sponsor.  My own West Berks experience suggests that the guide’s systems for using reader feedback were not all they might be. 

My preference may say more about me than the guide books.  It is true that I have had a few Peugeots in my time and they have all been good servants, if not (with one exception) head-turning objects of envy.  But I have never worn, owned or wanted a Rolex and if I picked one out of the lucky dip I would turn it in to cash as soon as possible.

A beaten-up old Peugeot with many miles on the clock, a bit rusty but still a good runner and pretty reliable considering its age, lives on my shelf and often makes the journey to my glove box.  It is a classic, and you won’t find many used copies of it for sale in second hand book shops.  But I doubt you will have to wait long to pick up a cheap Rolex.

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