Meet the director of golf: Jack Laws

Alistair Dunsmuir
By Alistair Dunsmuir August 13, 2021 11:57

The director of golf at Les Bordes Golf Club in France, one of the world’s most spectacular new golf facilities, talks about the venue, life as an Englishman working at a golf club in France, running the building of a major new course, working through the pandemic and his time at Sunningdale.

Can you tell us about Les Bordes Golf Club and, in particular, its New Course?

We are a private members’ club located about 100km south of Paris. We launched the club in August 2019 and built the membership up from scratch to more than 140 members (as of March 2021) which, considering the pandemic and the private nature of Les Bordes, we feel is a decent number. Our membership demographic is very international with 60 per cent made up of players from the UK and America, 20 per cent French nationals and the remainder split all across Europe. The membership works in a traditional manner where a current member would propose a friend and that proposal would get passed on to the committee for review. The golf club consists of two championship golf courses – the Old and the New – a par-three course ‘The Wild Piglet’, hotel cottages for the members and their guests, clubhouse, driving range and all other golfing amenities you would expect at a country club-style venue.

The New Course is a Gil Hanse design and his first golf course within Europe. Fundamentally, it’s a heathland-style layout built on sand with large waste areas like those you see at Pine Valley. It’s unique in its style for Europe with some truly exceptional architecture. Featuring large bunkers, subtle elevation changes and amazing green complexes, the course plays firm and fast so it’s actual playing distance is shorter than its 7,400-yard overall length. The fast nature of the fairways means that there is a premium on using the playing surface and controlling the ball along the ground. This style is something Gil Hanse and Caveman Construction do incredibly well. This gives our members two very different styles of golf to choose from between the Old Course’s contemporary design and the traditional style of the New.

How did you, as an Englishman, end up at a French club?

I was previously based at Sunningdale Golf Club in Ascot and living in London. I was there for just over four years and my time at the club was priceless, and something I look back on very fondly. The courses are exceptional but I think what gets overlooked a lot of the time, and is only apparent when you work at a place like Sunningdale, is the quality of the membership and the people you interact with. I worked for Keith Maxwell in a small team and we operated at that time as a traditional golf club pro shop. All the assistants played with members, we coached, ran events and operated the retail. The broad nature of the role gave me an education on what there was to offer back to the membership in terms of service and value.

The club began to change slightly and I felt I had learned as much as I could in the time I was there so I began to look at other options and ways that I could continue to develop in the industry, and go to the next step professionally. Les Bordes was brought forward as an option in August 2018. We had some mutual members of Sunningdale and Les Bordes so it was easy for me to gather information on the project. At the time, it was a place which had always been kept hidden away from the spotlight.

I visited the estate and the level of quality Les Bordes had was obvious – from the excellent von Hagge-designed golf course and the food in the clubhouse to the overall setting and the staff that were already there, the estate had all of the essential components to become something very special. The ownership also had a very clear view of what the club should offer and where it should be placed on the golfing stage which was very refreshing.

I am in my fourth season now at Les Bordes and I am incredibly lucky to work at such a venue. As a golf fan, it has everything you could ask for – fantastic golf courses and a fun par three layout, exceptional food, great accommodation, high-quality membership and an overall relaxed atmosphere.

What has it been like running the building of a major new golf course?

I would be lying if I didn’t say it was a steep learning curve. I think coming from Sunningdale and playing a lot of my amateur golf in Kent at courses like Royal St George’s and Royal Cinque Ports, I had taken great architecture for granted. The whole process has given me a perspective on what it takes to build a course and an appreciation for the work of the architect and construction teams.

That being said, it has been a lot of fun to learn about architecture and construction from someone as experienced as Gil Hanse.

The responsibility of the build has been shared between Gil Hanse, myself and our golf superintendent and estate manager Lee Strutt. Lee and I work closely together on a daily basis discussing the New and Old courses, golf facilities and overall presentation of the estate.

How many other Brits are working at the club?

There are three of us currently – me, Lee (Strutt) and my assistant Harrison Boundy. Lee has been working tirelessly to implement Gil and our chairman’s vision and has been of overwhelming value in lifting the project to the next stage of evolution. He has a clear vision of what it takes to deliver a truly world class golfing experience for our members.

Harrison was previously at Woking and Royal Cinque Ports and has come in and enhanced the golfing experience we offer, looking after our members in the pro shop, coaching and organising events throughout the season.

What is the golf industry in France like? How popular is the game and has this increased since the pandemic started?

The golf industry is strong in France, and the game is far more popular than people usually think it is. I feel the ability and education of the game has a way to go but most courses will be busy at weekends and there is certainly a trend towards more and more French people taking the game up. Nearly all clubs within France are pay-and-play models or similar and this takes away from the nature of a private members’ club which can be found across the UK or America. There are a lot of good golf courses around the country, particularly local to Paris where Simpson and Colt worked extensively in the early 20th century.

The pandemic has certainly increased the appetite for the game and we are seeing golf courses become busier, but we will have to wait and see how great the effect is when we are truly out the other side. I am very optimistic that it will have a substantial impact on participation numbers within France and the rest of Europe.

What have your experiences of the pandemic been like, from March 2020 until today?

When the pandemic hit most people thought it would be a very short-lived experience, and the whole idea of ‘furlough’ and ‘isolation’ were things that would be a short phase we would all go through and get back to work within a few weeks. After a while, I think the novelty of being at home began to wear off and people began to desire more structure in their day and a general sense of freedom.

It has been very difficult at times and, personally, I think it’s something I am happy to see the back of. Fortunately, I have still been able to travel a bit and it has been interesting seeing how other countries have been dealing with the situation.

One silver lining has been that lockdowns have increased the appetite for the game and I think golf can look forward to some great years ahead.

Has the club introduced social distancing measures?

Yes, all precautions are taken into consideration and procedures have been put in place to minimise any risk to members and their guests.

You’ve gone from PGA professional to director of golf, how have you found the transition to include more golf club managerial duties?

The change in role is something that I have really enjoyed. Being involved more operationally and overseeing other members of staff has been an educating experience and something I have really enjoyed. Golf isn’t something that comes naturally in France and, with the language barrier, things can sometimes be lost in translation. I am slowly learning the language and that helps to create a better understanding of the quality we are looking for amongst the staff.

My role is still very broad. I take care of all typical head professional responsibilities such as the retail of the pro shop and coaching, whilst incorporating more administrational tasks such as budgets, staffing and training. I still play a fair bit with our members which I feel is a really important part of any head pro / director of golf role; firstly, because it is important to see the golf course you are taking care of, but also in my position you are seen as the golf expert at the club so it’s vital to spend time with the members discussing the game and showing interest. From their perspective, it is an important relationship to have.

Does the club try to attract women and juniors to play golf?

Of course, we are a family-orientated club and encourage women, juniors and beginners to take up the game. This is the main reason we added The Wild Piglet, which is a 10-hole par three course Gil and Caveman Construction designed and built. The holes range from 80 to 150 yards and are very accessible from the tee box for all abilities.

Our desire is to begin to work with local schools and use our facilities to educate the children in golf and encourage an increase in golf participation within the local area.

What are your predictions for the golf industry in Europe over the next few years?

Post Covid, the game will be in a great position. The demand to get out onto the golf course hasn’t been higher in the last 15 years and I think we can expect a time similar to the boom of the 1980s and early 2000s when you had Tiger’s impact on the game. There will be an influx of new golfers taking up the game and golf coming back into the mainstream. The feedback from other clubs across Europe and UK has been very positive, with private members’ clubs implementing waiting lists for membership and pay-and-play golf being incredibly busy when it has been accessible.

At Les Bordes Golf Club, we will continue to do what we do and improve the golf offering across the estate. We are excited at what the future holds for us and we will keep working hard on pushing the standards of quality possible for our members and their guests.

 

Alistair Dunsmuir
By Alistair Dunsmuir August 13, 2021 11:57
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