For those of us too young to have experienced the horrors of World War II, the 1998 film “Saving Private Ryan” was a punch in the gut. It’s one thing to have studied the war in school and seen the grainy black-and-white footage. It’s another to have the war blasted in your face, with explosions and fire and blood, as the first 27 minutes of Spielberg’s film did. I’ve never forgotten the film’s images. I knew that one day I would have to make the pilgrimage to France -- specifically to Normandy, and to Omaha Beach. Golf would be the catalyst to get me there.
June 6 commemorates the 70th anniversary of D-Day, when 160,000 Allied soldiers landed along a 50-mile stretch of Normandy beaches in an effort to liberate western Europe from Nazi Germany occupation. More than 5,000 ships and 13,000 aircraft supported the invasion. While casualties were heavy -- more than 9,000 troops were killed or wounded that day -- the Allies gained a significant foothold. Many have said that the future of Europe was decided on the Normandy beaches.
The date resonates significantly, thanks to the trip my wife and I made there in May 2012. Indeed, it was a golf course quest that punched my ticket, but the journey proved enlightening in so many ways.
Teeing it up amid such seriousness sounds almost sacrilegious, but I first had heard of Omaha Beach Golf Club from the broadcaster Jack Whitaker in the late 1990s. Whitaker was part of D-Day plus 3, the reinforcement troops sent in on June 9, so he had journeyed back to Normandy to revisit that time in his life -- and he played Omaha Beach Golf Club while there. My conclusions were much like Whitaker’s: This wasn’t Top 100 golf, but it was memorable for many other reasons.
Omaha Beach Golf Club in Port-en-Bessin offers two courses, La Mer, the older of the two and Le Manoir. Of the two, La Mer is the must-play. An Yves Bureau design of 6,809 yards, par 72, La Mer unfortunately features a fair number of sidehill pasture holes and large, rock-strewn bunkers. The positives are many elevated tees, quick greens and a sense of place that’s bolstered by the naming of each hole after an Allied commander. I bogeyed the par-5 opener, named for General Dwight Eisenhower, who was in charge of the Allied invasion, but made my peace with the course by birdieing the downhill par-3 2nd, named for savvy statesman Winston Churchill.
Not to disrespect Generals de Gaulle (Hole 3, shortish par-4, elevated tee), Gerhardt (Hole 7, studded with coastal pines) or Patton (Hole 8, sturdy downhill par-3 fronted by bunkers), but there’s only one hole here to salute and that’s the par-4 6th, named for General Omar Bradley. Measuring 475 yards from the tips, this dogleg right heads straight to the sea, then arcs to run alongside it. The drive flirts with massive flanking fairway traps -- and with the wind -- and the approach embraces views of the Bay of the Seine and the English Channel and also a series of mostly round sand craters that block a run-up to the green. The clifftop green peers over the town and harbor of Port-en-Bessin and takes in views of D-Day artifacts, including the artificial port at Arromanches and the artillery bunkers at Longues-sur-Mer. Just beyond the green, down a short dirt path are plaques and exhibits that further embellish the experience. Any American should receive a special dispensation for slow play at the 6th hole.
The back nine at Omaha Beach doesn’t measure up to the front, but by then your patriotism needle is pegged, unusually linked to golf. Thus fortified, we ventured down the road for one final taste of the battle at Pointe du Hoc, a promontory where 300 handpicked U.S. Army Rangers were deployed to assault one of the Germans’ most formidable defense positions. Scaling 100-foot cliffs using ropes, grappling hooks and ladders borrowed from London fire brigades, only 90 men survived -- and succeeded. Today the bomb craters and bunkers remain just are they were, a somber contrast to the stunning panoramas.
We concluded with the impressive Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial in Colleville-sur-Mer. Perched on top of a bluff overlooking Omaha Beach, the cemetery illuminates an eerie, silent beauty, its 9,387 white marble headstones posed in mute, powerful testimony to the ultimate conflict. A memorial and reflecting pool, the Garden of the Missing, a chapel and a visitor’s center are other compelling draws. Steps lead to the beach. If you can handle the up and down, your reward is a supremely moving walk on the sands, letting your imagination go where it will.
Emotions for me ranged from awe to gratitude to goose-bump-inducing dread. They were doubly so for my wife, whose father had arrived on June 7, 1944, D-Day plus 1. We eventually drove back, somewhat somberly, to the resort town of Deauville. We had split our stay there at two superb Lucien Barriere hotels, Hotel du Golf, which features 27 holes of Tom Simpson/Henry Cotton design and the Royal Barriere, which sits right on the famous beach that inspired Monet and other Impressionists. We quaffed a beverage at the Normandy Barriere in town, best known for its scenes in the Oscar-winning 1966 French film “A Man and a Woman.”
As the evening light of spring faded, my thoughts turned to the 6th hole at Omaha Beach, where I could almost see the soldiers pouring out of landing crafts onto the beaches, braving bullets so that you and I wouldn’t have to. I thought of thousands of marble crosses in the American Cemetery. I reflected as to how lucky we were to be American, no matter what political persuasion. Some golf trips are about much more than birdies and bogies.