PARIS, Sept 21 (Reuters) - If there is a single moment identified with French golf it is perhaps that of a hapless Jean Van de Velde standing knee-deep in the water at Carnoustie in 1999, squandering a three-shot lead on the 18th hole and with it the British Open.
Indeed, few people are old enough to remember the last French golfer to win a major championship: it was Arnaud Massy in 1907, when golf club shafts were still made of wood.
Next week the Ryder Cup, the biennial tournament that pits Europe against the United States, will be fought out in France, to the indifference of most folk in a country where golf is widely seen as a sport for the rich.
That no French player made the European team — there are only two Frenchmen in the world’s top 100 players — will not help endear the sport to a wider French public.
“It’s a disappointment,” Pascal Grizot, head of France’s Ryder Cup 2018 committee, told Reuters. “But we never assumed we’d have a French champion when we launched our bid.”
Grizot, who is vice-president of the French Golf Federation, is counting on the huge media frenzy that accompanies the world’s third biggest sporting event and the presence of a back-to-form Tiger Woods to help break down barriers.
“France has always had this elitist image of golf and it’s unfortunate. The fact that we’re hosting this major event... is something that can help us get more people playing.”
Not everyone shares his optimism.
“My country is not a golf country,” Franck Riboud, a long-time benefactor of women’s and youth golf tournaments, told reporters earlier this month.
“After the Ryder Cup, I don’t know. Nothing,” the former chairman and chief executive of food giant Danone said. “The best ambassador (for) golf in France is going to be the next French Champion... perhaps it’s crazy, but that’s the thing we have to dream about.”
France’s golf lovers have long yearned for a homegrown star.
Van de Velde in 1999 came within a final-hole meltdown and Thomas Levet lost to South Africa’s Ernie Els in a playoff for the British Open’s Claret Jug three years later.
Van de Velde, Levet and, most recently, Victor Dubuisson are the only three Frenchmen to have competed in the Ryder Cup. This year’s big hope, Alexander Levy, failed to make captain Thomas Bjorn’s selection.
The Sept. 28-30 event at Le Golf National west of Paris will be the first time France has hosted the Ryder Cup.
Grizot began plotting France’s bid almost decade ago when organisers announced they would bring the cup to mainland Europe in 2018 for only the second time. Close friends and associates told him he was mad.
Grizot, however, who as a child would practice on a putting green illuminated by the headlights of his grandmother’s car, was undeterred.
The French Golf Federation agreed to stump up 18 million euros ($21.2 million) — financed by a three euro surcharge on membership — over a 12-year period to help pay for the tournament.
It also incorporated in its bid a pledge to create 100 short courses in urban areas to widen the sport’s appeal. Almost all have been built and dozens more are planned.
“If you just build big, beautiful courses, you exclude a certain number who don’t have the money or the time to play,” he said.
Worryingly for the federation, member numbers have fallen over the past six years.
The organisers promise a distinctly French vibe to the 2018 Ryder Cup. The captains have already hit shots from the Eiffel Tower and dined at the Palace of Versailles.
France, though, will have to keep waiting in its search for a homegrown golfing hero. ($1 = 0.8503 euros) (Editing by Christian Radnedge)