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Europe's eastern promise

The idea of travelling to the Czech Republic for golf is what marketing types might call a ‘hard sell’, but as Clive Agran discovered, there is some seriously good golf to be had – not to mention the prospect of enjoying some R&R in one of Europe’s loveliest cities

For those grizzled veterans amongst us who lived through the Cold War when there was interminable talk of the communist threat, nuclear destruction and how you could obtain whatever you wanted in the Eastern Bloc in exchange for either chewing gum or jeans, the idea of travelling to the Czech Republic to play golf is a weird one. Even remembering to say “Czech Republic” rather than the more familiar but inaccurate “Czechoslovakia” requires a significant effort from those of us unable to name one song in the Top 20 and who struggle to stay awake much after half-past nine.

Thankfully, there is a whole generation growing up who won't even know what is meant by “Eastern Bloc” and will be equally unfamiliar with that other Cold War cliché, the Iron Curtain. It was that dogged old warrior, Sir Winston Churchill who first coined the phrase to describe the grim impenetrable barrier that descended across Europe shortly after the Second World War as the Soviet Union shielded all those within its sphere of influence from such unwelcome external influences as capitalism, democracy, freedom and, most disturbing and subversive of all, rock music.

More worrying in those days even than the poor performance of the Great Britain and Ireland Ryder Cup team was the imminent danger of nuclear war. With mutual suspicion more prevalent than trust, this was not a happy time for either golfers or non-golfers. Particularly cruel was the way in which the occasional flickering flame of freedom was ruthlessly extinguished in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968. These manifestations of Soviet brutality and intolerance confirmed our western suspicions that the people in Eastern Europe were being horribly oppressed.

The fabulous Karlstejn Castle dominates the original 18
holes at Karlstejn, where a new nine has recently been added.

Just to complete the inadequate history lesson for those who have been out on the links for the past two decades, communism finally crumbled in 1989, the Czech Republic came into being in 1993 and subsequently joined the EU in 2004. But what more convincing evidence could there possibly be that the country has thrown off the shackles of its recent bleak past than the fact that it has embraced the most bourgeois of sports, golf? Anyone who goes on a golf holiday is obviously keen on the game, but even the most enthusiastic player should occasionally hesitate before dashing to the first tee and, instead, appreciate some of the numerous other attractions that a country has to offer. The Czech Republic has many such things. Foremost amongst these is the stunningly beautiful city of Prague. With broad boulevards, magnificent old buildings, a wide sweeping river, trundling trams and an eclectic mix of architectural styles, Prague is spectacular.

Miraculously undamaged by the last War, this fabulous capital is bursting with churches, museums, galleries, concert halls, historic bridges, theatres, castles, cafes, palaces and shops. The best way to enjoy it all is simply to walk around the winding streets and soak up the atmosphere that oozes through the cobblestones. If you have the time and energy, take in a concert, play or opera.

Landlocked, the Czech Republic doesn't enjoy the moderating maritime influences that keep icebergs away from our shores, snowplough salesmen impoverished and our fairways open throughout the year. The golf season in the Czech Republic emerges from hibernation around the end of March and keeps going until the big freeze returns in late autumn. Rather like the Communist regime that once ran the country, the weather can be stubborn, unpredictable and spoil everyone's fun.

GROWING THE GAME

There are currently just over 80 golf courses in the Czech Republic. With the government's active support, the plan is to build many more and there are several under construction, which should comfortably accommodate the projected annual increase of 15 per cent in the number of rounds played.

Whilst it is expected that much of the anticipated expansion in the sport will be provided by foreign visitors, there are already 45,000 active Czech golfers. Interestingly, one third are women. Although a bourgeois sport like golf clearly languished under communism, it's interesting to speculate that the comparatively high proportion of women who play the game here may be a happy legacy of the sexual egalitarianism fostered by an otherwise unenlightened regime.

Undoubtedly, what would give the sport a massive domestic boost would be a Czech player bursting onto the scene and battling it out with the best of them. Alex Cejka could have been that player. Born in Czechoslovakia, he fled the country with his family when he was seven, subsequently settled in Munich and became a German citizen. Had he stayed behind he would have been a Czech sporting hero with his picture hanging prominently in 80 clubhouses. Never mind.

About an hour's drive to the north-east of Prague is the curiously titled Ypsilon Golf Club. Its name derives from the 20th letter of the Greek alphabet, which roughly approximates to our 'Y' and is intended to represent someone with their arms aloft in a welcoming gesture. Having trudged up the steep hill from the car park and admired the magnificent views from the modern clubhouse perched 1500 feet above sea level, I wonder if Pi, as in 'Pi in the Sky' might not have been a more appropriate Greek letter. If you're not convinced by the clubhouse panorama that you are in for a treat, then the walk down to the first tee should do the trick. The opening hole neatly summarises what this sensationally scenic course has to offer. With its wide, welcoming, neatly-striped fairway, forest on both sides and a chasm to cross just shy of the green, it's like a trailer for a movie. If you don't fancy it, then turn round and trudge back up the hill because there's a lot more of that to come.

An hour’s driver northeast of Prague, the Ypsilon Golf Club features a gloriously manicured parkland layout

Although I didn't take one, a buggy is a sensible option for those who don't relish climbing the several stiffish ascents that punctuate this gorgeous course. Irrespective of whether you walk or drive you will undoubtedly enjoy the views across the surrounding wooded hills, valleys and mountain peaks from the numerous elevated tees.

Beautifully maintained with wonderfully lush fairways and immaculate greens, it weaves and wanders around the wooded landscape to provide both an energetic walk for those who want one and a thorough golfing examination. With acres of space to spare, it requires a prodigious hook or massive slice to come even close to threatening an adjacent hole. With such wide fairways and not too much in the way of punishing rough you might be lulled into thinking it's difficult to lose a ball but the numerous streams, ravines and gullies will gobble up a few before your round is over.

About half-an-hour's drive to the south of Prague lies Golf Resort Konopiste. With two full-sized courses and a nine-hole 'public' course, there's plenty here to keep you occupied. And with a lovely old hotel converted from a chateau right on site, it's particularly attractive for those who don't fancy renting a car and driving everywhere.

If your knowledge of foreign languages barely extends beyond an ability to shrug in French, Czech is a particularly difficult language to fathom. However, I thought I was fairly safe in interpreting the d'Este course as the East course. It is in fact named after the Archduke Ferdinand d'Este, whom we know better as Archduke Franz Ferdinand whose assassination at Sarajevo led to the First World War. Not perhaps the happiest of omens as you march onto the first tee.

Although the longer and tougher of the two main courses, it's a battle at times but never a war. In fact, it rather gently rolls around the undulating countryside and has a friendly open feel.

The tough rough keeps you honest and the course will be a tad or two tighter in ten years time when the numerous saplings will have grown enough to make their presence felt. The unforgettable ninth, which sweeps downhill and finishes on an island green in front of the clubhouse, is the undisputed signature hole that will swallow more balls than the members can pints on a sizzling summer's day.

The military theme is maintained by the other big course. Named after a famous marshal who lived here and fought in the Napoleonic Wars, the Radecky course is a lovely parkland affair that incorporates the finer features and mature trees that were evidently key components of the old estate. Sadly, lack of time prevented me playing it but it looked terrific.

It was a mid-March blizzard that stopped me tackling Karlstejn (rhymes with vine) when I visited two years ago. But the long wait was well worth it because not only is the 18-hole course truly lovely but a new nine, every bit as good, has just opened. The only downside to the new bit is that, unlike the original course where it absolutely dominates, the spectacular nearby Karlstejn Castle can't be seen.

Opened in 1993, the original course is rather less frightening but no less enjoyable as it winds down the hillside, through the woods and along the valley. With two lakes, natural ravines and 86 bunkers, it doesn't lack interest either and is maintained in superb condition.

Golf Park Plzen (pronounced Pilsen) is by far the tightest and most challenging course of all those I've played in the Czech Republic. Draining a couple of samples from the nearby brewery might steady the nerves before tackling this demanding course, but whether you're Pilsened or sober, leave your driver behind because, no matter how much you've drunk, the course will almost certainly be tighter than you.

A view to a thrill: This is what greets you standing on the 11th tee at
Golf Park Plzen, a ‘do-or-die’ shot to a fabulous island green.

Dense woodland, deep water and punishing rough are never far away and so it's hard to relax even if the surrounding scenery is delightful. Although there's not a weak one amongst them, two holes in particular stand out. The par three 11th is a super island hole while the wonderfully elevated tee on the 16th is nearly high enough to induce a nose bleed. Buggies are available but have to keep to the path all the year round. If you take one and have done enough driving by the end of the round, you can stay in one of the 14 double rooms or two luxury apartments on site.

With green fees significantly cheaper than they are in most other European countries and with beer more than competitively priced, there's a lot to be said for heading east and checking out the Czech Republic.

Reproduced with kind permission of Golf International Magazine





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