Golf craze takes over Czech Republic

Ondřej Hejma, photo: CTK
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The sound of a golf club hitting a ball has become an increasingly familiar sound as more and more Czechs take to a new pastime – golf. Until fairly recently, most Czechs thought “handicap” only meant a disadvantage and “green” stood for nothing else but the colour. Not any more. According to a recent survey conducted by the KPMG agency, more than half of all the golf courses in post-communist Europe are located in the Czech Republic. While in the early 1990s there were only about 5 golf courses to choose from, now there are close to 80 of them. And analysts predict their number will keep growing for another couple of years. KPMG’s Tomáš Kulman:

Ondřej Hejma, photo: CTK
“Regarding the number and the quality of golf courses available I think we are really number one, in comparison to other former communist countries. For example in Hungary there are only about eight golf courses. In Poland, which has a market four times bigger than the Czech Republic, there were 24 or 25 golf courses at the end of last year. The same goes for the other countries of the former communist block.”

So, why exactly have Czechs taken to golf with so much zest? A question I put to journalist and musician Ondřej Hejma, who got caught up in the golf-craze some time ago.

“It’s ten, maybe a little more than ten years. I remember sitting in a pizzeria in down town Prague and all of a sudden a man I didn’t know walked up and put a golfing hat on my head and said: You will play golf. It turned out that it was somebody I vaguely knew from the past, a journalist and a golfer and indeed the week after I went to the driving range. There I discovered a bunch of friends, they were all sports journalists who were starting with golf, and I joined them and have been with them ever since. But the truth is that I had the clubs already. I had them at home and I didn’t know how to start. And this was the starting point…”

What exactly do you like about golf?

“That’s a very broad question. I like sports in general. I like ball games. I played a lot of football; I played table tennis and tennis. Only the ball is kind of getting smaller. So golf is just another ball game I like. It’s a sport that fits my age bracket. It’s a good sport when you are over fifty. And, last but not least, it’s a great thing for the family, because we have two grown-up children who do not spend much time with us anymore and when we go on vacation it’s a good pastime. We don’t have to worry about castles and museums, we just play golf… ”

Do you have any theory why golf is so popular here in the Czech Republic?

“I was asked the very same question about tennis twenty years ago. People would ask me: Why is it that Czechs play such good tennis? And I didn’t really have an answer, and this is no different. I think there are several factors. One is certainly tradition because in the Czech lands golf courses go back a hundred years and more so there was something to build on. Only four or five courses it is true, but still, they didn’t have even that in Ukraine. Then it’s the sporting tradition, which I think is extremely strong here in this country. That’s probably it.”

What does one actually need to become a golf player?

“First of all you need quite a bit of free time. That’s probably the most difficult and the most expensive thing. But otherwise it’s not as terribly expensive as people think. It compares easily to down-hill skiing in terms of the money you have to pay for equipment and the money you pay for facilities. You don’t have to be a member of a private club. There are already public courses here and you can go to the driving range and hit the ball all day long.”

One such public golf course is located in Prague’s district of Hodkovičky. Stretching along the Vltava River, it is just a stone’s throw from the city centre. As long as you have your own set of golf clubs and balls, you can come, free of charge, and practice your swing. It’s Monday afternoon and the golf course is quickly filling up with people, who left their stuffy offices to get a breath of fresh air. Markéta Grabeinová is the manager:

“We are the biggest driving range in the Czech Republic. We have 66 places where you can practice and 15 of them are heated in winter so you can come even when it’s cold and still feel comfortable. There are also practice areas on grass, not only on mats. We also have two chipping greens and putting greens, which are big and modulated, so every golfer can use what he or she likes…”

Walking on the trimmed grass scattered with white balls, I see golfers of various handicaps and of all ages. I approach a young man who has just sent a ball flying through the air with a decisive swing:

How long have you been playing?

“I have just finished my green card, so I am a golf beginner.”

How often do you come here?

“I try to come at least once a week. But sometimes I don’t manage it because of my job.”

And what exactly do you like about golf?

“It’s an easy sport; you spend time outdoors; you relax, walk and look around. That’s it. It’s not a hard sport, like cycling or running. But it’s a kind of relaxing sport. It’s a combination of sport and relaxation.”

Further away, small children are gathered around their coach on a chipping green. When they finish the game, six-year-old Zuzka explains what she likes about golf…

I like putting and swinging, she says, and I also like playing from the bunker. We haven’t practised that yet, but my brother has already showed me how to do it. When asked if she would like to play professionally, she says, yes, definitely, but only if she places in the top 20…

So, should Tiger Woods and his colleagues fear possible competition from these youngsters? How do Czech golfers compare with world class players? Ondřej Hejma again:

“To have top players you need a strong base of everyday ordinary players. And that’s certainly not happening here. The tradition I talked about was interrupted for a very long time. The number of registered golfers is somewhere around 35 000 or so. In Sweden you have around 300 000, which is ten times more. So obviously they have top players and we don’t. But we will get there.”

Ondřej Hejma definitely seems to know what he is talking about. Just this week, Jessica Kordová, the 15-year old daughter of the former Czech tennis star Petr Korda qualified for a prestigious women’s golf tournament, the US Open. So, who knows? One day, the names of Czech golfers may evoke the same respect as those of Pavel Nedvěd or Petr Čech.