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MY TALENTS, such as they are, do not normally extend to mindreading. However, I would be willing to wager that, when you turned to this page, you thought to yourself ‘I didn't know they played golf in the Czech Republic'.

The odds are in my favour since every one I spoke to prior to my trip uttered words along these lines. Well, I can assure you they do and, what's more, they have been for more than a century.

Admittedly there has been a boom since 1990 following the end of the communist regime – only three 18-hole courses existed then, now the count is 70 and rising – but the sport's roots took hold in 1904 when the first Czech course was established in the town of Karlovy Vary as a response to the demand of some of the visitors to this spa town.

The nearby Marianske Lazne course followed a year later, being opened by King Edward VII, and four years ago it was granted the right to use the title Royal, the only club in Continental Europe to be so favoured.

It would be gilding the lily to say that all visitors can expect to be treated like royalty, but everyone at the four courses I visited was eager to assist in any way possible and appeared to take a great pride in their course and clubhouse.

Karlovy Vary was the first golfing port of call and be assured my journalistic objectivity was in no way coloured by the fact that I played the back nine in one over par gross. Had I shot 60 or 160, my view could not be anything other than that this is a stunning track – golfing-wise and visually. Its 18 holes carve a path through beautiful wooded land 600 metres above sea level and my notes scribbled at each hole refer constantly to the scenic views and aesthetic charm of the sloping fairways and greens.

The 8th, a par 3, is particularly delightful with the tee abutted by a colourful flower bed, and the 9th is squeezed tight by trees and at the back of the green is a halfway refreshment hut.

Its door bears a plaque underscoring how difficult it is to judge the uphill approach shot to the 9th, commemorating as it does a late member who once shattered three coffee cups when he overshot the green.

Royal GC Marianske Lazne is slightly flatter than Karlovy Vary, but both have a maturity which shows in the quality of the courses' turf, landscaping and ambience. The hole I liked most I discovered is its signature hole, the 7th, a dogleg left par-4 with a downhill tee shot across a ditch and an uphill second to a green encircled by trees giving it the feel of an amphitheatre. Truly one of those holes which makes you feel fortunate to be a golfer, no matter your standard of play.

Be warned, the generosity of spirit of the staff mentioned earlier does not, it appear, extend to the greenkeeper for the drive's landing area at the par-4 11th – situated in a funnel of trees – narrows to a mere five yards.

The two other courses visited were at the other end of the timescale, Sokolov opening only last year and Frantiskovy Lazne in 2003. The latter is hard to believe for this course – set among pines, spruces and birches – passes itself off impressively as a layout of some maturity. There are plenty of testing holes, including a few tee shots across water, and the enclosed nature of several holes offers a welcome secluded feel.

Sokolov, by contrast, has an open landscape, but its comparative bleakness will no doubt be eroded with the passing years as its many clusters of saplings gain height and width. However, it still has a few outstanding holes visually, such as the downhill par-3 fifth which has a pond guarding its left side, and the track is of a sufficient quality to demand the golfer's total focus on the shot in hand and not the scenery.


Published: December 28, 2007

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