These articles were published in the Spectacular Slovakia travel guide, published annually by The Slovak Spectator since 1996. The latest editions can be obtained from our online shop.

Swinging ahead of the curve

By Howard Swains

    Black Stork, in Veľká Lomnica, offers a championship golf course in the shadow of the High Tatras.
 Black Stork, in Veľká Lomnica, offers a championship golf course in the shadow of the High Tatras.

In 2006, the International Association of Golf Tour Operators named the Czech Republic as the "Undiscovered Golf Destination of the Year", beating off competition from 17 other countries for the coveted award. Between 1990 and 2006, the country's golf courses had swelled in number from three to 69, and people were paying attention. The traditional European golf tour destinations of Spain and Portugal remained popular, but prices were high and courses crowded. Central Europe offered an intriguing, and increasingly well-equipped alternative, and the upsurge in interest was duly noted on the international golfing scene.

A number of these interested parties were over the border in Slovakia, many peering out over similar vast swathes of potential for golfing investment. Slovakia too was beginning to show an enthusiasm for golf. What had previously been regarded as a western, bourgeois pastime was gradually earning acceptance as a viable hobby for local kids and adults, with basic equipment costing about the same as a set of skis. Meanwhile, golf remains the hobby of choice for travelling businessmen, and with the number visiting Slovakia's production plants and office complexes ever-increasing, golf is similarly on the up.

The first golf course opened in Slovakia before World War II, but slipped into the wilderness over the next 80 years as all things western were equated with all things bad. After the country's post-Velvet Revolution reawakening, however, golf has made a comeback and some new courses boast facilities to match anywhere else in Europe.

The backdrops aren't bad either: imagine playing golf in the shadow of the High Tatras, for instance. Such a possibility is a marketing department's dream, and an increasingly accessible reality for golfers looking to swing their clubs somewhere ahead of the curve.

    The holes at Gray Bear follow the natural undulations of the land.
 The holes at Gray Bear follow the natural undulations of the land.
 Howard Swains

There are now three 18-hole Championship courses in Slovakia, four nine-hole courses and a number of indoor facilities for year-round play. As more players cotton on, standards inevitably improve, and the best of the bunch – Black Stork, in the High Tatras; Gray Bear, in the Banská Bystrica region; and the championship course outside of Bratislava – will impress even the most picky golfer, accustomed to the great expense lavished on facilities in the more traditional golfing nations.

"We're looking for good customers who ask for good services, " said Sylvia Hrušková, the General Manager of the Black Stork golf complex in Veľká Lomnica. "When people ask for good services, the level we provide goes up."

Black Stork began life as a potato field, where local residents, including Hrušková, were employed to harvest the crops. After nationalised industries ended with the fall of communism, the open space lay unused for several years before the golf developers moved in. A driving range opened in 1999 and the full course opened a year later, with nine more holes added in 2005.

These days, Black Stork has an assortment of courses to suit all levels of expertise, as well as a golfing academy, where tuition is provided on a driving range, chipping area and putting green by professionals listed with the Slovak Golf Association. Interest is growing: "When we started, no one was playing golf," said Hrušková. "Now we have 480 members."

The clubhouse and surroundings offer similarly attractive propositions for golfers and their guests alike. The hotel is equipped with pool and sauna, and the restaurant and bar facilities are again a match for similar establishments across the continent. Meanwhile, the course is on the very edge of the High Tatras national park meaning the area is full of other possibilities for leisure-time excursions. In winter, the course is ideal for cross-country skiing and the driving ranges are heated for year-round play. The mountains, meanwhile, provide as delightful a setting as one can imagine either to compliment a low-70s blaze around 18 holes or to compensate for a crude hack.

Success breeds success, of course, and as the golf course grows in popularity, attracting a demanding business crowd, more accommodation options open, as well as fresh and diverse restaurants and entertainment spots for off-course time.

And it's not just people flocking to the area. According to Hrušková, a recent environmental study showed that a wide variety of new wildlife has been spotted in the region, rebutting common claims from conservationists that golf courses can be damaging to an area's eco-system. Although landscaping, micro-management of vegetation, and wildlife control is all necessary on and around golf courses, this former farmland had lain fallow for many years, and has become a more attractive environment since the introduction of improved irrigation and diversity of plant species.

    Black Stork, once a potato field, is now a championship course.
 Black Stork, once a potato field, is now a championship course.

In Tále, near Brezno, one particular family of foxes found the Gray Bear golf course that opened in 2002 to be particularly irresistible and would reportedly sneak onto the greens and make off with the balls hit there by golfers. Such an intrusion could not, unfortunately, be tolerated and these particular sly characters didn't last long. Gray Bear, however, has endured and prospered, and is now another sublime example of Slovakia's immense golfing potential, gradually coming to enjoy similar recognition as a wonderful destination for Europe's travelling golfers.

Situated among the pine forests of the Low Tatras, the American-designed course was deliberately landscaped to utilise the natural contours of the area, and no man-made obstacles were introduced. Indeed, the walls marking the edge of the course were built with stones shifted during the construction, and the designers even made conscious efforts to sculpt some fairways in the shape of the rolling mountains in the background.

The result of this attention to detail is a naturally undulating course, dotted with firs, that again demonstrates a standard of facilities and green-keeping to rival plenty of more fashionable golfing destinations. The complex includes a well-stocked pro-shop, bar and restaurant, and a number of hotels with views across the course. Tále is more traditionally a skiing destination, and the course shares facilities with the nearby slopes.

Golf professionals in Slovakia concede that the game is currently more of a curiosity in much of the Slovak population's consciousness, rather than anything in which they would consider participating. Although this attitude is rapidly changing, the tourist should rush to make the most of the opportunities afforded by deserted fairways and no queues; an unprecedented boon to those accustomed to the laboured progress around the south of England's overpriced courses, for example.

Slovakia now has its first internationally-respected golf professional – Zuzana Kamasová, who plays on the ladies European tour – and a number of promising youngsters hoping to follow in her footsteps. It has rapidly improving infrastructure to support golf tourism, with the major courses providing flight, hotel and play packages from across Europe.

It may be a little while yet, but Slovakia seems a shoo-in for the Undiscovered Golf Destination of the Year in the coming decade. Now is your opportunity to get there first.

These articles and related information were published in Spectacular Slovakia 2008, which you can obtain from our online shop.

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