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Czeching Into Prague's Golf Scene

PRAGUE SPRING. Tree branches catch white clouds of blossoms; lilacs spill over walls; in parks, beds of tulips paint arcs of brilliant red and yellow. The sky, which has been gray and hard since November, softens to blue. In 1968, the Czechs called their short-lived flowering of political and cultural freedom the Prague Spring; now that's the name of an annual music festival. This festival resonates with that heady, brief period of liberation, and with its suppression, which ended just a decade ago. A festival, a season: Like everything in the Czech Republic, they are layered with irony and memory.

I was born in Prague. My parents left when I was still a baby. Although I'd been back briefly in 1991, I only recently enjoyed my first extended stay in the city. Friends living there had gathered a group of people representing many of the complicated strands of Czech culture for dinner one spring evening. Among other things, we found ourselves talking about golf.

"Ah, golf," someone said. "That's very interesting."

"Interesting how?" I asked.

"Under the Communists, golf was a symbol, of course," explained Tomas Kraus, a prominent member of Prague's Jewish community, who was sitting beside me. "By playing golf, you were defying the government."

I should have known. Golf was more than a game here--it stood for the indomitable Czech spirit.

"This was the only country, you know, where the Communists permitted golf," Kraus continued. "They considered it decadent and bourgeois."

Golf, however, was very much a part of Czech life. The courses in Bohemia were old, among the first in Europe. They remained open, if neglected, and one or two new courses were constructed. A course within the city of Prague, only fifteen minutes from the center of town, the Golf Club Praha, in Motol, had been built in the 1920s. "The Communists used to try to shut it down," Kraus added, "but the bureaucrats used to sneak out and use it."

The Golf Club Praha is still the course of choice for golfers who want a quick retreat, who want to wedge an interesting game into a busy day. Like all golf courses in the Czech Republic, this one grew dilapidated during the Communist era, but it has been newly restored. Designed by Czech architect Kamil Pilat, the nine-hole layout plays differently enough from the middle and back tees to accommodate those with time for a full eighteen. Unfortunately, though many of the tee boxes provide great vistas of Prague, none of the holes--not even the monstrous 596-yard fourth--matches the views. The great Czech courses lie a bit outside the city.

"I just played in a tournament at Karlstejn," said William Lobkowicz, who sat on my other side. "It's laid out so that almost every hole has a spectacular view of the castle." The castle in question (Karlstein Castle) was built by Charles IV in the fourteenth century, and it was very much part of the plan of Les Furber and Jim Eremko, the two Canadians who designed the course--the first constructed in the post-Communist Czech Republic--in 1993. Located just west of Prague, Praha Karlstejn Golf Klub hosted the European PGA's 1997 Czech Open, won by Bernhard Langer. You couldn't ask for a more dramatic setting. Furber, whose credits include such mountain gems as the Links of Gleneagles and Predator Ridge, worked both the castle and the surrounding nature reserve into a majestic layout with precipitous changes in elevation. Praha Karlstejn winds through wild woods and pastoral fields, requiring shots to carry numerous gorges, lakes, streams and ravines. The castle is always present; from the tee on the par-three twelfth, you feel as though you're shooting for a flag waving from the top of a turret. This landscape is home ground for fairy tales.

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