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Czeching Into Prague's Golf Scene

WILLIAM LOBKOWICZ'S STORY IS A FAIRY TALE OF A SORT. A COUPLE OF DAYS AFTER THAT DINNER PARTY, I drove about half an hour north of Prague to see Nelahozeves, one of his family's castles. Lobkowicz was born in America, to Czech nobility who had emigrated after the Second World War. He grew up near Boston, went to Harvard and for a while considered becoming a professional golfer. After the fall of Communism, when the Czech government began returning confiscated property to its owners, Lobkowicz came back. Tall and boyish still, in his late thirties, he has lived in Prague for nine years with his wife, Alexandra, and their two children.

Lobkowicz princes commissioned operas from Gluck, quartets from Haydn, symphonies from Beethoven. In the last sixty years, his family's lands, including eleven castles throughout Bohemia, were confiscated twice, first by the Nazis during the Second World War and then by the Communists in 1948. When the Lobkowicz family reclaimed them, some of the properties were run-down, almost beyond repair; one of the most beautiful castles was perched on a hill surrounded by miles of open pit mines.

With a mixture of American entrepreneurial spirit and a patrician sense of obligation to his family's history, William Lobkowicz has established a nonprofit foundation to help care for the family's artistic treasures and priceless library, which have also been reclaimed from the state. He is working tirelessly to make the properties self-supporting: reviving the family's ancient vineyards and brewery, operating a travel service, commissioning reproductions of works of art in the family collections.

Most of the art has been collected at Nelahozeves. The castle is small and exquisite, perched on a hillside overlooking the Vltava River. Inside Nelahozeves, the Lobko-wicz family has gathered its artistic legacy. Paintings by Lucas Cranach, Peter Paul Rubens, Jan Breughel, as well as Peter Breughel's great Haymaking hang in the castle's rooms, which are open to the public. Scores from the collection of musical manuscripts are on display. The exhibition is interlaced with family portraits, which supply a narrative and give visitors a glimpse of one family's profound influence on Czech history.

EVERYWHERE IN PRAGUE YOU FEEL AS IF LIFE IS BEGINNING AGAIN AFTER A LONG INTERRUPTION. IN THE nineteenth century, all Europe flocked to Bohemia's spas to take the waters and recover from the stress of prosperity. Now those resorts are reviving, thanks largely to their beautiful golf courses.

The golf club at Karlovy Vary (or Karlsbad), at the famous spa eighty-five miles west of Prague, is the oldest golf club and arguably the best in the country. It was founded in 1904, at the height of the Gilded Age, as a nine-holer for the local fencing club. By 1933, however, its members preferred par to parries and added another nine holes. The course, with ingeniously protected holes and sharp elevation shifts, now rolls through 6,848 yards of countryside in the Krusnehory Mountains, crossing brooks and meandering through the Tepla River valley. The course mascot is a marmot, a tiny, endangered brown mammal that thrives on the course and on the club's logo. While preserving the marmot's habitat, Golf Club Karlovy Vary's investors have spent millions on irrigation and maintenance to bring the course and the clubhouse up to the standards required to host European professional and amateur tournaments.

Another fabled course, at Golf Club Marianske Lazne, is a relatively flat, classic parkland layout about one hundred miles west of Prague (and only seven from the German border). Marianske Lazne (or Marienbad) was the spa of choice during the nineteenth century. Great men who came to take its health-giving waters included Wagner, Ibsen, Mark Twain and Rudyard Kipling. Edward VII, the King of England, inaugurated the course on August 21, 1905, and visited it ten times during the next four years. After Patton's troops liberated Bohemia in 1945, the general often had to pull his officers off the course's pine-lined fairways. The only course to improve under the Communists, Marianske Lazne remodeled its second and third holes in order to host the 1978 European Junior Championship. The site of the first three Czech Opens (1994 to 1996), the layout challenges with plenty of water, particularly on number seven, where a brook bisects the desired landing area, and on eleven, a 439-yard par four that, in addition to water to the right of the green, features a fairway only twenty yards wide. During the last decade, the half-timbered clubhouse has been restored to all of its decadent glamour.


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