The town of Ptuj (it sounds like an expectoration in a Daffy Duck cartoon) sits on the bank of a swift and turbid river called the Drava, in eastern Slovenia. It was founded by the Roman army and grew into a town called Poetovio; why it traded in that lyrical name for the one it now has, I can't say. The cobblestoned streets in its old quarter are so narrow that overhead buttresses are wedged between buildings to keep them apart. The town has a thirteenth-century monastery and a castle nearly as old. But until recently it did not have golf.
Nor was Ptuj part of an independent Slovenia. The Slovenes were always part of someone else's empire or country: the Holy Roman, the Venetian, the Austro-Hungarian and, finally, Yugoslavia. It seceded from that ill-starred nation in 1991, sparing itself the "ethnic cleansing" visited upon its neighbors. Today it's a small and tidy country of dramatic Alpine peaks, drinkable wines and a sliver of Adriatic coast.
I was exploring Slovenia recently with my friend Mike and our wives on a hiking tour where we trekked from vineyard to waterfall to mountain meadow. When we came to Ptuj and heard the town had a golf course, Mike and I decided to skip the castle walk. I called the course. We were welcomed to play after 4 p.m.—time enough for nine holes.
We crossed the Drava footbridge and headed upstream, keeping the red-tile roof of the castle on our right. We passed a cornfield and suddenly, it seemed, vaulted ahead a few centuries.
The clubhouse at Golf Course Ptuj clashed with the ancient town like a phone booth in a cathedral. It is a low shoebox, made of aluminum panels and smoked glass. On the outside walls, an artist painted figures that looked like something Picasso might have produced if he'd been inspired by Augusta rather than by Guernica. There is, for instance, a vaguely cubist golfer with his head around his waist, flanked by this caption: "Cry later! Break club! Head inside!"
We headed inside.
There, after we paid the fee for nine holes ($45 each, including clubs), we realized why the course had been closed till late afternoon. A local construction firm had taken it over for an outing with its friends and customers. As they left the course, they gathered in a tent for food and music.
As it happened, the designer of the course was at the outing. Bill Barnett is a burly, white-bearded American who, after decades as a New York club pro, married an Austrian woman and moved to Vienna just as the communist strictures against golf in Eastern Europe were abating. His timing was fortuitous, like that of a shipwrecked missionary washing up on an island where the natives have suddenly developed a yearning for religion. Since 1990, he's coached national teams and designed several courses, including Ptuj, which opened in 1999. "The fairways here are just about USGA specs," he told us. "Hit it straight."
As Mike and I walked to the first tee, the band broke into the party standard "Tequila," except instead of a saxophone on lead, they used a violin, and when time came to shout the song's title, they yelled, "Majolka!"—Slovenian for a pitcher of wine.
With that staccato beat animating our swings, we began to play. We quickly found that Barnett's reference to USGA specs referred to the width of the fairways at the U.S. Open rather than to the quality of the turf. The owners had been able to assemble only 100 acres for their course. Barnett responded with a pretty layout, set in a low valley with the Drava to the south and the hills of Austria to the north. To squeeze the course in, Barnett designed narrow playing corridors, generally bordered by dense stands of fir trees. These woods were so dark that Hansel and Gretel might have shied away from them. We, however, were required to enter the forest often.
Our match, such as it was, turned at the sixth hole. Faced with yet another tight tee shot, Mike yanked it left. "You can't steer the ball," he muttered as he walked off the tee. "No matter what country you're in."
When I putted out on the ninth, Mike sighed and reached into his wallet. He extracted a grand and handed it to me. It was a thousand Slovenian tolars, or about five bucks, but it was grand nonetheless. I knew right away what I would spend it on: