It’s one of the most unusual places I’ve played a round. Stepping off the rattling tram and descending into a green space — wedged between the Vltava River and a busy four-lane freeway on one side, and clattering commuter trains on the other — I approach Prague’s premier urban golf course.
With every step, a familiar feeling builds in my chest: an even mix of hope, anticipation — and absolute dread. My heart pounds harder when I check in with the pro shop and learn I will be paired to play with a stranger. I’m fine enough going solo, where nobody else has to watch me repeatedly firing my Top-Flites directly into the woods. It’s another to have a witness.
As I approach the first tee at Golf Club Hodkovicky, located beside the stone pillar of a massive train bridge, Jan is already warming up. He’s fit, his clubs look expensive, and his clothes are straight off the PGA European Tour. But he’s friendly, smiling quick and shaking my hand, wishing me a good round. If he only knew. Standing over my ball, driver in hand, I take a deep breath, and get ready for a disaster.
I’m a terrible golfer. In fact, even the label “terrible golfer” is generous, because it implies, on some level, I can actually golf. I routinely use up a couple sleeves of balls on a single round. My specialty shot, which I seem to strike on about two-thirds of my drives, is what my cousin Kevin used to call a “worm burner.” No lift off the ground. Just a hack, and a hot shot, spitting up grass and leaves in its wake before coming to rest several paces further up the fairway. I guess it’s better than completely sculling the ball, but I do plenty of that as well.
But here’s the thing: I love it. There’s something about golf that calls to me. At least a couple times a year, I feel the need to swing a club.
Every weekend duffer has heard the quote (from Mark Twain, maybe) that the game is “a good walk, spoiled.” And despite its inherent frustrations, the beauty of the spaces where golf is played is for me part of the joy.
On a trip to the US Open, I played a round at Pinehurst Country Club, a legendary golf destination in North Carolina that’s hosted that major twice. Everything was perfect: the clipped greens, the sand like a beachy dream. Even the fescue had a sort of wild loveliness. (Which I experienced frequently, my ball landing there many times.)
At Bear Mountain on Vancouver Island, my round of 18 provided a very nice excuse to stroll through the rugged mountains, with views down to the city of Victoria and the sea. Afterwards, a big steak dinner, a massage at the spa, and an evening by the outdoor fire pit softened the memories of the times I swung and completely missed the ball.
In Kenya, my golf game doubled as a safari walk. As I played Aberdare Country Club, just below the flanks of Mount Kenya, wildlife wandered across the course. The snow-capped summit peeked out from between the clouds. A caddy provided both practical and moral support, shooing sleepy zebras and wildebeests so I could make my poor chip shots, while congratulating me for even somewhat OK drives. “You have struck it well!” he told me, on one particularly long worm burner. “I have seen it!”
There’s also a social side to the sport that can’t be discounted. On a recent round with Chris Ryall, a friend and fellow travel writer, we played 18 on the Battlefield Course at Legends on the Niagara, in Niagara Falls, Ont. Located next to an actual War of 1812 battlefield, the course is set near a big bend of the Niagara River and bisected by a shimmering creek. Ranked in the top 100 courses in the province, it wasn’t easy, and my game was even worse than usual. Eventually, I just picked up my ball and enjoyed the sun and banter. (I asked Chris for a quote about what it’s like, golfing with me: “Playing with Tim always makes your own game look good.” Accurate.)
But there’s more, and I feel it out there on that urban course in Prague: a singularity of focus, having the game, and the course, be the only thing on your mind, at least for a few hours. You’re there for one purpose: To get that little white orb into the hole. Everything is about the next shot.
After drawing a long breath on the first tee, I pull into my backswing and, of course, hit a worm burner. The previous night’s rain had softened the course, meaning the ball threw up a long rooster tail of water as it slowed almost immediately. Lengthy pause. Then Jan, my playing partner: “OK, at least it was straight.”
I play about as well, or as poorly, as usual. But it’s a glorious afternoon, the slanting autumnal sun bouncing off the changing leaves. Jan talks about his family, his travels, his business importing steam cleaners and running a clothing shop. It’s a rare opportunity to spend hours just hanging out with a local, getting a little snapshot of their life in this place, a long way from home.
And I manage to strike a few solid shots, lifting a couple long drives down the fairway, even curling in tough left-to-right breaking putt, dropping it in from about 20 feet out. But then, as they always do, the wheels come off. On the final Par-5, I drill two consecutive shots into a low bridge, the Top-Flites, one after the other, creating a huge splash in the pond.
But looking back, I’ll remember the sun, and the chat, and the laughs with Jan. And that one perfect shot. And I guess that’s the beauty of golf. You can ride that little high of adrenalin. Remember the good stuff. Pretend the rest didn’t happen.
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