Poland isn't the first place that springs to mind as a golf destination, but after a recent visit Paul Trow senses the game might have the potential to take off in this unexpected Eastern European country.
Northern Poland is no stranger to dramatic events. Mainly flat and defenceless, though of huge strategic value because of its access to the Baltic, it has perhaps witnessed more social changes than any other corner of Europe.
As a result of Solidarity’s endeavours, the region is now vibrant and prosperous. All the fortifications, civic buildings and churches have been lovingly restored and the old towns are abuzz with commercial energy.
This process of rejuvenation has also led to the arrival of golf and this should not be a surprise. Poland, 25% bigger than the UK with only 60% of the population, has plenty of spare capacity. Replete with forests, parkland and unfarmed open spaces, it is perfect for the construction of golf courses. And perfect too, in particular, for those British golfers who prefer familiar countryside to the desert hotspots of the southern Mediterranean.
I was one of a group of journalists that recently whistled back and forth across northern Poland, or Pomerania as our hosts liked to call it. While there we managed to play seven of the country’s 18 18-hole courses and I, for one, was impressed with their quality of design and overall standard of maintenance and financing.
Our Polish golfing Odyssey divided into two parts – trawling the hinterlands surrounding Gdansk in the north-east and then Szczecin (pronounced Stchetchin) in the north-west.
Before embarking on course descriptions, a caveat is necessary for would-be green-fee payers. With the exception of two clubs in the north-west, which are a short distance apart, visitors must allow at least an hour to travel to their course of preference. The reasons are logical. Look at a map of Poland – fundamentally it’s square-shaped – and therefore the 18 full-length layouts (and a similar number of nine-hole courses), mostly built off the beaten track on set-aside land, can take time to access.
Still, the effort was worth it. Following the two-hour flight from Luton to Gdansk, courtesy of Hungarian budget carrier Wizzair, it took two further hours, this time by road, to reach the medieval town of Olsztyn in the Warmia-Mazuria region.
For our first evening, we found ourselves billeted at the functional yet agreeable Hotel Marina Club where each of its 102 rooms offers a view of the shimmering Lake Wulpinski and its attendant forests. Positioned alongside Mazury Golf & Country Club, the Marina Club’s staple seems to be mid-sized conferences while its varied spa facilities and Finnish sauna are particularly popular with visitors.
Laid out by British architect Martin Hawtree in 1994, the course at Mazury stretches across undulating meadowland and has no shortage of strategically-positioned ponds and bunkers to keep the golfer guessing.
From Mazury, we journeyed north and west for around an hour to the port of Elblag, sandwiched between the River Vistula to the west and the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad. Due to its proximity to the Baltic Sea, Elblag grew up as a buffer town for marauding hordes but today, teeming with bars and restaurants, it is a trendy meeting place for both locals and tourists. For the latter, a pleasure cruise along the Elblag Canal comes highly recommended should time permit.
The Hotel Elblag in the heart of this pristine town, home to 80 bedrooms, six spa rooms and a restaurant menu packed with local delicacies, was our launch pad for the following morning’s excursion to Sand Valley Golf & Country Club. As the name on the tin suggests, this delightfully natural course is built on sandy subsoil and routed through a valley dotted with small stands of pine trees.
The final destination of our Gdansk leg was Sierra Golf Club, just inland from the Baltic resort town of Sopot, home to Europe’s longest wooden pier and currently enjoying a tourism renaissance thanks to its spas and beaches. In contrast to Mazury and Sand Valley, Sierra has a full membership and is busy nearly every day. Scottish designer Cameron Sinclair fashioned this manicured parkland layout in 2002.
Taking an afternoon off golf, we enjoyed an educational visit to Gdansk, starting with a stroll round the European Solidarity Centre which, in effect, is a museum marking the whole process that led from the shipyard disputes and food strikes of the 1970s to the eventual collapse of Soviet rule. Then we indulged in some retail therapy in pursuit, primarily, of some inexpensive clothing along with the jade and crystal ornaments for which Gdansk is also rightly famous.
Switching to West Pomerania, our next round was at Amber Baltic Golf Club near the lively but unpronounceable seaside resort of Miedzyzdroje where we subsequently spent a pleasant evening sipping cocktails on the beach. As you’d expect of a course that’s apparently below sea level, Amber Baltic has almost as much marsh and water as grass, certainly on the front nine.
The following morning it was only a short hop to the secluded Kamień Country Club. The course, designed by American David Donnellan and opened in 2012, was fun to play though certainly not to be underestimated.
Like Kamień, our next port of call, Binowo Park south of Szczecin, has a Swedish owner. This complex, which includes a nine-hole academy course and conference facilities, was opened in 2000 by Princess Birgitta of Sweden and seems almost as popular with local golfers as Sierra. Uncharacteristically for the general landscape, the 18-hole layout has quite a few elevation changes. More characteristically, it is surrounded by lakes and framed by giant beech trees.
Our journey ended on a high note at the enchanting, Gary Player-designed Modry Las Golf Club. The course, which opened in 2009, straddles gently rolling terrain flanked by a mature oak, pine and birch forest and interspersed with colourful colonies of wild flowers and the limpid Lake Radun.
As we embarked on the 30-mile drive from Modry Las to Szczecin airport, I reflected that while golf in Poland is undoubtedly moving in the right direction the country needs many more courses so the number of its native golfers can rise to a sustainable level. At present, golf is the preserve of the rich (as it was in Italy until not much more than a decade ago) or aimed at tourists, mainly Scandinavians and Germans.
My conclusion was that playing in Poland would be a fantastic experience for British visitors, but it’s impossible at present to regard it purely as a golf destination. The key is to book a holiday, enjoy everything else on offer and perhaps squeeze in a game or two along the way.
You need to Know
How to get there
Wizzair (low cost flights from Luton to Gdansk and Szczecin) www.wizzair.com