Slovakia Gets First Championship Golf Course

The country of Slovakia has just unveiled its first 18-hole golf course. The new facility, called Grey Bear Golf Club, is not the first golf course in this part of the former Eastern Bloc nation of Czechoslovakia. But it’s certainly the finest and the only regulation-length layout.

“They really had nothing there except a few nine-hole courses that were really awful,” Skip Malek told The Island Packet (Bluffton, S.C.) newspaper. Malek is partners with Bob Walton in International Golf Course Design, the Hilton Head Island-based firm that designed the Slovakian club.

The grand opening of Grey Bear was attended by an audience of more than 1,000, including national political leaders and stars of the NHL. The course was built on a 140-acre site within the Slovak National Forest near the mountain resort village of Tale. Shortly after its debut in summer 2002, the facility became a focal point of national pride and local interest.

The course was financed by a 200-year-old Slovakian steel tube manufacturer, which is the area’s major employer and the owner of four local hotels. Tale is a thriving ski resort during the winter, and company chairman, Vlado Sotak, wanted to build a golf course to attract tourists year-round.

Malek, who’s also the director of golf instruction at the Sea Pines-based International Junior Golf Academy, was introduced to Sotak during a trip to Slovakia to visit one of his students. One thing led to another, and Malek and Walton were eventually hired to design Slovakia’s first championship-caliber course.

In a press release, Sotak said, “We chose Bob and Skip for many reasons. Golf was new to our country. We needed a world-class golf facility, but we also needed to learn about the game. Along with their ability to design and construct great golf courses, they seemed very willing to share their wealth of knowledge and experience related to golf. We made the right decision.”

Malek and Walton devised a challenging 6,925-yard track that has earned a USGA slope index of 144 from the tips. Less than 100,000 yards of dirt were moved during construction, with most of the course’s challenge stemming from its tight tree-lined fairways and dozens of strategically placed bunkers.

The par-71 layout was literally etched within the forest, with about 20,000 trees removed for the fairways. Work began on the project in 1999. But, within a year, “green” parties swept into power in Slovakia and the government espoused the country’s first environmental laws. Among those was the curious dictate that fir trees could only be cut down in winter, when they were dormant and therefore not “alive.”

Another concern was a stream running through the property that was a source of drinking water. Malek and Walton devised a drainage plan which clears rain from the course without contaminating the stream. “I have to give (the Slovakian government) credit,” Walton told writer Jeff Kidd of The Island Packet. “They came around rather quickly to more sensible ways to protect the environment.”

The success of Grey Bear has propelled Malek and Walton toward another Slovakian project. Sotak’s company is planning a course near Bresno, and the two architects are designing it as well. Construction is slated to begin in 2003 on the 27-hole facility, which will be augmented by a clubhouse and golf cottages.

So it looks as if Grey Bear’s title as Slovakia’s only regulation-length golf course will hold true for only a couple more years.