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Hungary's Golf Still a Little Green

To use a couple of mixed sport metaphors (in the tradition of only the very best NFL commentators), Hungarian golfers are still on the bunny hills. As a nation, Hungary has little to contribute to the professional golfing world, at least for now. We don 't want to suggest that improving Hungary's golf handicap is on the political agenda, but we do know that within the walls of the Ministry of Youth and Sports is one of those ...golf fanatics. János Váczi, senior advisor to the Minister of Youth and Sports, has a five iron in one corner, another club sticking out from behind a pile of papers, and a golf ball resting on his desk.“ I've got a pretty low handicap,” he boasts casually before admitting that, just occasionally, when things are getting tough within the government 's walls, he breaks out the clubs. “When the stress level is really high I just call it quits for like ten minutes and I say, 'okay, I have to work on my putting. 'It's goo —you can practice your grip.”
While studying in the US, Váczi picked up the sport, eventually being invited to be an assistant pro by the golf director at Indiana University. “I decided that with two masters degrees that wasn't the direction I should be heading, but perhaps I would be sitting somewhere else today, like Florida, giving golf lessons.”
Speaking about the state of Hungarian golf, Váczi is a bit more serious. “Like any sport activity, you can approach it from two angles: one is professional sports and the other is the leisure activity. Right now golf is purely a leisure time activity. Competitive golf and pro golf do not exist in this country.”
The history of Hungary's golf game is riddled with sand traps. One course, Széchenyi Hill, was destroyed during the First World War and later occupied by Soviet troops. The communists did not think highly of a game traditionally a favorite of the business elite and the wealthy, so the seeds were never in place for Hungary to develop a pool of talent.
This is changing however; golf as a business (not just a businessmen's game) began to make sense over the last ten years. To date, Hungary has seven golf courses, most run by private investors. “We have a course in Kisoroszi that's run by two businessmen and we have Máriavö lgye [Pannónia Golf and Country Club] run by an Austrian businessman, and there's one in Bük run by a bunch of young, talented Hungarians. Corporations will usually buy an annual or corporate membership or they sponsor a certain hole or certain event,” explains Váczi.
Golf's revival follows a success pattern that the Hungarian Sports Ministry would like to engrain into the philosophies of other sports. It is an unfortunate but simple fact that the government is gradually pulling away from funding many sports and focusing its resources on maintaining elite sports. “More and more a market approach should be taken,” insists Váczi. “It no longer works in such a way that the government pays for sports activities. Clubs have to find other ways to generate revenue.” Golf and fitness are two areas that have been working as private enterprises for years.
Internationally, the game is under revival as well, which according to Váczi, can be attributed to superstar Tiger Woods. “Golf used to be a sport for older people who would wear those nice plaids or pink pants,” says Váczi, “and Tiger has a totally different approach, he's gotten a lot of youngsters interested in the game, it 's supposed to be a cool activity.” Changes cause a greater impact more than the golfers' fashion statements. If Tiger Woods means cool, junior and stronger, then the other players at the pro level have taken note. “The top golfers of the PGA tour right now are very athletic,” Váczi remarks. “I've just read in a golf magazine what is in and what is out. And the 19th hole, which is obviously the bar, is out. The players are replacing this with the driving range; they work out four or five times a week, they lift weights, they run, they use the tread mill…so they are much closer to real sportsmen than they used to be.”
Of interest to trend spotters in Budapest, Hungary's golfer may not be reading the same magazines. The 19th Hole is actually a bar and restaurant in the fifth district, (Nádor utca 32). The chief attraction of this casual restaurant with a typically sporty atmosphere is the Golf Simulator, a virtual driving range where players can whack the ball into a projection screen that pictures a lolling golf course. The image scrolls or zooms towards the hole according to the computerized trajectory recorded when the golf ball strikes the screen. Before we laugh at all the golf addicts, please note the enthusiastic comment of one very dedicated player, “it's not that bad!” The theme bar has putting facilities, golf lessons and a pro shop, in addition to the needs of a more old fashioned 19th hole.
Surely this is more evidence that golf is on the upswing. In the 2000 season, the Old Lake Golf Club in Tata reported 20 percent increase in its players and a record number of participants in it's season's closing tournament. The Birdland Golf &Country Club, nestled into the Bük Hills, has a full season of golf cups and tournaments including the first annual Business Friendship Championship in June. The point is that there are great games of golf to be played here in Hungary. More and more people here —many of them young people —are realizing that golf is an interesting, challenging way to expend mental and physical energy, and a delightful way to spend time away from the concrete jungle.
The Ministry is currently working with the Hungarian Golf Federation to attract more youngsters to the sport. Says Váczi, “Every golf course has to become a hub, a regional center that should sign up with the local schools and offer free golf lessons. If you've got seven golf courses, and every golf course deals with 10 schools then you have 70 schools which means that within four years you will have a school league and about three, four or five hundred players. And from those kids you are going to have a lot of low handicap players to turn pro.” That's a long way to go, but maybe the next Tiger to emerge will be Hungarian.

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