Gray Bear was the very first 18-hole championship golf course to open in Slovakia, nearly ten years after the Velvet Divorce with the Czech Republic in 1993. Designed by Americans Bob Walton and Skip Malek, the course is located within a ski resort in the lower Tatrus Mountains and it’s Tále Golf Club’s home course.
It was built by Southern Golf Ltd, an English company with vast experience of course construction from the likes of Kingsbarns and Bearwood Lakes in the UK to projects in Eastern Europe like this one.
Routed over 160 acres of a spruce forest in the Tále National Park – a good three and a half hours drive from Bratislava – Gray Bear is laid out in a scenic mountain valley where the terrain undulates from open meadow to dense woodland and the architects have cleverly incorporated stone walls, boulders, streams and specimen pines in many of the fairway designs.
Sandwiched between two par threes on the front nine, the 416-yard 6th hole is considered to be the signature hole on the course. The fairway is crossed by a stream just short of the landing area then the hole sweeps right downhill to a green protected on three sides by a meandering stream.
Architect Bob Walton was kind enough to provide the following exclusive quote:
The course opened in August of 2002 with none other than Tony Jacklin doing the ribbon cutting and playing the course with myself and Vlado Sotak, Chairman of Zeleziarne Podbrezova a.s., the investor. It was the first regulation 18 hole course in Slovakia.
The R&A sent Duncan Weir while we were under construction and we eventually employed Steve Isaac the head agronomist at STRI to help with seed and grow in specifications. Steve is now heading that end of the business directly for the R&A.
Shapers came from Southern Golf in the UK and the rest of the construction work came from local Slovak companies, all under my direction. The course itself won the Slovak Architectural Award for best architectural accomplishment of 2002, prior to that only buildings and monuments had received the award.
My partner and I certainly were proud and felt that many more Slovakian course designs would be in the offing, but those that followed did not appreciate the cost of professional design and sadly (excepting Penati) they exhibit a real lack of strategy.
But golf in Slovakia is going along very well and they are coming around in their understanding of how important good design is to attracting players. Personally, we are looking forward to two new projects which are in the planning stages at the moment.
By the way, the Little Bear course is a nine green short course that can be played forward and backward, making 18 different holes. Players are restricted to using only those clubs that they hit 130 yards or less, and no tees are used unless the player's driver falls within the 130-yard rule. It's a great short game training experience and only takes about 45 minutes to play nine holes.
If it’s mountain golf you’re after then look no further than Gray Bear in Tale. The course is located within Bystrianska Valley on the southern side of the Low Tatras, doubling up as a ski resort during the winter when golf goes into hibernation.
There are actually 27-holes in operation here, the 18-hole Gray Bear course and the short, reversible 9-hole layout called Little Bear, which I’m told is lots of fun to play but I didn’t quite have enough time during my visit to check it out.
I was told that architect Bob Walton returns every year for a few weeks to make sure everything’s running to order and you can easily tell from the course presentation that these annual appraisals are well worth conducting.
Continued investment in the course infrastructure is also evident, with a new concrete cart path having recently been laid and a new half-way house constructed.
The toughest hole on the outward half was “Cradle,” the par four 3rd which plays downhill past fairway bunkers to a difficult crowned green and, on the back nine, I loved the Biarritz green at the right doglegged 16th (“Boulders”), which is one of the easier par fours on the card.
Don’t expect to play holiday golf when you play here. The slope rating from the back tees is 151 and even the regular gents tees are rated as 146 so by all means breathe in the fresh mountain air and enjoy the wonderful scenery but keep your wits about you at the same time.