Golf may only have been officially recognised in Hungary since 1989, but Count Géza Andrássy played it on a Hungarian racehorse as far back as 1902 and the first course was opened at Tátralomnic in 1909. The game flourished between the two Great Wars, with Bobby Jones traveling to Budapest in 1936 to play in a competition to mark the 25th anniversary of the Hungarian Golf Club.
Unfortunately, golf went into hibernation in 1949, at the start of the communist era in the country, and it remained that way for another thirty years, prohibited by the authorities. Dr. Ferenc Gáti then returned home from Cuba and reintroduced golf to the nation, forming the Blue Danube Golf Club in 1979. Despite political resistance, club members built a golf course in Kisoroszi and were instrumental in establishing the Hungarian Golf Federation in 1989.
Set among the rolling hills of the Zselic Natural Reserve in the south west of the country, not too far from the Croatian border, Hencse National was laid out by Hungarian entrepreneur Paul Banhidy in 1994, following plans drawn up by Dutch architect Joan Frederik Dudok van Heel. Banhidy sold the business to a group of Irish investors in 2002 (when it became European Lakes) but he then reacquired the business in 2014 when it ran into financial difficulties.
Three years later, the course had still not officially reopened, though holes were being maintained and local golfers in the know were able to play an informal round on an ad-hoc basis. Paul, his wife Judit, and a handful of helpers were overseeing the renovation of the magnificent old manor house, the clubhouse and adjoining accommodation units.
In 2018 a revitalised Hencse National fully reopened.
This course is a monster especially in hot weather. It is difficult and physically challenging. During the round I realized that I was the only player on the entire course - an interesting feeling.
Hencse National has endured some turbulent times since it first opened in 1994. Owner Paul Banhidy might be considered a touch on the eccentric side but there’s no denying the course has been a labour of love with him for a large part of the last 25 years. Despite being advised by many not to acquire the 225-acre site for the course, he carried on regardless, constructing the 18-hole layout himself from scratch. Despite having no prior construction experience – and he wasn’t even a golfer – he fashioned the fairways and built the greens to plans drawn up by a professional architect so although the routing is generally sound, there’s something of a homespun feel to the layout.
Paul and his wife Judit own a family home next to the clubhouse and guest accommodation area so, after selling the business to foreign investors at the start of the new millennium, the couple didn’t relocate elsewhere which meant they were literally on hand to pick up the pieces when European Lakes (as it had been renamed) became available for purchase again in 2014. Slowly, but surely, Paul’s now renovating the course and the infrastructure (including a magnificent manor house built in 1820, along with brand new terraced lodging units) so the facility will be bigger and better than ever before when it eventually reopens to the general public. For sure, it’s a unique golfing venue that has built up a hard core loyal following of foreign golfers over the past two decades.
Lightly bunkered holes are laid out on a rolling landscape, with water featuring on both the front and back nine. Around twenty-eight thousand trees were planted when the course was built and they now provide greater definition to the layout, though the small conical-shaped arboreal specimens surrounding the par three 12th really should be removed as they’re an absolute eyesore! The signature hole is the par four 15th (rated stroke index 1) which plays downhill to a peninsula green jutting into one of the lakes on the lower-lying section of the property. The green of the old uphill par three 17th (which is benched into a small hill) is currently being rebuilt as this hole was unused by the previous owner and Mr Banhidy would like it brought back into play – quite right too!
It’s taken three years to get Hencse National back into shape following the demise of the business that was managed (some might say mismanaged) by the former owners however Paul and Judit are now almost ready to throw the doors open again to visiting golfers. It’ll be interesting to find out what people make of the revitalized set-up and, even more importantly, to see if sufficient numbers turn up to make the venture commercially viable again. I sincerely hope it all works out second time around for the Banhidys, two of the most remarkable people I’ve ever come across on my golfing travels.