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Golf in Romania – a bit of a mixed bag

25 October, 2022
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Jim McCann

Golf in Romania – a bit of a mixed bag

We choose to head away from all the usual golfing hotspots from time to time, venturing into the likes of emerging Central European markets such as Slovenia, Slovakia and Hungary. In the past, these nations only had one or two courses featured on this platform but we managed to establish a Top 5 chart for each of them after paying visits to see what things were like on the ground in 2017.

A little further east, we did the same for Bulgaria two years later. Pre-covid, we intended to run the rule over Romania but the pandemic put paid to that particular visit. Well, two years later than originally planned, we recently flew to Bucharest and see for ourselves what the golf product was like.

Bucharest 

First up, we drove the short distance north of the capital to Tâncăbești, where architect Jeff Howes has designed a new 18-hole layout for Irish developer Alex Brett. The surrounding landscape is flat but the site for Bucharest Golf Club’s new course is anything but level, with fairways laid out on rolling terrain above a large carp lake. Most of the holes are now built but there are still a few in various stages of construction.

Several lakes were created (providing fill for the project) within a valley that runs through the property and a few of the holes employ these water hazards strategically, most notably at the 9th and 18th where narrowing fairways traverse aquatic pinch points close to these greens. The ground between these two holes has also been built up to fashion a practice area which is softened on its edges by wetland areas.

The architect introduced us to the shaper, Dave Záleský from the Czech Republic, who appeared very happy to be working on sand-capped holes (as pictured above) which afford a high degree of creativity with the fine contour work. We also spoke to agronomist Steve Okula who is advising and his vast experience of consulting on turf-related matters in Europe and beyond will guarantee that the course looks its best when it opens next year.

Access roads have still to be finished and a temporary clubhouse is about to be erected so there’s still much to be done before the layout is ready for full play. Still, that hasn’t prevented some of the more eager advance members playing the eight holes that were completed last year and are now fully growing in. Even in its present state, it’s a good bet that this course will emerge as a strong contender for the national #1 spot in the fullness of time.

Lac de Verde

The 9-hole course at Lac de Verde lies 90 kilometres to the northwest of Tâncăbești in the small town of Breaza which is a summer retreat for many Bucharest inhabitants trying to escape the swelting city for the cooler confines in the rolling hills. Unfortunately, the club was closed when we got there and even though we could see the fairway of the opening hole had been mowed, it was impossible to tell if golf is still being played here (though the discarded sign outside the clubhouse in the picture above tells its own story). With nobody around to answer any questions, we had to reluctantly admit defeat and head off via Brasov for our next destination. 

Theodora

Named after the owner’s daughter, the 18-hole facility at Theodora Golf Club is situated outside the city of Alba Iulia – famous for its 18th century Alba Carolina Citadel – where businessman Ioan Popa converted a property described as “brick barns, a car-breakers’ yard and garbage sites” on the banks of the meandering Mures River into an impressive golf resort. This comprises an 18-hole championship-standard course and covered driving range which are complemented by 4-star accommodation in fifteen villas, along with a clubhouse boasting an international à la carte restaurant and top floor Panoramic Room for private meetings or special occasions.

Strangely, the provenance of the course is shrouded in mystery. It has obviously been professionally designed – even if some of the construction (particularly the bunkers) leaves a lot to be desired – but nowhere in the official brochure or on the club website is an architect given credit for the design. As the site is so flat, a large lake was excavated in front of the clubhouse to create material for contouring and both nines conclude on the same large double green island in the middle of this lake. No doubt for marketing purposes, the course also features the largest par six in Europe at the 735-metre 18th (which now beats the 15th on the Legend at Penati in Slovakia by 23 metres).

Theodora has only been going for a few years so it has yet to become internationally well known. Perhaps if the club manages to attract a prestigious event such as one of the individual or team events organized by the European Golf Association then that might get the name out there and help to attract visiting golfers. For the time being, Theodora appears happy to host various business groups for meetings and “bonding sessions” in the clubhouse without much reference to the 18 holes outside. Hopefully that will change over time as it would be such a shame to operate the golfing element at the resort merely as a sideshow to the off-course activities. 

Paul Tomita

The course at Golf ClubPaul Tomita is situated half an hour’s drive southwest from Theodora on elevated ground next to the 5-village commune of Pianu. The course has existed in its present 18-hole format since 2004 and it frankly looks as if there has been very little done to the layout over the last eighteen years since then. The bumpy fairways were being cut when we visited but the greens were in a very sorry state and the bunkers might never have had sand anywhere near them. If you want a “back to nature” game of golf with minimalistic maintenance then this place certainly fits the bill.

The Paul Tomita course – named in honour of the country’s most famous golfer Pavel Tomita who represented Romania in the World Cup of Golf five times in the early 1970s – no longer deserves the accolade of #1 course in Romania, a ranking it probably only ever attained because it was until very recently the only 18-hole layout in the country. The bones of a semi-decent homespun course are there but it would take some serious investment to fully realize the potential of this property, both on and off the fairways.

SunGarden

Cluj-Napoca, the unofficial capital of the Transylvanian province, is located 150 kilometres north of Golf Club Paul Tomita, and the SunGarden Golf & Spa Resort is set in the Deer Meadow within the hilly Baciu Forest to the northeast of the city. Robert McNeil of The Northeast Golf Company designed a delightful 9-hole track around the centrally-positioned hotel/spa and banquet facility. There’s only one par five and four par threes on the scorecard on a sporty course that extends to just over 2,200 metres, with water hazards coming into play at all but three of the holes. 

On reflection, SunGarden was probably the highlight of our Romanian visit because this venue was an unknown quantity that really delivered a fun golfing experience. It’s not very long but it’s very tight so wayward shots will be punished severely and if your short game is not up to scratch then you’ll struggle to enjoy yourself. Head greenkeeper Christian kindly gave us a buggy tour of the holes and he was justifiably proud of his work – and so he should be, as the course conditioning (especially the bunkers) was of a very high standard on a very cleverly routed layout.

Transilvania

Compare and contrast the pristine conditions at SunGarden with the 9-holer at Transilvania Golf Club in nearby Sanpaul which is only a 15-minute drive away, where the club has been running since 2011 on land leased from the local authority. The main man behind the club, Octavian Damian, showed us round the property and he told us at certain times of the year large flocks of sheep are herded around to graze in different spots. If you want your golf to be lie of the land and rather elemental then look no further than here!

Tavi told us the course is still evolving so there are plans to remove the closing hole and replace it with two others as a new 1st and 18th, allowing the other eight holes to be placed twice as holes 2 to 17. The big wooden-framed clubhouse is a very homely base to relax in before and after playing and a four-person accommodation block has recently been brought into use, providing basic living quarters close to the clubhouse for visiting golfers – not quite in the same league as the rooms at SunGarden but perfectly functional nonetheless.

The future

We would have liked to end our short tour of golf facilities in Romania with a visit to the old 6-hole layout at The Diplomatic Club in Bucharest but heavy early morning traffic around Bucharest airport on our day of departure prevented this happening. Instead, it was probably fitting that our expedition ended the previous day with the two courses near Cluj – they could hardly have been more different; one polished and one rudimentary but, as is the case the world over, you can only do what you can with the finances available.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect about golf in Romania is the lack of any facility on the Black Sea coastline, less than a 3-hour drive east of the capital. Then again, when you see how well the Bulgarians have developed Varna and Burgas to the south of Constanta then maybe the Romanian authorities realize they’ve long since missed the boat when it comes to attracting tourists and the cost of catching up to compete is too much to even try.

For now, we look forward to seeing how well Theodora prospers as a golfing destination and we anticipate a return to the new Bucharest Golf Club once it starts to welcome golfers at some point next year. We've also just learned that Stirling & Martin have a new project on the go outside the capital so that'sanother good reason for a trip back to Bucharest, probably in early 2024. Maybe after that we’ll reconsider establishing a short ranking list for Romania…

PS In the weeks since returning from Romania, we discovered (via a 6-year-old facebook post) that Robert McNeil's Northeast Golf Company was the firm involved in the design and earlyconstruction work on the Theodora course but email requests asking why the company remains persona non grata in relation to that project remain unanswered.

Jim McCann

Editor

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