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May 1996

Teed Off: Golfing in Deutschland ain't easy

The "fun" of finding glof in Munich

It is one thing enjoying the game called golf, it is another thing to try and play it in a country that treats it essentially as a pastime for the rich. Germany is a country with relatively few but often very beautiful golf courses. They are waiting to be played on by people like you and me; but it will be a long wait before we can stroke the German fairways with a smooth, clean swing. Imagine that you learned golf on a seaside course, among the sand dunes and buffeted by the swirling wind. Perhaps you only had a single hour's coaching at the tender age of seven. But you learned what a swing was, you took care of it, didn't let it be spoiled by pros or books filling your head with all those things you should and shouldn't do. You kept your natural swing and enjoyed the game. Sometimes you were good, sometimes you were exceedingly bad. Sometimes you lost balls, sometimes you found more than you lost. But you reveled in the game, you learned to love the intimate contact with nature. You never let yourself be caught up in the rat race of handicaps and tournaments. You played against someone for a round of drinks, for the next green fee. But not for a silver cup or a piece of thick paper with your name on it. Nobody forced you to become a member of a club, to have a handicap, to pay an immense amount of money for the privilege of playing. You were not yet in Germany. Golf was still a pleasure, a game you could contemplate playing when you were 80. Then one day you make a career decision and arrive in Munich. You learn to love the land of beer gardens, lakes, woods, rivers and history. You read that golf courses are being built seemingly everywhere and the urge to play again begins to gnaw at your mind. So you drag out your clubs, dust them off, jump into your car and follow the sun. You have carefully chosen a Monday for your first round so that you will be on your own getting the rust out of your system. In perfect condition, the grounds and the clubhouse look inviting and full of promise. Until, that is, you find that room with a desk and a daunting looking woman behind it. Maybe your German is good enough and you can ask her for a green fee without stammering. The price seems steep to you, and then often only for one round of play, not for the day. But then comes the hammer. "Which club do you belong to?" "May I see your membership card?" "What is your handicap?" It is devastatingly simple: to play you have to be a member somewhere-, and you have to have a handicap. There are no exceptions. A passport won't help you. It is no excuse that you are a foreigner coming from a country where golf is a Volks-Sport, or that you have played the game since the age of seven. No, you need the equivalent of a green card, -a plastic card proving you have money and a handicap; or at least what the Germans call Platzreife (which basically means you have been tested by a club pro and convinced him that you can hit the ball more often than missing it). You will have to find one of the few public courses in Germany if you wish to play without being intimidated by the cost and difficulty of it all You drive back home depressed. But then the clement weather cheers you up and you begin to look for a club that will accept you. You soon learn that membership is often limited and that to become a member almost anywhere will set you back between DM 8,000-25,000 just to join. On top of that you have the annual fee of something around DM 1,500. You go to the bank manager or the pawnbroker. And still you don't have a handicap. No, you have to take lessons! Prove to the pro that you know how to swing a club. Then play in a tournament, maybe for the first time in your life, so that you can turn in an official score. Then, and only then, are you given a handicap. Golf is not the game you remembered it to be. It is now a game of high fashion. Everyone is beautifully turned out, has the very latest clubs, and next to no sense of golf etiquette on the course itself. You have old clubs, baggy trousers, an old cricket sweater, and a baseball cap. You stand out like a sore thumb. It doesn't matter that you have obviously played the game before, or that some of your shots go twice as far as anyone else's shots. You are an outsider. You don't belong, even though you have crippled yourself with a loan to pay the admission fee. You are in the wrong country for the right game. One day you read an advertisement that sounds like just the thing. Cheap memberships available. You apply, you buy. But then you find that the clubs here have long cottoned on to those international clubs with inexpensive fees, and blacklisted them. You can use the membership card, but not here. If you want to play golf in Germany, the best way is to take a golfing holiday in England. It's cheaper to buy a "supersaver" flight regularly. Or does anyone have a better solution, that doesn't cost the earth? Is there a club that makes you feel welcome just because you love the game? Is there anyone out there? Anyone? . Michael Maegraithis Executive Publisher of Prestel Publishers in Munich. He learned his golf in Cornwall, England before reaching puberty. His best period was in Paris when he had a handicap of four (or thereabouts). Since being in Germany his game has deteriorated due, he says, to the lack of easily attainable facilities and the high costs involved.

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