Bosnia – home to the world’s smallest golf club?

*(Warning – this one is for golfers)*

“Are there any golf courses in Bosnia?” I’d asked a few people and been met with shrugs and blank stares. Now it’s Hamza the waiter’s turn
He’s adamant. “No, no. We have none.” He finishes with a laugh that strongly implies stupid question.
In a half-hearted last attempt I turn to the web and open the World Golf Foundation site. Surprise, surprise, there’s not one but two courses listed in the country. Each has only nine holes (for the uninitiated, 18 is the norm) but golf in Bosnia exists.
One course is at Posusje, near the Croatian border, the other is here on the outskirts of the capital.
According to the website the country has just 123 players, 30 of them women. Playing in this outpost of world golf can’t be easy so I head into the hills for the VF Golf Club, Sarajevo, to take a peek.

The entrance to the clubhouse

The entrance to the clubhouse

With so few members I’d mentally pictured a shack for a clubhouse and maybe not even that. What I actually find is a building designed by one of Bosnia’s top architects. And it shows. Completed in 2005 it’s made out of natural stone and wood. The place is spacious and very plush. Tonight there’s even a band warming up to entertain the members.

I ask the barman if the club has a golf professional. Next shock, yes there is, and he’s giving a lesson. I go and look for him and can’t believe what I find. There’s a top quality, all-weather, covered range and it’s floodlit. Members turn up whenever they want, flick a switch and hit until their patience or golf glove wears out.
There’s also a chipping green, putting green and practice bunkers. All in tip top condition. These are some of the very best facilities I’ve ever seen at a nine hole course……except there’s a snag.
“We don’t have nine holes,” the pro Dejan Saran tells me when I meet him.
“Really. The website says you do.”
“It’s wrong. We only have six.”
“Six holes. That’s it?” I ask.
“Doesn’t that get a little….boring?”
“No. We’re happy. Until a couple of years ago we only had four.”


Golf pro Dejan Saran

We’re in unchartered waters. I’ve never heard of a club with six holes before let alone one with only four.
We’re joined by Vedran Kosic. He explains the club’s unusual background. The course was the brainchild of his father-in-law Jasmin Selmanagic, a golf fanatic who had to travel abroad to have a game.
Fortunately he’s a wealthy man so in 2001 he funded and built one himself. He also played a major part in the design.
He’d love to extend the current number of holes but the adjoining land is owned by the government, even if they’d sell it would be hugely expensive.

Next I learn the tiny club has a pro shop. It currently has two sets of clubs for sale, one for men the other for ladies. For custom fitting you need to drive north a few hundred kilometres, show your passport at the border and find a golf shop in Croatia.
Finally the star surprise, the course itself. I admit that I thought a six holer would be a litte, well, you know, Mickey Mouse. Turns out it’s got quite a roar.
From the first tee are magnificent views over Sarajevo. However, golfers will have their minds on the opening shot, it’s seriously intimidating. The hole is a precision par three with angled green, water right, a steep bank left and bunkers short and long.
And so it continues. There are blind shots, drives with long carries over water, lots of sand, endless slopes.
Unsurprisingly the average handicap is quite high. I ask Vedran where my 12 handicap would rank me in the country. Definitely top 20, he tells me. Top ten is not out of the question. I blush at my own Bosnian brilliance and instantly decide to move here.
My star rating looks even better when Vedran tells me the website is out of date. He believes Bosnia now has well over 200 players, still hardly enough to cause a queue on the first tee.

Water, sand and slopes. This is a tough course

Water, sand and slopes. This is a tough course

Visitors are rare. Each week they can be counted on the fingers of one hand. Members have peace and quiet to enjoy their competitions. All are played over 18 holes, which means three laps of the course. Do they ever get bored? Absolutely not. If anything they relish the mental challenge of competing against a hole which may already have bruised them once or even twice before in the round.
The missing holes are an oddity but this is a proper golf club in every other sense. Beautifully equipped, in top quality condition and with good greens. This place punches well above its weight. It might also happen to be the smallest golf club in the world.

Categories: Bosnia, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , | 30 Comments

Sarajevo – a witness to war

SARAJEVO, JUNE 28th, 2013

There is only me. I am a lone witness for the world.
I stand silently at the spot where he stood and wait for the moment to arrive. I try to put my mind in his but it is utterly beyond me.
People pass by oblivious as the hands of time and history reach 11.15am.
From this precise spot, at this minute, on this exact day 99 years ago, Gavrilo Princip fired a shot that convulsed the world.
It was arguably the biggest individual act of consequence in the history of mankind. And it still goes echoing on.

Gavrilo Princip

Gavrilo Princip

Princip’s assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria unleashed a cataclysmic chain of events. Within two months the fragile world had tipped into the abyss and ushered in the carnage of the First World War. There flowed a direct line of cause and effect to the Second World War.
Today in Sarajevo there is a stone inscription and a museum at the point from which the nineteen year old Serb nationalist fired his lethal shot. I ask passers-by if they are aware of the anniversary. For young and old, locals and tourists, there is collective amnesia.

Sarajevo captured the world’s attention at the start of the 20th century and again at its end when war came to the city in 1992. It was brutally besieged for almost four years, three times longer than the siege of Stalingrad.
Eleven thousand people lost their lives. At its lethal peak more than 3500 shells rained down on Sarajevo in a day. The international war crimes tribunal would later hear the city was reduced to a state of “medieval deprivation”. It was not alone. At least ninety thousand more people died in the rest of the country.
I spent a total of six months in Bosnia during the war working for BBC News. This was my first visit since hostilities ended.

The spot Princip shot from to change the world

The spot Princip shot from to change the world

Parts of the city were happily unrecognisable. Half a dozen shiny new shopping centres had been built. The Parliament building is a swish reflection of political power. There are new office blocks, mainly for banks, and Porsche has even opened up a showroom. Within each are people going about their normal daily routines. Twenty years ago such mundane normality would have been a dream.
In the old town life is back to normal. Weathered men sit and talk in coffee shops, young couples eat cevapi. The atmosphere on an easy summer morning is relaxed contentment.
There is a lot of change but the reminders of the past are plentiful. Many buildings remain pockmarked by bullets. A few stand abandoned, devastated by shelling.
Outside the city the picture is at best patchy. Towns like Vitez have enjoyed remarkable investment and growth. Others such as Mostar seem stuck in time. The town has an undercurrent of anxiety. A couple of people tell me the football matches are the worst. They say there is raw hatred when teams from the different ethnic groups play each other. It is a fearful time.
Over in Republica Serbska, the Bosnian Serb controlled part of Bosnia, the town of Pale feels sullen and rooted in an angry past.
The ethnic fissures are still there. Bosnia’s three main groups of Croats, Bosniaks (Muslims) and Serbs are a million miles away from a full and happily integrated co-existence.
The Dayton Peace Plan ended the war but it failed to build a viable state.
Instead, Bosnia is now a hapless victim of a hotchpotch of shared power and ethnic quotas. The grand plan to prevent domination by one group has created a complex system of over-government. It is an almighty mess.

Bosnia's parliament building

Bosnia’s parliament building

I meet Mirza and his family. He says the country’s politicians are full of self-interest, short on national interest. Ethnicity drives their thinking. Political corruption is also rife, he says. Mirza would leave if he could. His views are not uncommon.
He cites the ongoing debate over ID registration. Ethnic politicking has gridlocked the issue since February. It’s left 1500 new born babies unregistered. No ID means no medical card, no access to doctors and no passports. In mid June furious mothers besieged the parliament trapping hundreds of people inside for 14 hours.
Mirza tells me of schools with separate entrances for children from different ethnic groups. Once inside they follow different curricula. When these teenagers complete their schooling their prospects are bleak. More than 40% of the population are unemployed. The figure is a staggering 75% at youth level. It does not bode well for the country.

I ask a number of people if they believe Bosnia could ever lapse back into war. It’s a terrible question to ask, worse still to answer. But Mirza and many more say the awful possibility is a real one. There are others who disagree.
I talk with Anna, she is young and optimistic. She believes the fighting is over for good. She is desperate for Bosnia to join the EU and other international organisations to bind the country into stability.
Anna is a guide at Gallery 11/07/95. On a daily basis she talks visitors through the horrifying details of Srebrenica, the town where more than 8,000 people were systematically executed in the war. She, more than anybody, has to have hope that there is no going back to the insane evil of that time.
As I stand in Princip’s footsteps I can only hope that, in this new century, her youthful optimism triumphs over his idealistic nationalism.

Categories: Bosnia, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , | 15 Comments

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