Thursday: Still living in the glorious shadow from last weekend, part two of my minigolf odyssey for 2017 was about to begin. Today, I’m on an early morning flight to Prague for the Czech Masters. My bag has been where I left it on Sunday night, just the clothes were laundered now and the balls packed. With some juggling around, I am just a fraction under the weight limit if I wear the heavier items. The sun is up as I get in the car at 4.30 am, my excitement is overcoming tiredness. Around about ten minutes from the airport, I discover that I haven’t packed my glasses. I’m too far from home to turn around and get them. Furious with myself.
The flight is on time and I am met at arrivals by the Vlcek’s, Daniel and Jitka, who have volunteered to pick up all overseas travellers to the event. An exceptional gesture which massively helps. Daniel taps me on my shoulder and we greet each other warmly. I first met Daniel and Jitka back in 2014, when they invited everyone to the event while at the British Open. It is great to finally oblige. We go straight to the course, an absolutely wonderful chalet style cabin with the course out the back. It is simply stunning here, surrounded on all sides by fields of wheat and the odd mooing cow from the local farm.
I get shown around by Michal Stach and Milan Provaznik, who I last saw in Dublin. Just as I was about to take my first putt, I see the figure of Olivia Prokopova in the car park. Olivia had beaten me last week into second place and it was a pleasure for me that she had travelled down, if only for a few short moments. Over the next few hours, I attempt to get to grips with the course. It’s very unique in its design with a brick surround, consistent when you hit them full on but almost a nightmare when hit a seam. Already on the course are the Russians, Austria’s Karl Lakos and three quarters of the Swedes, Gunnar and Jens, who I remember from Kosovo, and Ricard Lockner. After a day of sightseeing, Sean and Marion Homer, the first couple of British Mingolf make an appearance. I team up with Sean and we see what we can garner.
Around 6 pm, I decide I’ve had enough for one day and check into my room (via the next village as the taxi driver couldn’t read the map), an AirBnB in the neighbouring town of Unhost. Check out its entry on Wikipedia, it’s very underwhelming. Petr is the homeowner and he shows to my room. It’s just what I hoped for. After a brief nap and shower, I head out into Unhost and find a restaurant. It’s ridiculously cheap. Main meal, a side and a large beer for around £7. It lacked any kind of atmosphere apart from an 80’s mix on the stereo. I move on to another bar, which is much more populated. At the prices I am paying for drinks, I physically cannot spend the money. Short of bankrupting myself at a snail’s pace, I turn in and get some sleep, scanning the channels on TV as I do so. Wow! Fort Boyard!
Friday: Up and about around 8 am, Petr has prepared a breakfast for me. It’s excellent. He has two children, a boy of 5 called Dominik and a girl of three called Nella. I ask if he has the number of a taxi but he insists on driving me. As we move off, Nella starts making a commotion in the back that she isn’t buckled in properly. It is obvious he has brought them up well. Early on, it is just me and Karl at the course. The temperature has dropped from the humid conditions of yesterday. Today will be just about trying out lines and shots while learning. Again, once Sean reaches the course, we pair and play several rounds. “Another one?”, I say after about the third round. “Sure”, replies Sean, “it’s not as if anything else is on the cards today.” We work especially hard on the 13th and 16th as we thought there has to be a better way than what we have been shown.
We break for lunch and sample one of the many aspects that make Horni Bezdekov Adventure Golf really work. There is a cafeteria, staffed with a couple of chefs. They pretty much tell you what is available and you order it. Today is what appears to be a bacon dumpling in an oxtail soup. After initially being unsure, it tastes alright. Also, you can buy drinks and ice creams, as well as the speciality. As someone who grazes, my trips to the bar are hourly. The staff keep an electronic tab of what you have and you pay at the end of the week.
I’ve packed for the evening as Daniel and Jitka have organised a pre-tournament barbecue for everyone taking part. Around 6.30 pm, the course slowly empties in the search for a beer and food. The barbecue is great, set in front of the house in the middle of the new course being built. This will be ready at the end of July and will complete one the best facilities I have ever seen. Myself and Sean prove our Britishness as even when it rains, we were the only ones around the fire. Sean’s banger splits in two and falls into the charcoal. “I’ve lost my sausage,” he giggles. Quote of the week. Contender.
Around 8.30 pm, I decide to play a round with the Swedes after consumption of several beers. This allows a certain artistic and creative license to some of the strokes we play. Waiting for my cab, I am the last to leave and end up talking with Daniel and Jitka next to the smouldering fire. I can’t help but thinking as to how wonderful this is for them. This is their home. This is their garden. This is their business. You genuinely have to see this to believe it.
Saturday: Tournament day. Exactly seven days after my greatest moment in minigolf began, I’m doing this all again. It almost feels like what a professional sportsman would do. Almost. The travelling and stuff. Petr drives me to the course and there is a relaxed feel around, with a soundtrack from thirty plus years ago coming in our ears. I can’t remember the last time I heard ‘Party All The Time’ by Eddie Murphy. My group for the first three rounds will be Daniel and Katerina Reed, two people I know well.
Sean starts off the event and shows no nerves as he curves an ace around the rocks at the first. We’re off. Channelling the spirit from seven days ago, I do exactly the same. It is good to see how a course owner plays his own course. There is probably no putt on here that he hasn’t tried in the eight years it has been open. By the end of the round, I’ve done well with a 34, one behind Daniel, who isn’t even the best in his family at this stage. The day is going to be a long one, with three rounds in the morning, with about a 5-10 minutes break in between, a break for lunch and then four rounds straight off the bat. It’s going to require a lot of concentration and I hope that the second putts I have mapped will keep me in it.
I spend the rest of morning being mostly steady before making an absolute hatchet job of the 8th and the occasional drop. I find myself slipping backwards, feeling low. I just can’t recapture last weekend through the medium of my putter. Lunch arrives and thankfully, it is the best meal of the week. A chicken schnitzel in a gorgonzola sauce. Spot on. The groups are reordered to reflect the leaderboard, I’m now with Jan Donini, a local youngster, and Alzbeta Hanuskova. Still struggling to find a rhythm, I eventually throw in a clean round as the cloud disappears. The last three laps of the course result in my best putting of the weekend so far, if not quite the results. I will go into day two at four over par. I’m very impressed by Jan, who is armed with a regular putter, a range ball and something just more than a dead ball. His weight of putt is spot on. Alzbeta is also doing well, with just the odd blemish. My thoughts on day one are that I haven’t played badly. However, when you get it wrong here, you could drop a number of shots rather than one. Marion Homer remarks that it feels like Clambers, a classic old course back in Hastings. It’s before my time but from the videos I have seen of it, I agree.
I thought I should head into Unhost for the evening, to take in a tour of hostelries offering countless pumps of Staropramen. Pauli Kuikka asks if I want to join him in Prague but says he might not come back for the competition tomorrow, so disappointed he was in his day. I decline the invitation. Unhost has around four bars and I find the largest one in the middle of the time. With a choice of Staropramen, Staropramen, Staropramen or Staropramen, I settle on Staropramen. I’m not the lager type but it is refreshing. Within five minutes of settling down, I notice some antics at a nearby table. All seems fun until one of the party produces a noose and everyone starts trying it on. I didn’t hang around long enough to experience a second beer. Sometimes, something tells you to move along.
I go back to my favourite bar, the owner recognises me from Thursday. I get ‘chatting’ to a local, who finds out I am English. The only three words he knows are ‘hello’, ‘good’ and ‘lovely’. After every swig of Staropramen (why drink anything else – oh, there is nothing else), he insists on clinking glasses with me. So with our three word conversations, I have made a new friend in the world. On the way back to the room, I’m guessing by now that I am going back with more money than I thought I would, even with my impending tab at the course.
Sunday: Day two is here, Petr is once again so helpful. At this point, I decide to get him and his family a present. A family pass to play at the course. Dominik has been talking a lot about minigolf according to his dad. Jitka arranges the voucher and adds it to my tab. I walk out onto the course, serenaded by Alison Moyet belting out ‘Love Resurrection’. I asked the Swedes if they have seen Pauli. They haven’t. He turns up in sandals for the very end of warm up. I think he is here to enjoy the day.
My playing partners are Katerina (again – she’s an absolute sweetheart so I am delighted by this) and Jens Bergstrom. My first round is a disaster as I manage to find every single blooming lip out, brick edge and rock that you can in one round. It is truly one of the unluckiest rounds of minigolf I have ever had but I am philosophical. I’m totally spent in my head from the World Crazies. Most people here are fully aware the I had a big result last week and were probably expecting better from me. Since yesterday lunch, I’ve thought about what good preparation this is for the WAGM next year. On the most part, I’m playing fine, apart from the 8th, coming into my card like Miley Cyrus’ Wrecking Ball. I know that when I return next year, I will have this course figured.
The rest of the morning is almost spent going through the motions, trying to qualify for the top 18. By the end of round nine, I’ve got a two-shot advantage over the cut and for the first seven holes of the tenth round, it felt in the bag. Then, fifteen minutes of utter carnage. Two aces sandwiched by a pair of sixes. My head is spinning, the sun is blistering, I hit the oddest 40 in my life. You would have thoughts five aces would have been worth celebrating but I blew it. I just miss out.
Walking through to the clubhouse to check on my lunch, I see Pauli already has a beer. I join him. I have hit my last putt in anger at Horni Bezdekov. It is a stark reminder of just how up and down sport can be. It just wasn’t my tournament this time. I focus on supporting my British colleague, Sean, for the final round. He is in the running for the top five and has already sewn up the top international competitor. Dead proud of him, a fantastic performance. The battle is hotting up between Daniel Vlcek and Michal Stach, who has been pushing hard to catch the owner. Late in Michal’s round, he draws level and it is going to a playoff.
At the first extra hole, Daniel sends in ace. The pressure is on Michal, who just catches the edge, looping round and dropping in. Daniel nearly wins the second but lips out. Incredibly, neither manage to get the third. When Michal pars the fourth, everyone widely expects the event to go on but no, Vlcek overhits his tee shot and misses coming back. For the second time, Michal Stach wins the Czech Masters. A great end to the day.
There is a fun awards ceremony afterwards, where winners received their trophies and a tray of cupcakes. As ‘We Are The Champions’ blasts out over the course, myself, Milan and Gunnar put arms around each other’s shoulders and singalong. It is almost the perfect metaphor for what I look for in minigolf. We’ve all gathered in a tiny village in the Czech Republic, it’s been competitive but amazing to be a part of and when all is said and done, we are all friends. This is why I do this. Such an experience that will stay with me forever. After a group photo on the bridge, we are treated to a marvellous spread of food. Michal starts digging into his winnings and buys everyone a drink. With a purse of 1100 euros, that’s going to go a heck of a long way. I talk some more about last weekend and the origins of my nickname. The Czechs have another nickname for me, something to do with a cartoon bee. I don’t want to leave, saying goodbye is the worst part of this. Gunnar has changed into a suit and tie with the temperature pushing close to 30 degrees Celsius. Madness. There is one final gesture, which is a gift bag of local honey and vodka. They really have made us feel totally part of the whole experience.
As I go, I make arrangements with Daniel and Jitka about dropping me back to the airport on Tuesday and I leave the course for the last time. As the taxi rolls past, I stare at their little corner of the world and think they have got this exactly right. Nothing is better than turning your hobby into something you can get paid for and make a living out of. What they have here is spectacular and when the new course becomes a reality next month, it will be one of the must visit places of minigolf in the world.
Having drunk for around five hours, I hit my favourite bar. I go out with three pounds. I come back with change.
Monday and Tuesday: In brief, I decide to try Prague out and have a day exploring. The bus is cheap at just over a pound for a fifteen-mile journey. I pass Sparta Prague’s ground before heading into the sights. When you eventually find the tourist area, it is stunning and really worth staying on the extra day to explore. Inadvertently, I bump into Sean and Marion, taking in their second bite of the Prague cherry. On the way back, I get on the wrong bus and end up in Kladno, which is sort of in the direction I need to be. It does allow me to see the Lego factory. I get into the room and put my head down before the final meal. I intend to go to bed early. Jitka calls to confirm the pickup for the morning. I drift back off to sleep. Petr calls to wish me a safe flight. I wait for the alarm to ring.
Jitka collects me early and lets me know that the Russians will be the last to leave about two hours after me. And then with that, that part chapter in my life was written. Thank you to everyone who was a part of that. An incredible time to be alive. Knowing what I know now, I could never have forgiven myself for missing that.