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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Czech Open: PGA Marches East

PRAGUE -- The Professional Golf Association made its first foray into the former communist bloc Thursday, but only after last-minute help from the soldiers who were once charged with keeping the West at bay.

The $750,000 Czech Open at the Marianske Lazne Golf Club, featuring Spain's Seve Ballesteros and Germany's Bernhard Langer in a 102-strong field, is the first tour event in territory once behind the Iron Curtain.

"We're certainly hopeful to develop more tournaments in this area," tournament director David Probyn told Reuters.

This one would have been in trouble without the aid of the Czech army, who have laid down their arms and picked up rakes to save the tournament on the 6,775-yard, par 71 course.

Autumn is at its height at Marianske Lazne, an elegant spa town dating from the Austro-Hungarian empire 165 kilometers west of Prague.

"We were ankle-deep in leaves at some places but the Czech soldiers have been out on the course each day clearing the greens and tees," Mark Lewis, a PGA greens consultant, said.

"Without their help we would have had some real problems getting the course ready."

Lewis, who was called in last month from London to whip the 90-year-old course into shape, said he had to borrow equipment from all over the country as well as neighboring Germany to ensure organizers could handle the area's unpredictable weather conditions.

"We've had to cover tees and greens overnight with carpets because of heavy frost but then some days the weather turns 180 degrees the other way," he said.

The Professional Golf Association is eager to see if an audience, whose Communist former rulers frowned on golf, will take to the sport.With fewer than 3,000 registered golfers and only two full 18-hole courses, the Czech Republic would not appear to be a hotbed for a leisure activity that can cost the average worker as much as half a year's salary for the basic equipment alone.

But golf is not completely new to the Czech Republic.

In 1905 Britain's King Edward VII, who frequented the area's spa and hunting grounds, established the Marianske Lazne club and became its first member.

Former Czechoslovakia was one of the founding members of the European Golf Association, a position it held even during the Communist era.

"Everyone is curious to venture into this part of the world and see how the sport and events like this will be accepted," Lewis said.

And as the burgeoning upper class of Czech businessmen remains anxious to achieve status symbols long denied under the former regime, golf -- like owning a foreign car and carrying a cellular telephone -- has become a priority.

In Prague, many up-and-coming executives with little or no knowledge of the game have flocked to lessons at the city's two indoor driving ranges.

With a new indoor golf center promoting Europe's first computer-simulated golf machines that whisk players to one of 12 courses the world-over, and a Canadian-designed championship golf course almost completed near Prague, the country's nouveau riches can't seem to get enough of the game.

"I am taking English lessons three times a week and golf lessons twice a week," said Josef Prochazka, an import-export executive, as he hit a nine-iron at a wall in the Erpet Golf Center driving range. "As a businessman I think it is important to show that I am at a par with my western colleagues."