Bill Clinton was on the White House putting green on a sunny July day in 1995 when he and his advisers decided to consider military intervention in the Balkans in the midst of the violent disintegration of Yugoslavia. Then it would have been the unlikeliest of scenarios, but today parts of the Balkans--that powder keg of Europe--are on the verge of a golfing boom. At KPMG's Golf Business Forum in Budapest in May, Croatia attracted attention from big-name developers. Montenegro is also generating interest. And while Serbia and Bosnia are unlikely to attract foreign golfers--as neither share Croatia's tradition of tourism--both report a burgeoning domestic market. "We have very often quoted Croatia as one of the countries with the highest potential for development for golf tourism, and we expect significant development there," said Andrea Sartori, head of KPMG's Golf Advisory Services Team. "Serbia and Bosnia will have to look more at their domestic demand."
At the center of the Croatian boom is Istria, a Mediterranean peninsula that was spared the fighting. The local government anticipates 22 courses by 2012, and the region has attracted interest from major names in design, including Jack Nicklaus and Robert Trent Jones Jr. Largely driven by growth in Istria and buzz around Croatia's imminent accession to the E.U., the World Travel and Tourism Council last year listed Croatia as the world's fastest growing tourist destination, a mantle to which the government responded by swiftly laying out 50 potential golf sites in a nation of 4.5 million.
But nothing is easy in a country with such a complicated past. Developers have struggled to obtain contiguous plots of land, and regional officials have been slow to grant building permits because of concerns over unscrupulous practices and environmental impact. The only course in Istria is the oldest in the Balkans. The 18-holer on the Brijuni Islands is located on Marshal Tito's former private playground, where the Yugoslav dictator once hosted dignitaries and Hollywood stars. As if evoking Tito's fleeting and superficial glory, the course is left untended, and the greens are manicured by grazing deer.
Golfers are not an easily dissuaded bunch. Brijuni still has a full tee sheet, and tractors and other land-moving equipment swarm Istria's hills like nest-building insects. The Croatian assistant minister for tourism, Robert Pende, told Time that investors are bidding to develop a 36-hole site in the small town of Skradin near the city of Sibenik in Dalmatia, despite having to hire ordnance experts to clear mines before laying down turf, giving an entirely new meaning to lift and place.
Similar challenges face developers in Bosnia and Serbia, where all that remains of the Belgrade course opened by Prince Paul Karadjordjevic in 1936--and bombed a few years later--is a restaurant named Golf. A new course in Belgrade opened in 2003 and has since seen its membership quadruple. The game is part of a new experience, a new Serbia, in which bunkers are sand traps, not places to hide. "Another three or four years, and I'll go pro," local champ Ognjen Radovic, 14, said nonchalantly, as if planning for one's future was never a luxury in Serbia. "And then I'll go to America and be like Tiger Woods."
Back in Croatia, tourism officials report that along with wealthy foreign investors there are Bosnians and Serbs happy to cross borders and ethnic lines in search of a tee time. In a symbolic gesture indicative of golf's role in the region, the Croatian government said land used by the army will be donated for golf courses. In Europe's new century, finally dawning on this dark corner of the Continent, there is a reasonable hope that the military has no need for it now.