Mottled Greens and Hoopoes in Glyfada

With the ease and grace of a slightly older Justin Rose, Bob Simpson tees off in Glyfada
With the ease and grace of a slightly older Justin Rose, Bob Simpson tees off in Glyfada

In 2008 I wrote a series of articles for the magazine Athens Insider about the sporting life in Greece. Given that a new film Swing Away is set to be shot in Crete in the autumn of 2013, it seems appropriate to pull out of the cupboard a piece I wrote about a round of golf that I attempted to play at the Glyfada Golf Club in Athens.

GOLF IS THE most bloody infuriating game ever invented. A long walk spoiled, Mark Twain called it, which, frankly, is being polite.

The last time I picked up a set of clubs was at the Windsor Park course in Durban, South Africa back in 1996. I hit a few decent shots but for the most part it was a sweaty series of feeble-minded stinkers, slicing and hooking into the trees on either side of the fairway, digging out divots, topping the ball and burying the bugger in the sand traps.

My swing was wretched, not far off Irish golfer David Feherty’s description of his fellow pro Jim Furyk – “like an octopus falling out of a tree”. As for the putting, don’t even go there.

My partner that day was a guy called Mark Stokes, one of a dying breed of men who epitomise the term gentleman. His own game was ticking over with the ease and attention to detail that you would expect from a man who is now a leading golf writer.

And he was kind, insisting that the fourball of skinny girls who played through us – sharing a bag and nary a glove between them – were just having a lucky day.

I didn’t exactly snap my putter but on leaving South Africa to return to the UK, I gave away my clubs and vowed never to darken the world’s fairways again. Actually, the fairways had always been pretty safe places when I was around – it was the roughs and bunkers that had suffered.

I lapsed just once in the interim when Mark lured me out to a driving range in London’s Regent’s Park a couple of years later but, apart from the occasional round in my dreams, my golf over the last decade has been restricted to watching others go through the rituals.

Tiger Woods, Ernie Els, Sergio Garcia, now these guys can play. Far better to appreciate the masters at their work then get oneself into a needless lather about sticking a tiny white ball into a small hole in the middle of nowhere.

And then came the invitation: to play at the only course in the greater Athens area – the Glyfada Golf Club of Athens. Satan peeked over my shoulder and grinned at me in the mirror. I was lost.

Not the easiest of greens in Glyfada; that pin seems an awfully long way away
Not the easiest of greens in Glyfada; that pin seems an awfully long way away

A bright, sunny April morning, the hottest day of the year so far. Bob Simpson, a member of the club committee greets me with a spare bag. Lean and as fit as a butcher’s dog, I suspect that Bob, Aberdeen-bred but Athens-based since 1975 and a 10-handicap to boot, is going to make me rue my lapse.

“Not played for ten years, you say,” he says with a sigh. “Ah well, just keep it simple. Don’t worry about length, just try and keep it down the middle on the fairway.”

Famous last words. Timidly reaching for a four iron off the first tee, I winced as my drive studiously avoided the centre of the fairway, preferring instead to scud left. Way left. Into the rough, behind a tree, down a rabbit hole, who knows. We never found the ball. One shot into my comeback round and I was already a ball down. At least I remembered to pocket the tee.

Golf is not exactly a well-known sport in Greece and the fact that there are currently only a handful of 18-hole courses in the entire country probably plays a part.

As a new arrival in 2004, I was surprised by the lack of courses but my inquiries as to the reason why was met with perfect logic.

“Why are there no golf courses in Greece? Because no one plays golf,” came the answer.

“But if you build the courses then people will start to play. And you will attract tourism, nice people with thick wallets and paisley socks …look at Spain.”

“Greece is not Spain…”

No, indeed. I learnt early that there are some debates you will never win.

It will obviously take a while for golf to sink into the national consciousness – sink being the operative word here – but having said that, the game is not entirely alien to Greece. One of the greatest names in golf history, Jack Nicklaus, was Greek.

Okay, he was actually born in Columbus, Ohio but his caddy Angelo Argea was of Greek heritage. Together they won over 40 tournaments including US Opens, British Opens and US PGA Championships.

And on today’s PGA tour you might occasionally spot the names Brenden and Deane Pappas. So they are South African-Greeks but it is a start.


The Konstantinos Karamanlis course in Glyfada is the oldest in Greece, having been set up in 1962. It must have seemed very alien then and even today driving through the gates is like entering some old country estate where time has stopped.

“It is a wee oasis in the middle of all this concrete in Athens. You can really breathe here,” says Bob as he sinks a 12-footer with minimum fuss.

The wildlife in Glyfada varies between packs of stray dogs and these striking and busy hoopoes

And he is right. There is a tranquillity about the place. The conifers and eucalyptus trees provide a pleasant foreground to the grand canvas of the mountains and then there are the birds: seagulls, ducks, and magpies are to be found sunning themselves along the course but the most spectacular are the upupa epops – or hoopoes.

They are dramatic fellows. A milk chocolate colour when they are on the ground, they become a whirlwind of black and white when they spread their wings and head for the trees. Bob looked at me somewhat askance when I insisted on calling them all Mott but quickly pointed out that they also have a Greek connection. In the Aristophanes’ play The Birds, the character Tereus is transformed into a hoopoe on what is now the sixth green. Honest.

Wildlife, of course, whether it is the flora and fauna or roving animals,  is important on many courses around the world. At the Durban Country Club, the monkeys are to be found loitering in the trees and passing comment on a misguided chip from the bunker. At another South African course, Lost City, you need to beware the 38 crocodiles that chill out on the 13th.

If that is the ultimate water hazard, then Athens has the literal dog-leg. Unfortunately an illegal dump has developed right beside the course – you can smell it particularly clearly on the eighth green – and this in turn has encouraged the stray dogs to adopt the course as their playground.

For the greenkeepers it is a constant battle to fill and level the holes that the dogs make in the greens. Some have taken on a bare, mottled look which does no good at all to the already insecure putter. Likewise, many of the sand traps appear to have been mixed with a decent Portland cement which is not the best combination when reaching for the wedge.

The thing about golf, though, is that in the end that does not really matter. The key is to get out on the course and hit the ball. As cleanly as possible, as straight as possible and as far as possible. For regulars like Bob this happens all too often – although not as often as they would like, I am sure – but for the dedicated hacker, it only comes every now and then.

Another Spender putt slides past the pin - by about 20 metres
Another Spender putt slides past the pin – by about 20 metres

But it does come. On this occasion, a solid tee shot at the ninth with the five wood which soared down the middle, bouncing and gambolling along the fairway into the perfect lay for the second shot.

“Good shot,” says Bob. “You’ve a nice, easy natural swing…”

I didn’t hear the rest. In my mind I was already a contender for the Old Claret Jug.

Never mind the fact that the follow-up went scything off into the trees never to be found and that the new ball went straight into a bunker where it stubbornly resisted three attempts at removal.

Never mind that the chip – when it finally succeeded in uncorking the ball from the bunker – sent it flying some way past the back of the green. And never mind that it took, at a conservative guess, four stabs with the putter to sink the dimpled gobstopper.

Never mind, I had played one really good shot. The devil on my shoulder smiled again. He knows that I won’t be able to resist for so long again.

©Barney Spender 2008

A version of this article first appeared in the May 2008 issue of Athens Insider.

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