The start of golf in Romania
(Source: © 2014-20, Douglas MacKenzie)
In the Sportsman in 1924, clearly recognisable as part of a ‘we need a couple of hundred words for this corner of the page’ piece, a journalist wrote,
‘The writer remembers an enthusiastic golfer who was interested in oil and found it necessary to settle in Rumania; within a few months words came from him that after laborious exertions he had succeeded in forming out of rough scrub, with old tin cans, something approaching a course upon which the Royal and ancient game was possible.’
Admittedly a rather vague and hard to verify claim to being the first course in Romania so, until more details appear from some long forgotten memoir in a dusty antiquarian bookshop, the first course in the country will continue to be the Bucharest Golf Club.
Before I move to the story of the Bucharest Club, which is as tortuous as root canal treatment, a lighter interlude. The Romanians, in fact, invented golf. I was told the story by a Bucharest taxi driver propelling me at breakneck speed to the airport while insisting on maintaining eye contact rather than looking at the road. The theme of ‘we invented everything’ is a typical hangover from Ceaus̗escu who adopted the nationalist anthropologists accounts from the early 20th century that Latin was a dialect of Dacian/Thracian and that the Dacians were the survivors of Troy (though the great helmsman might just have made that one up over a few glasses of t̗uică). I was surprised to find some historical precedent for the golf story. When I say ‘historical’, what I mean is that another manic taxi driver, probably with a team of horses rather than a Dacia Logan told the story to an Associated Press reporter in the 1920s. Supposedly the peasants of Romania were then still playing (and possibly the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy would not dissuade them now) porca inherited from the ancient Dacians where a crooked stick knocks a ball of bone or wood into a hole. When the conquered Dacians were pressed into the Roman legions and sent to ancient Britain they took the game with them and the autochthones of Scotland, who clearly had never thought of knocking something about with a stick, were entranced. The Scots, not liking porca, meaning pig, as a name for the game changed it to “gaugh” the sound a pig makes [really?] and hence golf. Porca pies no doubt, but inventive.
Most accounts of the creation of the Bucharest course, and they are few and sparse, compress a few organisations, the Jockey club, the Automobile club, the Country club and their activities, into a very short time frame when in fact the developments took much longer. For example, an article on the Royal Romanian Automobile Club in România Liberă suggests a few of its members got together at the end of the 1920s and got the country club and all its activities going. Firstly, this was five or six years after everything was running and considerably longer since things got started. The earliest stirring of activity down Băneasa way was the development of a new racecourse.
The new racecourse opened in 1905, demolished in 1960
The Jockey Club had very rich backers, General Manu, Cantacuzino, Prince Ghica, Prince Barbu S̗tirbei, Prince Sturdza, Prince S̗utzu, Kogălniceanu, Marghiloman, Chrissoveloni, a Who’s Who of Romanian society, and the support of King Carol I. Even if the names mean little to you I mention them because the same ones appear again and again in this story. Their financial power explains how the initial hippodrome plan of the architect Berindey in 1907 grew and grew to 52 hectares in 1910 and 62 hectares in 1915.
Calea Victoriei with the Jockey Club the building on the left topped with domes
Now, if we follow the Jockey Club’ s description of history, its vice-president Alexandru Marghiloman founded the Cercul de Sporturi “Băneasa Country Club”, and obtained another 15 hectares from City Hall for riding and playing polo. And, according to this account he then offered to the mayor that he would take another 30 hectares and transform that into a park for the city. The horsiness is completely believable: Marghiloman was a better horse breeder than a prime minister with 28 Romanian Derby winners but what would be his interest in all the other activities of the country club, golf, swimming, tennis (which the Jockey Club account does not even mention)? The article on the Automobile Club rather tails off with them muttering about consulting m’learned friends as to who owns what in the deeds of the club.
An article in Q Magazine in 2014 (again in Romanian) at least synthesises the competing claims. The Country Club “Sporting Circle” was founded in 1920 at the headquarters of the Jockey Club with 143 members each paying a registration fee of 4000 lei and 2 corporate bodies, the Jockey and Automobile clubs with capital of 500,000 and 200,000 lei respectively. This article introduces another character to the cast, the American businessman “Colonel Grabell”. In this version he goes with Marghiloman to see Corbescu, the mayor. In this version, rather than Marghiloman’s magnanimous gesture, the mayor grants the land for the country club only if its members agree to develop the “National Park” (later briefly Carol II Park, I V Stalin Park before becoming Herăstrău Park, though officially since December 2017, Parcul Regele Mihai I al Românie but I’ve yet to hear anyone call it King Michael’s Park) at the club’s expense. This was agreed and, as I wrote above, the same names from the development of the hippodrome run through to the development of the club and the new public park. Max Ausschnitt, Negroponte, Dimitri Chrissoveloni, the princes Cantacuzino, Ghica and Barbu S̗tirbey are all mentioned, rich and powerful backers, ‘thin cheeks’ (obrazele subt̗iri) is the Romanian expression Q Magazine uses to describe them, and suggests that their inclusion could mean there were no ‘serious objections’ to the two developments and that even the opposition press could recognise ‘evidence of public devotion’.
Well, that’s one story. The American press tells a quite different one after the country club is completed in 1923 (the main work on Herăstrău Park was much later, 1930-35, and the park opened in 1936). The country club was completed ‘through American enterprise’, despite ‘great popular protest’ and ’against strong opposition from the anti-foreign clique which opposed the project for two years’. Perhaps the New York Times let the cat out of the bag when it wrote ‘the object of the club is to afford recreation to members of the American colony’ but noted ‘any Roumanian or foreigner is eligible to join’. Maybe being Canadian the Ottawa Journal could be a little more open, suggesting that the influx of North Americans, ‘has resulted in a distinct anti-foreign campaign in Bucharest. Rumanians claim that foreigners through their influence at Court are obtaining all the most valuable concessions in the country and have succeeded in manipulating import regulations so that their goods flood the markets’. But no sooner does the window begin to open it slams shut again. ‘The full story of the difficulties with which those interested in building the club had to contend cannot yet be told for diplomatic reasons but some day in the future it will make interesting reading and throw a brilliant sidelight on the ramification of policies in Eastern Europe.’ Well, we’re still waiting.
So the club was built for the great and the good of Bucharest and welcomed with open arms by the city or it was strongly opposed because it was a playground for Americans. Like much of 20th century Romanian history, there are two diametrically opposing views, even on the founding of a Golf Club!
Which account is closer to the truth? I think one aspect of it is particularly illustrative: in addition to golf, tennis, polo and the lake for swimming and boating, the sports complex included a baseball diamond. Who but Americans wants to dress in pyjamas and play rounders? And it was not an afterthought: it was central to the opening ceremony. That ceremony was led by the Royal family and was choreographed either to show the club’s importance to Romania or to emphasise that Brătianu and the PNL were in charge and could deal with foreign influence as they saw fit, take your pick. There was a solemn procession, blessed by some high-ranking Orthodox priest, followed by the raising of the club and national flags and the playing of the national anthem. The Royal family then split up. The Queen of Yugoslavia, the former Princess Maria of Romania, threw in the ball for the first baseball game in the Balkans which was between Americans resident in Bucharest and ‘members of the Romanian government staff’; King Ferdinand hit the first drive on the golf course; Queen Marie started the polo match; and Prince Carol served first on the tennis courts.
And who was the American “Colonel Grabell” and what was his role in the development? I have seen him identified as Colonel Grabell even in a published peer-reviewed paper in Romania. There were two newspaper stories syndicated in the United States after the country club opened and one version, with which the New York Times ran, mis-identified him as Charles Greble of Philadelphia. He was, in fact, Colonel Edwin St John Greble, born on 9 November 1887 (1886 in the passenger list of the Lusitania in 1914) in Fort Mason, San Francisco, a son of a Major General of the same name. He had a glittering career at West Point and, on graduating, joined the Field Artillery. In 1907 he became one of the first ten recruits to the aviation section of the army but, after flying solo, his father’s intervention saw him reassigned. He was a junior adviser to Presidents Taft and Woodrow Wilson before serving as a Field Artillery Observer to the French Army at the beginning of WWI. He returned to the US, resigned his commission and joined the Baldwin Locomotive Company. One of its activities was making ammunition and he set up the proving ground at Lakehurst NJ before being in charge of the guard at the Eddystone factory in Pennsylvania. An explosion here killed 124 people and injured many hundreds more, thought at the time to be German, and later Russian, sabotage it is now recognised as likely to have been a tragic consequence of equipment malfunction. On America’s entry to the war he became a major, later the colonel of the 100th Field Artillery and was wounded in the Meuse-Argonne offensive.
Colonel Edwin St John Greble (Image courtesy of Kelt Smith)
After demob he rejoined Baldwin Locomotive Works and became manager for South-Eastern Europe, based in Bucharest. He devised what were innovative trading strategies for the time. Romania could swap oil for locomotives, Serbia grain and a plan was afoot for Russia to pay with wine. What drew him to the country club project? Many early golf clubs were formed and courses laid out by people who simply wanted to play golf. Greble was a keen sportsman who had played polo and had an interest in horse racing which probably put him in contact with the Jockey Club but there is no record of an interest in golf or tennis. He had played football at West Point, been on the fencing squad, captained the lacrosse team and set the Academy pole vault record. Nor did he stick around to enjoy the club. His wife Florence left for New York from Constant̗a on the SS Asia on 11 May 1925 with their three children, the youngest having been born in Bucharest, with Edwin travelling back separately via Southampton at the same time. This departure may not have been his choice. Following failed negotiations the Baldwin company filed suit against the Romanian government, in Philadelphia and in Bucharest, for its failure to pay for locomotives bought in 1919-20. By the time Greble was sailing for home, the Bucharest court had found in Baldwin’s favour with a bill to the Romanian government of $9,000,000 to be settled within three months. I imagine it would make the chat with politicians in the bar after the monthly medal a little edgy.
Was it a straightforward business opportunity for him to develop the club? The Birmingham News (Alabama) was sure the idea of a country club was Greble’s and 'by sheer pertinacity and at some personal risk, Col, Greble pushed his idea through’. Yet there is a report which says that all the money he invested was repaid to him in 1933 ‘at the insistence of the Royal household’ as if this was unexpected, an act of generosity or a flare-up of Carol II’s xenophobic nationalism rather than an agreed return on investment.
Good if you’ve stuck with me this far. What about the golf course? It was nine holes, or rather nine greens, so it could be played as 18 as the 1931 golf map shows. I cannot say at this stage who designed it. I believe the first professional, who also served as greenkeeper, came quite a bit later (so far no documentation to show when) but, as the Sinaia course was laid out in 1925 with the ‘technical assistance of a British diplomat’, I assume in the absence of a greenkeeper the Bucharest course followed a similar pattern.
A map of the course in 1931 though I am not convinced it is correct given the 1940 report below
The layout from 1931 shows four holes on the other side of the lake, the first description I read was the back nine were across the water and the Franz Gautier account of ‘Golf Holidays in Romania’, in the Deutsche Golfzeitung of 1940, talks about being able to take a boat, ‘steered by an old bearded Russian man, always in a daze’, across the 60m lake after the first three holes. The main point is that the course once was on two sides of the lake but in communist times land was seized and the course was curtailed to the current six holes.
Caddy and ferryman at the Bucharest Country Club, 1940
Exactly when the first professional arrived is unclear but he was Jean-Baptiste Lamaison who appears to have been an assistant or instructor at the Biarritz club as he played with that affiliation in the 1921 French Open at Le Touquet and in the same competition at Dieppe in 1923. He was recruited by Prince Puiu Ghica and this post was a big deal. When Pavel “Paul” Tomita became Lamaison’s assistant in 1930 the professional was earning 30,000 lei a year plus lessons at 200 lei an hour. To put this into perspective, an engineer at the time would earn around 3,000 lei a year. Tomita was a country boy from Pianu de Jos in Transylvania whose elder brother, Ioan, had gone to work in the city. Ioan began as a porter in the Hotel Continental (still going strong on Calea Victoriei) and rose to become manager. In this capacity he got to know Lamaison and found out he was looking for a lad between 14 and 17 who would learn golf and be his assistant. A postcard was duly despatched to Pianu de Jos and Pavel, born 1914, came to the city. Lamaison checked his muscles, had him hit a few balls with a wood and pronounced, ‘Pavel is right for golf’. He never looked back: until his death in 2004 “Uncle Pol” was Romanian golf1.
Pavel (Paul) Tomita – 1914-2004
Lamaison returned to France in 1932 and was replaced by the young Sussex professional Joe Baker who had just won two Sussex assistant professional championships. Undoubtedly he was instrumental to Tomita’s development and after his spell in Romania ended in 1938 Baker arranged for Pavel to come to his next club, East Brighton, for eight months which allowed him to qualify as a PGA professional.
Joe Baker, professional at Bucharest and Sinaia, 1933-1938, photographed at the end of the 1950s
The Course at Sinaia
Royal Romanian Golf Club, Sinaia, 1931
As the illustration2. from 1931 shows, this was the Royal Romanian Club but the sometimes claimed ‘passion’ for golf in the Romanian royal family is overstated. King Ferdinand swung the first club at the opening ceremony of the Bucharest club (that Queen Marie was the first woman to play is not supported by the description of opening day); Prince Nicholas was the club president but I have seen no record of him playing, his interests lay in motor-racing; Queen Marie also bestowed her patronage but has no mention of golf in her autobiography; Carol II, shall we say, expended his energies elsewhere. Describing the establishment of the course under the rubric, ‘the Balkans are becoming civilized’, an Iowa newspaper wrote ‘it is hinted that the Romanian Royal Family will take up golf next summer’. But the club at Sinaia, despite being close to the summer royal residence of Peles̗ Castle was really just the Bucharest club at altitude. It was open between 15 June and 15 October with playing privileges granted automatically to members of the Bucharest club but also open to visitors. It may have been so since its creation but certainly by the mid-1930s the professional at Bucharest was also the professional here and the club secretary was the same at each club.
It would be untrue to say there was no practical interest in golf from the royal family. As early as September 1933, when he was 11, newspapers reported, ‘At Sinaia there is an excellent golf course and the Prince uses it often’, that prince being Prince Michael after he had been King Michael I and before he became King Michael I again. He genuinely did have an interest in golf and had lessons from both Joe Baker and Pavel Tomita. I found the latter’s account of his reunion with the King when he was allowed to visit Romania again in 1992 quite touching.
Golf in the 1930s
With two prime ministers assassinated in the 1930s, Romania was certainly politically ‘interesting’ and the jockeying of the various European power blocs over Romania’s future alliances, and even more importantly, its oil, seems to have made the Bucharest Country Club as much a den of spies as the bar of the Athenee Palace Hotel with the future SOE spymistress Vera Atkins (Maria Vera Rosenberg), Montague Chidson and Leslie Humphries to the fore. It might have been this which saved the club after the war, much easier for the Securitate to bug everyone in one place. Murat Williams, interviewed about his time as a political officer at the US embassy here in the late 1940s said even conversation on the course had to be guarded as it would be reported by the caddies.
The club championship was treated as the Romanian national championship, and so described in the US press, and generally won by someone from the American legation, or a wife thereof for the women’s event. George Wadsworth won it three times on the trot in the mid-1930s when a humble legation secretary. In his ambassadorial career he seemed to favour the furtherance of golf over the promotion of US policy. Starting with his time in Turkey, he established a golf course in Ankara, but then became what the Toledo Blade called the ‘Johnny Appleseed’ of golf, setting up another nine courses in the Middle East including a three hole course in the sands of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, with oiled greens. I would not have mentioned the club/national championships at all were it not for the opportunity it gives to use what I think is one of the most charming golf portraits ever. It is of Louisa Crozescu, women’s national champion in 1926, a demure young lady with a substantial hickory-shafted spade mashie on her shoulder. It is under copyright so, for the time being I have to provide an external link.
It was not all American diplomats and British spies, there was still a contingent of wealthy Romanians, perhaps where Mlle Crozescu belonged. Dumitru Minovici, director of the oil company Creditul Minier and later founder and curator of the Bucharest museum of Early Western art which bears his name, played regularly. Dimitri Chrissoveloni was one of the founding members of the club and, two generations on, in an interview with Adevarul, Jean Chrissoveloni (he of Cărtures̗ti Carusel bookshop fame among other things) said his parents “Nicky” Chrissoveloni, the banker, and Georgette Lakeman ‘played a few games of golf together [there] then married’ (in 1941). The club had a membership of around 450 in the ‘30s.
The Bucharest Country Club clubhouse in 1931 and 1940
We have already met Franz Gautier and his dazed Charon. He wrote an account of “Golf Holidays in Romania” in 1940 for the DGZ (in German) covering both the Bucharest and Sinaia clubs. He had travelled down the Danube with his father and a friend and was the last pre-war German junior golf champion, having won in 1938 from the Berlin Wannsee club and in 1939 from Vienna (post-annexation). On his arrival in Bucharest, and looking for the golf course, he met an employee of one of the Romanian oil companies he knew from the Vienna Golf Club. A game was quickly arranged and Gautier was surprised by the quality of the players in Bucharest. ‘In the short time I was there I must have met a dozen men with single figure handicaps’. To avoid the heat, he started at 5pm, the latest possible for 18 holes with darkness falling at 8pm. ‘The course is a fairly short 18 holes of 4660m (5096 yards) which fits attractively into its environment. It is somewhat hilly and its particular charm is that a 50 meter arm of a small loch cuts it in two. The first hole begins with a difficult drive through the trees to get a clean shot to the green. If one is too long, which can easily happen as the ground is very quick because of the dryness, then the green is guarded by bunkers.’ He warns of the 300 meters of the 2nd hole running parallel to the loch and the green being right beside it with the water capturing many a stray ball. The third is easier and, post dazed ferryman, he recommends the 12th and the view over the loch with the restaurants round about and the yacht and tennis clubs. The 16th he finds one of the best on the course with a shot over the water which ‘demands courage from a weaker player’. Clearly the course description does not fit the 1931 map where the 1st hole is not shown but, from the description is probably the same as it is now, and the older map shows the 5th as the hole running along the lake. Either the course had changed or the map is simply wrong as Gautier’s article is supported by photographs.
A view of the second green then looking from the clubhouse to the 3rd green
On the following two weekends he played at Sinaia, ‘about three hours on the train’ from Bucharest. Surely one of the few rail routes in Romania that is faster now than it was pre-war. ‘The turf is moist so good sport can be had’. ‘[Holes] are both uphill and downhill though most are short. Their particular challenge is afforded by exceptionally small greens’. The Golfer’s Handbook entry for 1935 showed a cost to play of 200 lei per day or 1000 per week.
Course map, Sinaia, Romania, 1931
He signs off with the paragraph. ‘Finally we travel to Kronstadt (Bras̗ov) in Siebenbürgen (Transylvania) where I have the opportunity to assure myself how true German-ness persists throughout the centuries despite the most severe storms. This conclusion among Germans in a foreign land made me proud of my Vaterland and my Volk’. In other words, thanks for the trip down the Danube and the golf holiday, I’ll now tip my hat to the national consciousness demanded by the League of the Reich for Physical Exercise (NSRL).
Other prewar courses
There were six courses in operation in Romania before the Second World War. The other one to make the international guidebooks of the period was the Ploiesti (then Ploesti) course in the Teleajan valley, valley probably making it sound more picturesque than it was as it was built in the grounds of an oil refinery. Before the war this operated as the Rafinăria Româno-Americană and it was the American employees who built the golf course sometime before 1935 which is the first guidebook listing I see for it. The course occupied 50 hectares of the 250 hectare site, though the refinery only took up 100 hectares in the 1930s. The course was open to visitors with a 50 lei daily charge for as long as they wanted to play.
I expect this was the first of the five lost courses to disappear in the Second World War. Romanian oil was vital to the Axis war effort and the refinery was heavily protected by anti-aircraft emplacements as the USAF found with the huge losses suffered by Liberators bombing in Operation Tidal Wave in 1943.
In 1936 two golf courses were built in the Black Sea coastal resorts of Mamaia and Eforie Nord where one might have thought Romanian golf tourism would begin. Clearly they had little chance to develop before war engulfed Europe and I am not even certain they lasted long enough to be shut down by the communists in 1948.
The final course was at the Palatul S̗tirbei, at Buftea in Ilfov about 20km from Bucharest. I know nothing of the course layout and I understand Prince Barbu S̗tirbei3 was a member of the Country Club but, well, sometimes you just can’t wait for a teetime. It also sounds like something the communists were not going to enthuse about so in 1948 it was gone too.
All this meant that the only golf club with which Romania went into the second half of the 20th century was the old Bucharest Country Club renamed the Diplomatic Club, down to 6 holes. Although there has been talk of extending it again that is yet to happen.
The course today (well, a few years ago when I took the pictures)
1. It might seem odd that having said Pavel Tomita was Romanian golf I wrote so little about him. Firstly, the scope of this site is hickory era golf ending in the 1930s. Secondly, Tomita is probably the only topic in Romanian golf previously covered online or in magazines. There is a good interview (in Romanian) on the Golf Romania site and one in English with the Baltimore Sun
2. I am enormously grateful to Christoph Meister who sent me copies of French and German pieces on the Bucharest and Sinaia clubs when I started believing there was absolutely no material to draw on.
3. It was stated that there was little interest from the Royal Family before King Michael then all sorts of Princes were mentioned playing. These princes were members of prominent Romanian families but not part of the Royal household. Indeed, the deal was that Romanian royalty would only marry foreign royalty so as not to favour any of the Romanian families. This all went a bit pear-shaped in the 1920s.