AUSTRIA - Ask any European buff to name his top ten sporting event in any given year and Kitzbuehel's Downhill, the famous Hahnenkamm, two miles of glittering ice cliff skied by the aces at close on 90mph, is likely to be up there with Wimbledon, the Tour de France, the Open and so on.
Ask question number two: "Where's Kitzbuehel?" and there may be a Weaker Link wobble.
A knowing old ski champion like the USA's Phil Mahre will tell you it's on the eastern border of the Tyrol region of Austria. The guide book will tell you it was given its charter by Ludwig II of Bavaria in 1271, and its town hall (rathous), churches, farmhouses, copper mine shafts, towers, terraces and walls speak volumes for its medieval past.
It isn't large, the regular population around 8,000, but it has to accommodate crowds of up to 35,000 visitors for the January Hahnenkamm (it means Cock's Comb), and though it's more like a World Cup soccer match for a day or two, prime ski season gives it back the glitz of St Moritz, the pzaz of Aspen and the style of Cortina d'Ampezzo.
But that's for winter. In Summer, Kitzbuehel settles down to a busy but simpler life style, its Krankenhaus, or hospital, shorn of skiing's torn knees and shattered femurs, its hotels and inns warm and practised hosts for summer hikers, mountain bikers, riders, rafters - and, yes, golfers.
Kitzbuehel's June Golf Week, offering pro-am competition, a 100-hole marathon, and a taste of its top courses, sets a golfing marker for the rest of Austria. No question, Austria is reinventing itself for a game it sees as a major tourism challenge.
"Okay, so we have to persuade many people that we don't make snowmen all year round or walk our courses in crampons," says Oskar Hinteregger, UK and Ireland manager for the Austrian Tourist Office. "Countrywide, we've 134 courses, some in the suburbs of big cities, others in lake regions like the Salzkammergut, Zell am See and Worthersee in Carinthia."
And of course Kitzbuehel, two 18-hole and two nine-holers in town, another two in nearby villages, and two more within the hour.
"Sound of Music" golf is no hard sell for the big K. At 2,000 feet it is relatively low by modern ski standards, but it sits in a cockpit of stunningly good-looking mountains. Much of the golf is in a set of approachable valleys, and the season is from early May to mid-October - Carinthia in the south will be for a little longer.
Although Vienna boasts the country's first golf club as far back as 1910, most Austrian courses are of fairly recent construction, with plenty of water and sand coming in to play.
Some of the topography needs creative treatment, and it's worth a pro-shop check on distances from greens to following tees - a buggy may be a wise choice.
Being a latecomer, Austria has few ol' guy rituals, not least because 40 per cent of Austrian players are female, and by the looks of them as effective with a 7-iron as they are on a ski slope.
Clubhouses have some of the best cooking in town, and are visited as much for that as for golf. If Germanic society defers, it is to academic and business status rather than handicap.
There is not, as yet, a profound culture to the game.
"They'll think Tom Weiskopf is some German guy," says Ian Shaw, Scottish professional at Wilder Kaiser club, in the village of Aurach, a few kilometres out of Kitzbuehel. "Mention Seve Ballesteros and like as not they'll want to know how many Stableford points he shoots."
Part of the charm, maybe, of a holiday place.
A choice of four 18-hole courses and a pair of 9-holers within easy or reasonable distance of Kitzbuehel's town centre makes a good platform for a holiday with golf, or a golfing holiday, whichever suits.
Around 19 courses are said to be within a day's car trip, but that is stretching it for people arriving at Munich (100 miles), Salzburg (50) or Innsbruck (60) by air.
German or Swiss visitors will be in their own cars, true, and able to make good use of an Alpine Golf card covering dozens of courses, but a Kitzbuehel hotel or pro shop discount option of three or five rounds will better suit longer-distance travellers.
Tour operators out of Britain or the US will likely offer their own concessions on the back of fly-drive arrangements.
Standard Austrian prices are not out of the way - a green fee will be around 70 Euros, and buggy 30. Electric trolleys are increasingly popular.
Priding itself on its title, "Golfing Centre of the Alps," Kitzbuehel offers a variety of inducements in its golf week, not least a long driving joust on a machismo section of the Streif, the well-named course of the legendary Hahnenkamm.
For all the above reasons, the nine-hole, Par-3, 2,524-metre Rasmushof is worth a look-see. As with most Austrian courses, there's a driving range, chipping and putting ground for anyone loosening up from a flight, not to speak of a Golf Academy.
You can't be too proud. It's not only where downhill aces like Toni Sailer and Franz Klammer have sprayed cheering crowds with their parallel stops, it's where both have swung a more than useful golf club. Both are single-figure players.
Sailer, the local "boy", triple gold medal winner at the 1956 Winter Olympics, presides over the Golf Week, and Klammer is a vigorous booster of Carinthia and Austrian golf generally. His invitational "Wooden Spoon" tournament is a feature of the London golf season.
Kyle Phillips's Eichenheim in the village of Aurach is an outstanding introduction to serious 18-hole Kitzbuehel golf. He hits you at the first hole with a par-5, 550-yard challenge off the whites, and keeps the challenge going over tough terrain for 7,000 yards.
Mid and high handicappers will better enjoy the magical surroundings off the yellow tees - 6,057 metres of the par 71 is macho enough for most.
Phillips keeps you thinking all the way to the 11th, stroke index 1 at 420 metres off the whites, then zaps you with a par 3 where the drive is over a 200-foot precipice to a fairway far below. Help! Where's the parachute?
Men may envy the ladies' 77 metres. For the shot-a-hole-man, life will settle down with a short but straight drive, commercial pitch, and two putts for a net par.
Eichenheim has been home to the PGA Challenge Tour's Austrian Championship, but well established close to the town is the Schwarzsee Club, where a British professional and his team operate a friendly service to all-comers. The front nine of the par-72, 6,642-metre test are well wooded, but with streams and ponds calling for diligent use of the course guide.
Accuracy and club choice is more important than length. The back nine are rather hillier, but offer panoramic views of the Hahnenkamm and Kizbuehlerhorn mountains. The par-3 sixteenth presents a special challenge, anything short disappearing into a rocky chasm. The drop zone is a well-used feature.
The Kaiserwinkl, at Kossen, 20 miles to the north of Kitzbuehel, has a particular, idiosyncratic appeal. A highly sophisticated bar and restaurant perhaps gives the wrong idea of its priorities. You need to visit them last, not first, to deal with the course's tactical demands.
It is relatively short at 5,645 metres. Cross a stream and then you get started. A 3-wood or long iron is key off the tee, many of the holes being dog-legs, and requiring advice or a keen eye on the course guide for direction, distance and roll.
Tall pines shield almost every hole, and your lob wedge or chipping iron needs to be in excellent shape. Also your eye for a putt - the greens have lots of surprises.
Kaiser stands for King, and the Wilder Kaiser club terrace at Ellmau is the spot to enjoy a stein of the local beer and take in a course with arguably the most stunning mountain backdrop in the world.
Ellmau is 20 minutes away and a ski village in its own right. MW, the British golf tour operator and Austria specialist, quotes American comedian Jack Benny in respect of it. "Give me my golf clubs, fresh air and a beautiful partner, and you can keep my golf clubs and the fresh air!" The copywriter reckons on the last word. "But not here!"
It is the most wonderful background, surely. And the first hole is a pussy, a straightforward slightly uphill 300-yarder where a shot-a-hole man can jet-start himself with a net birdie.
From then on it's all too easy for a downhill ride steep as the Streif - in a golfing sense, anyway. The 520-yard third is stroke index 1, the fourth, a 450-yard par-4 which rates third hardest.
So, not the most rhythmical of courses, and three par threes from 12 to 15 come at you fast. Distances between some of the holes are more a challenge to the feet. These criticisms aside, it is a good, open-shouldered test off the tee, and, when newly acquired land is fully exploited, rather more is likely to be made of its present 6,398 metres and par of 71.
And for the ultimate adventure - why not ski and golf in a day. Perfectly possible with a 30-minute car ride from Kitzbuehel to Zell-am-See.
Park at the nearby Kaprun cable car. Up quickly to the glacier slopes served by quad chair. Everything is provided by way of ski kit at the base shop. A lift up towards the 7,000 foot peak. A few crisp runs on easy-turning snow. Return ski kit.
Away then to Zell-am-See Golf Club - two good 18-hole courses, the par-73 Kitzsteinhorn and par-72 Schmittenhohe, to choose from.
And a stein of lager before the sun sets. Easy-peasy.I've done it.
Kitzbuehel Kaps GC, a nine-hole course in the grounds of Kaps Castle, is reopening in time for the 2005 season after extensive alterations.
More than 50 years old, it claims more single-handicap members than any club in Austria.
Austria more or less invented the spa town, and its therapies are among the most advanced in the world.Top Kitzbuehel hotels boast "Wellness Centres," a special joy for non-golfing partners.and, yes, some of the golfers.
Hotels of all classes are well organised for holiday passes - from Alpine Golf to specialist treks. There are 90 marked mountain trails, one of them to the highly popular Kitzbueheler Horn Alpine Garden.
At base altitude of 2,000 feet, Kitzbuehel makes walking a simple, lung-cleansing pleasure.
Chalet homes are garlanded with flowers, and there is plenty to see inside the walled inner town, from window shopping - some of the arrangements are an art form - to church and museum interiors.
Mountain hiking and biking, angling, swimming, tennis (Kitzbuehel boasts a top European event each July), hang-gliding, bungee jumping, ballooning, and, of course, climbing, are all popular activities, made more available by an extensive range of cableways and lifts.
Indoors? You can always try your luck at the Casino.
Hahnenkamm and Kitzbueher Horn gondolas give access to much-favoured mountain restaurants.
Most three-star hotels and above - there are 21 of them in Kitzbuehel itself - offer half-board in competitively well-run restaurants. Austrian menus will vary meatier Germanic tastes with Italian and Hungarian styles and flavours.
Waiter-service bars offer good beer and Austrian "Open" wine - usually drunk by the viertl, or quarter-litre glass - but smoking is more generally accepted than in the equivalent US or British establishments.
At least a dozen Kitzbuehel hotels have a specialist golfing interest in the Golf Festival week in June, and offer packages, services and advice at any time.
Telephone numbers are all preceded by - country code (43) and the Kitzbuehel area code of 05356:
Schwarzer Adler 6911;
and Astron 63211-0.
Also recommended, at Scheffau, close to the Wilder Kaiser, Hotel Kaiser-in-Tyrol (43) 05358 8000-0.
• Eichenheim 66615 (www.eichenheim.at)
• Kaiserwinkl 05375 2122-0 (www.golf-koessen.at)
• Schwarzsee 71645-0 (www.kitzbuehel-golf.com)
• Wilder Kaiser 05358 4282, (www.wilder-kaiser.com)
• Rasmushof 652520 ( www.rasmushof.at)
November 13, 2004
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