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The alpha and omega of Estonian golf

Estonia, known internationally for Skype, chocolate and its turbulent history is also something of a golfing Shangri-La in northeastern Europe. Russia, with 100 times Estonia's population, has practically no golf to speak of and Estonia compares well on the golfing front with Baltic neighbors Latvia and Lithuania. The game is expanding here, even as it recedes in places like the United States which overbuilt golfing infrastructure during the golden years of economic prosperity and Tiger Woods in the 1990s.

In Estonia the beginning was at Niitvälja Golf. As the country struggled as newly re-independent state, for some, dreams turned to golf and its association with leisure and affluence. Niitvälja golf course began with 9 holes in 1993. It quickly became an 18 hole championship layout designed by Swede Åke Persson. The land that comprises Niitvälja is blessed with mature, mixed deciduous forest and rolling landscapes. It might be called an archetypal Estonian countryside setting. The course was comprised of parkland golf with some inland links holes. In 2006 the course was redesigned by Peter Chamberlain, adding five new holes and considerable water hazards to make a pure parkland course.

It is a challenging layout with remarkably well maintained greens. Niitvälja has largely avoided the problems of patchy greens and fairways that have afflicted other courses in the region, leaving all 18 holes in near pristine condition. Niitvälja's signature hole is number 15, a par 5 that runs along water on one side, leading to an island green a la the famed TPC Sawgrass at Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida on America's PGA tour. This is an exciting and, of course, difficult hole, especially for the casual golfer.

Niitvälja has the most extensive practice facilities in Estonia, including a very unique short game "course" where you can practice chipping, pitching, putting and sand play while measuring your progress. After playing a round or working on your game, you can relax in the club's facilities with a sauna and then enjoy a drink and the popular daily buffet in the casual restaurant. A great advantage of Niitvälja golf is that it can be reached without a car. You can catch the Paldiski train from Tallinn's Balti jaam and reach the course in roughly 40 minutes.

A beautiful new addition to Estonia's golfing scene is Pärnu Bay Golf Links. Located just south of Estonia's summer capital of Pärnu, it is the perfect option for a golfing long weekend. The course is the brainchild of Swedish-Estonian businessman Peter Hunt and reflects his commitment and passion for the game. It was created by Finnish designer Lassi Pekka Tilander with the help of links golf expert Mick McShane known for his work in Scotland at St. Andrews Links’ Castle Course and Kingsbarns Golf Links. It is a challenging layout and splendid setting with tall, mature conifer trees, wide and exceptionally well manicured fairways and daunting but fair multilevel greens. Water abounds, as the course is on the Baltic Sea and many brackish inlets creep into the course's setting. There are large waste areas all over the layout which put a premium on driving accuracy.

An outstanding feature of Pärnu Bay is its aesthetics. The golfer here will notice immediately that they are in a special milieu, with its coastal locale, tall windswept trees and gorgeous expanses of fescue grass. If you are lucky enough to be there on a sunny day, and the weather is frequently fine in the summer in Pärnu, it may occur to you that you are in the most beautiful place in Estonia.

The clubhouse is set atop high ground overlooking the Baltic Sea. Here you can unwind with a beer and enjoy the cuisine of Eagle restaurant. Eagle serves Nordic-Scottish cuisine, apt for a place that pays homage to the links courses of Scotland where the game of golf was invented.

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