By Natasha Blatsiou
Until the 1950s, few Greeks had ever heard of golf. Courses then were few, and they were primitive and largely untended. The first modern golf course in Greece wasn’t inaugurated until 1962. It’s therefore not surprising that the high quality of Greek golf resorts today still comes as news to many players. Golf Inc., when awarding Costa Navarino the “Clubhouse of the Year” title in 2020, acknowledged how rapidly Greece has developed into a golfing destination, saying: “Our Best of Show winner is a clubhouse you may not be familiar with. Indeed, you’d need to go to Messinia, Greece, to enjoy it.” However, in point of fact, the country now shines on the map of destinations for any avid golfer – amateur or professional. Last year alone, Golf Inc. awarded another clubhouse at Costa Navarino, while World Golf Awards gave the destination the prestigious title “World’s Best Emerging Golf Destination” and declared its International Olympic Academy Golf Course the “World’s Best New Golf Course.”
So how did we get here?
Local legend claims that the popularity of golfing in Greece was sparked by a chance event in the 1950s; it’s said that during an official visit to Athens, an American diplomat inquired whether Prime Minister Konstantinos Karamanlis, a leading statesman who would go on to serve as president of the Hellenic Republic as well, played golf. Karamanlis, who was at that time totally ignorant of the sport, assured him that on his next visit there would be a course for them to play on. This is, as the story goes, how the Glyfada Golf Course came into being in 1962. Karamanlis subsequently became identified with golf in Greece, and is still thought responsible for bringing the game to the public’s attention. A decade later, two other 18-hole courses were completed on Corfu and on Rhodes, and the first golf resort was created at Porto Carras Hotel in Halkidiki, by the prominent businessman and shipping magnate John Carras. Golf course design entered a new stage in the mid-nineties, when architect Spyros Kokotos created a 9-hole course at the Porto Elounda Resort in Crete.
As in most countries, golf in Greece was initially associated with prominent figures from the country’s political and business elite; in fact, the oldest known photo of a Greek playing golf is of the early twentieth-century statesman Eleftherios Venizelos. From the moment Karamanlis started playing at the new course in Glyfada, the number of club members soared, although perhaps not because Greeks suddenly fell in love with the sport, but rather because they wanted to emulate their golf-playing prime minister. In later years, however, the Greek golfing community would view the “Karamanlis effect” as simply reinforcing the stereotypical image of golf as a sport for the elite and the older age groups.
In the new millennium, a new era of golf began in Greece, ushered in by two visionary businessmen – lovers of the sport and close friends, who believed in the prospects for golf tourism in the country, and made it their goal to establish Greece as a premier golf destination by investing in state-of-the-art courses in their respective home regions. These two men were Theodore Vassilakis, Chairman of Aegean Airlines and of the company that set up and runs Crete Golf Club, and Captain Vassilis Constantakopoulos, founder of Costa Navarino.
Golf in Messinia
Captain Vassilis Constantakopoulos began supporting international golf tournaments in Greece in 1999. Soon, he also started working on his dream of promoting Messinia as a year-round golfing destination of international standing, aiming to attract foreign players and to introduce the sport to the local community, whom he hoped would fall in love with it. In 2010 and 2011, the first two 18-hole signature golf courses in Greece – The Dunes Course and The Bay Course, were inaugurated. The captain also founded the Costa Navarino Golf Academy and personally helped select the first group of players, aged 6-15, with the goal of discovering a talent that could become the first world-class Messinian golfer. One of the first success stories of the academy is that of Panagiotis Pantazopoulos, who became the Greek Amateur National Champion of 2016.
The road to success was long and hard, but the list of international accolades awarded to the resorts of Costa Navarino is impressive, and Captain Vassilis Constantakopoulos’ vision acquired even greater scope last year, with the official opening of a new clubhouse and two new 18-hole golf courses at Navarino Hills, designed by Word Golf Hall of Fame member José María Olazábal: The Hills Course and the International Olympic Academy Golf Course. Now one of the rare destinations in the world boasting four signature courses, Messinia is quickly gaining fame and helping to place Greece at the forefront of golf tourism. Meanwhile, the earth-sheltered Bay Clubhouse, a paradigm of bioclimatic architecture and luxury, harmoniously integrates into the surrounding greenery and evokes memories from the early days of Greek golf and those first courses often overrun by nature – albeit this time in an ultra-modern way.