Romania's elderly savior of golf

SUN JOURNAL

Dreamer: Paul Tomita has battled a ruthless Communist dictator and wild boars to keep the sport he loves from dying in his native land.

January 11, 1999|By Toby Smith | Toby Smith,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

PIANU DE JOS, Romania -- Holding a 7-iron on a pretty hilltop in a remote part of Transylvania, Paul Tomita takes a couple of easy practice swings.

Eighty yards away stands a rippling flag. Fifty yards away stand some grazing sheep. "They're here to cut the grass," explains Tomita. "And to provide the fertilizer."

Golf in Romania may sound a bit like polo in Rwanda. Even Tomita, a stout 84-year-old Romanian, with a white mustache and a black pipe stuck in his mouth, acknowledges the incongruity.

"Golf has always been a capitalist game and this is a poor country," he says. "The Communists here tried to get rid of golf. But it didn't really go away."

It didn't disappear because Pavel "Paul" Tomita, master of the Balkan bunkers, refused to let it.

"If anybody has fought to keep golf alive in Romania, it's Paul, such a wonderful character," says Bill Crawford, formerly the commercial attache at the U.S. Embassy in Bucharest. "Golf has been his whole life here. Simply, he loves for other people to love the game."

The culmination of Tomita's love affair is a nine-hole golf course he has built in a section of Romania where residents, were it not for television, might think Tiger Woods to be a forest in India.

Pianu de Jos, 20 miles from Alba Iulia, the ancient capital of Transylvania, and five hours northwest of Bucharest, is a farming community where folks know a lot about grapes but almost nothing about grips.

Tomita's course is scruffy in spots, but its swards of rolling green are bordered by majestic 300-year-old oak trees. Hawks make regular flyovers.

"About 80 percent of the people I meet say I'm crazy to do a course here," says Tomita. "But this isn't crazy. This is my dream and one day people will see that dreams pay off."

In a country with 23 million people, perhaps only a few hundred -- foreign businessmen and embassy staffers, chiefly -- play golf. All of them live in Bucharest.

Paul Tomita used to live there, too. He worked as the head pro, or "antrenor," for 45 years at the Diplomatic Club, a little enclave in the capital city that catered mostly to ambassadors, their families and royalty. Tomita taught all of them to play there, including Romania's King Michael and Queen Helen.

When a monarchy ruled this land, Romania had five golf courses. During World War II, the Germans turned every layout but one into a potato field. Then the Russians arrived and wanted to close the remaining course, the private Diplomatic Club. Paul Tomita fought back. He refused to part with that site, even after the dictator Nicolae Ceausescu whittled the club down to a half-dozen weed-choked holes.

"Ceausescu hated golf," says Tomita as he pauses to relight his pipe and survey a horizon that stretches to the Carpathian Mountains. "The Communists wrecked my course in Bucharest. But as long as I was there, Ceausescu didn't have the courage to touch me, to completely shut me down. He knew I knew all these important diplomats and prime ministers from five continents."

Tomita started as a caddie at the Diplomatic Club, then became assistant professional. In 1938, he went to England and earned a diploma offered by the British Professional Golfers' Association. When he returned to his homeland, the first ever Romanian pro, he awarded himself a title that he enjoys to this day: "profesor de golf."

Never just a teacher but a fine player with three holes-in-one to his credit, Tomita after the war repeatedly attempted to compete in tournaments outside Romania. The Communists refused to grant him a visa. Finally, he got one -- in 1968 -- and took part in a World Cup of Golf event in Italy. By then he was 54 and his legs were wobbly from four years of wartime marching with the Romanian Army. Somehow, he shot par. He played World Cups the next few years with Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player and Lee Trevino.

The only touring pro from eastern Europe, he was short off the tee, but he could pitch and putt with anyone. And he could tell a joke like, well, Trevino.

"Dracula?" Tomita deadpans when asked about the Transylvanian legend. "Scratch golfer."

After rushing around the globe as if to make up for lost time, and teeing off in almost 25 countries, Tomita retired in 1975 to Pianu de Jos, the village where he was born.

"I wanted a place where I could hunt and play golf," he says. "I wanted a peaceful time. I was tired of being followed by the Securitate." The Romanian secret police reportedly had watched him all those years when he lived in Bucharest. He says that even after he moved up here, far away from trouble, the Securitate continued to spy on him. "They had a big file on me."

He came home with this off-beat idea: to teach golf to old farmers and to local kids, to clerks in nearby towns and to foreign businessmen who were beginning to populate the surrounding cities of Sibiu, Cluj and Timisoara. This was his dream.

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