Whatever Happened to Jack Nicklaus' Croatian Golf Course, Approved by PM Sanader?

By 13 June 2018

June 13, 2018 - What happens when the greatest golfer of all time meets not quite the greatest prime minister of all time and they decide to build a golf resort in Croatia?

The year is 2006, and Croatia is in the middle of a new tourism craze - golf. 

It was during my years doing real estate on Hvar, and I remember the craze well. Croatia was going to be transformed into a top golf destination, with 22 courses earmarked for Istria alone, and there was even one for my adopted home of Hvar (I would love to see how they planned to deal with the water issue on that one). And then, in the middle of the craze, in stepped the greatest golfer of all time, the Golden Bear, aka Jack Nicklaus. Arriving in Zagreb where he met and shared a press conference with then Prime Minister Ivo Sanader (there is a picture of the event on the Nicklaus website, although they refused my request to use it, but you can view it here), announcing a signature Jack Nicklaus golf course and resort in Istria. 

The year is 2006. It is worth perhaps reflecting on the media comment of the day, including this, my favourite quote of the moment after 16 years in Croatia - from Hotel


(YouTube screenshot)

Jack Nicklaus Begins Work on Golf Course in Croatia

ZAGREB Croatia, May 19, 2006. Jack Nicklaus' organisation doesn't invest in dud deals. Any wise investor would do well to note where he is building his golf courses.

Nicklaus says "This area is beautiful, and has so much untapped potential...with the combination of the shoreline and the gentle colours of the property, we have a chance to create something special."

And that's not all, because Croatia intends to create a total of 22 gold courses in the country. I can assure you that the investment opportunity created by Nicklaus is only the tip of this hot Mediterranean iceberg.

I think the '22 gold courses' was a typo and it meant to say golf courses, but this is the Balkans, baby, and am sure a little money passed in some direction. 

The golfing legend seemed to be so smitten with Croatia that he was back in December, 2006, this time scouting out some land for a possible second Jack Nicklaus signature course, this time in Dubrovnik. This was going well! Two courses designed by the world's greatest golfer, fully and publicly supported by the Prime Minister. The news was gushing from the official Nicklaus website:

A man who is considered by many people to be the most accomplished golfer of all times, visited Croatia to sign a deal to personally design the 200 million Euros course in Barbariga in Istria. Nicklaus, also known as the Golden Bear, met the Prime Minister and made a sightseeing tour on Brijuni before going back to Florida to his wife Barbara, with whom he has been living in a happy marriage for 46 years.

Nicklaus arrived by private plane in Zagreb on Saturday morning, where he met the Prime Minister Ivo Sanader and held a short press conference. Immediately following the press conference, Nicklaus went to Barbariga to get a firsthand look at the wooded property near the sea that he will transform into a top-level golf course. He also went to the Brijuni Islands, and with all business arrangements and execution of the contract together with the general manager of the company AB Maris.

Days passed, and the days turned into weeks. Those weeks turned into months, and those months turned into years. Some time after those years turned into a decade of inactivity, I came across the project as part of my research into a progress report on the Minister of Tourism's 7-year strategic plan from 2013 - 2020. At the heart of the strategy was our old friend, golf. Seven years after the Nicklaus - Sanader love-in in Zagreb, the heroic Ministry of Tourism decided to put golf fully back on the agenda, with this impressive plan.

The 2020 tourism development strategy foresees the construction of 30 new high-quality golf courses, roughly at the following locations: 14 in the northern Adriatic, 8 in the southern Adriatic, and 8 in continental Croatia.

I reached out to the Jack Nicklaus golf resort company to find out how things were going, as there was almost nothing on the Internet after those brave announcements in May, 2006.  The project was still on the official Nicklaus website, with the project status 'TBD' (to be determined), not that encouraging more than 12 years from the original signing. And, remember, this is no ordinary investor. This was a 200 million euro Porto Mariccio investment (you can check out the whole design here) from the biggest golfing name on the planet, publicly backed by the Prime Minister. Apart from denying my request to use the Sanader photo, here was their helpful reply:

Unfortunately we have not had any communication with the Porto Mariccio project in a number of years and are unable to provide any update for you.

So that - you might think - would be the end of matter. Another international investor who came unstuck in Croatia. 

But then, ten years later, in November, 2016... this!

Uploaded to YouTube on November 18, 2016, under the title 

New project - Luxury Villas and golf resort near Fažana and Peroj

Porto Mariccio seems to have risen again, but with no mention of young Jack:

An elite oasis of perfection, the Vodnjan resort, is planned for construction on 350 hectares of land on the areas of Dragonera and Porto Mariccio, extending along the unspoiled Adriatic coast, near Peroj and Fažana, overlooking the National Park Brijuni islands.

After a little research, I got to a phone number connected to the video and learned that the project was in 'planning phase', and no construction had actually begun. Ah, another lost decade in The Beautiful Croatia.

None of this deters our heroes at the Ministry of Tourism, however. As previously mentioned in my last golf article, The Insanity of Croatia's Golf Tourism Planning - 1. Monty Python Counting, both the hard-working ministry and the national tourist board seemed to have a few problems counting how many golf courses there were in the country after the golf (not gold) rush of 2006 and five years into the Ministry of Tourism's 7-year plan.


(The number of golf courses available in Croatia according to the national tourism website on June 2, 2018)

The Ministry started by asserting that there were two in the whole country, including one in Porec (which does not actually exist), while the national tourism board was boasting of four 18-hole golf courses in Croatia, including one 18-hole golf course which was located in a residential street in central Zagreb. I would like to have seen the Golden Bear tackle that course... 


(One of the world's most challenging golf courses, surely? An 18-hole golf course on a residential street in central Zagreb, as promoted by the Croatian National Tourist Board on June 2, 2018 - now sadly no longer available)

I am not sure what has happened since that recent article of ours, but it seems that Croatia's golf development has gone significantly backwards in the last two weeks. Firstly, the national tourist board moved the 18-hole course to a field near Karlovac, happily promoting a golf course - Dolina Kardinala - which went bankrupt six years ago (see the video below of Dolina Kardinala taken last year), 

Croatia had four 18-hole golf courses two weeks ago, according to the national tourist board, this morning it has only two - not such great news for our heroes at the Ministry of Tourism, who are five years into their 7-year plan to build 30 courses all over the country. I wonder what Tito would think, to discover that the golf course on his beloved Brijuni no longer officially exists. 


(In what must be seen as a blow to the Ministry of Tourism's plans to build 30 new golf courses by 2020, the number of existing golf courses in Croatia has halved to just two in the last 10 days)

All is not lost, however, as you can always rely on the Ministry of Tourism to save the day. Five years into their 7-year plan, where - by their own admission - they have so far managed to hold three workshops and produce a strategy document, leaving things a little tight to construct 30 courses in the final two years - a wonderfully inspirational vision from Assistant Tourism Minister, Robert Pende, in Porec last week (yes, the same Porec where the ministry claims there is an 18-hole golf course which doesn't exist):

Joining the family of golf destinations is imperative for the Croatian tourism industry, because without it Croatia will remain a seasonal tourist destination, the first conference on golf tourism in Croatia said in the northern Adriatic town of Porec.

Assistant Tourism Minister Robert Pende said that Croatia would not be able to increase the accommodation occupancy rate significantly without making progress in the golf segment. He said that a lot had been done to adjust infrastructure as a prerequisite for any serious golf projects, especially on state-owned land.

"With the existing investor interest, I think we have created preconditions for getting several golf projects in the next two to three years," Pende said, noting that Istria County was leading in that regard.

"Golf is additional content which all our competitors have. Croatia is very suitable for the development of golf tourism because of the proximity of outbound travel markets and the possibility of playing golf along the coast all year round. We must seize that opportunity," Pende said.

Can someone tell Jack?

And, as positive as the assistant tourism minister's words were regarding a tourism sector which has been a graveyard for investors, the official verdict on the viability of Croatia as a golfing destination with its 30 courses by 2020, was put in perspective in the next paragraph - this is on the official Ministry of Tourism website, remember, as they push their great golfing strategy forward:

Golf adviser Drazen Slamar said that Croatia, unfortunately, was not a golf destination despite its plan to improve the quality of tourist services and extend the tourist season.

Maybe put that call to Jack on hold and start saving for the 500-million-euro lawsuit from the Israeli investor in the Dubrovnik gold project, the only concrete result from the first five years of Croatia's golfing tourism plan from 2013 - 2020.

This is what happens when you come to invest 200 million in Croatia when you are one of the biggest sporting names on the planet, with the full backing of the Prime Minister. Could you imagine how far you would go if you were just an ordinary foreign investor without full government support?