You don't often get to start the tale of a disc golf course by connecting it to one of the most well-known names in modern history. But the Franz Ferdinand course on the grounds of Konopiště Castle in Czechia has always been something special.
In the last few years of the 13th century, a bishop ordered the construction of a fortress in the town of Benešov. That structure became Konopiště Castle. Throughout the centuries various owners added to and remodeled the building and molded the rolling hills surrounding it into an appealing mix of woodlands and lawns. Particular credit for the area's current state goes to Archduke Franz Ferdinand (the course's namesake), who owned the castle starting in 1887. He ordered the grounds to be turned into a landscape park, which he enjoyed until his 1914 assassination in Bosnia sparked World War I.
Since then, government entities have owned the castle and its massive land holdings. It was also a German SS headquarters for a period in WWII. Today the castle belongs to Czechia's National Heritage Institute and the grounds are cared for by Lesy České republiky, which translates to Forests of the Czech Republic.
How did such a storied property end up as the site for one of the best-known temporary courses in disc golf? It took three things: 1) Getting up the courage to ask, 2) a lot of hard work, and 3) impressing the right people.
How Did Disc Golf First Come to Konopiště?
Přemysl Novák is the Johnny Appleseed of Czech disc golf and the person who first made disc golf at Konopiště a reality. There were few courses in Czechia when he started working with the Finnish course-building company DiscGolfPark to grow the sport in 2010. By 2019, the country had opened its 100th course.
During those years, Přemysl was driving all over the country looking for likely course locations, so he was bound to notice the exquisite grounds around Konopiště Castle. The historic structure is just off the main road connecting Prague and České Budějovice, the capital of South Bohemia and the country's seventh-largest city by population. The property around it is a mix of old trees, elevation changes, and open lawns just perfect for disc golf.
"He saw it and thought, 'Hm, maybe there's a chance to play disc golf in a castle park,'" said Krystof Novák, Přemysl's brother.
Krystof is a disc golfer who runs prodiscgolf.cz, a Czech disc golf retail business started with Přemysl. He was also tournament director of the very successful 2021 European Disc Golf Championships held at Konopiště.
Even experienced course builders can feel nervous cold-contacting local officials about getting disc golf into a typical suburban park. As you might imagine, Přemysl's anxiety level about a place with the history of Konopiště was through the roof.
Eventually, though, the perfection of the site won out over his apprehension.
"A couple months after finding it, he said, 'Screw it, I'm gonna try,'" Krystof recalled.
Přemysl first got in touch with the castle caretakers, and they told him to reach out to Forests of the Czech Republic. He did, and despite his fears, they were open to the idea. They didn't give him free rein, but they said he could build a temporary course for an event as long as he made no big changes to the grounds, e.g., no tree removal, permanent equipment installation, or major earthworks.
This led to the first-ever Konopiště Open in April 2013. Locals loved the chance to play a new course with more room to throw than they were used to, and the venue greatly impressed the few Finns who showed up to play the C-Tier. Coming from a country with relatively few remaining castles (by European standards, at least), they found throwing discs in view of Konopiště's turret a bit surreal.
"Their minds were basically blown," Krystof said.
The Konopiště Open Grows & Franz Gets a Makeover
Though the course layout at that first Konopiště Open was very different from what most disc golf fans would recognize today, the event was a definite success. Decision-makers at the Forests of the Czech Republic were also satisfied with how things went and happy for the competition to return. Those good vibes, along with encouragement from DiscGolfPark, led to an even bigger 2014 Konopiště Open, which was the first disc golf event in Czechia with payouts.
By now, the team behind the Konopiště Open had shown Spin18 (the same company that owns DiscGolfPark and Discmania) that they could reliably organize top-notch events, and the business wanted to help the tournament grow exponentially. The 2015 edition of the competition was set to be part of the Professional Disc Golf Association (PDGA) Euro Tour. In anticipation of that, Spin18 founder Jussi Meresmaa, who also designed the beloved Beast layout at Nokia DiscGolfPark used for the European Open, worked with Přemysl to overhaul the Franz Ferdinand layout.
"The goal was to make it as attractive to the fans as possible," Krystof said. "They wanted people to see all the crazy long shots and to make the course great for media."
But it took more than length to turn Franz Ferdinand Disc Golf Course into something truly special. The design team made use of everything the landscape offered – scattered old trees, thicker woods, frequent elevation change, and a pond – to create a diverse set of holes that forced a wide variety of shots.
They also used artificial out-of-bounds minimally, which allowed players a sense of freedom and fairness. Good shots were rewarded and bad ones were generally punished by brush and low-hanging branches, not an automatic stroke penalty based on which side of an artificial line they landed on.
The atmosphere inherent to the property and the equitable course design generated an experience that cast a spell over nearly every player.
"Whether people play a good round or not, people seem to always leave the course with a smile on their face," Krystof said.
The 2015 Konopiště Open layout has been tweaked here and there, but it's the course blueprint Franz Ferdinand follows to this day each time it's built.
The 2015 event went so well that when Spin18 launched the Disc Golf World Tour (DGWT) the next year, they included the Konopiště Open in the inaugural season. An international competition series, the DGWT expected to draw some of the biggest names in the sport to spots across the globe. Being not far from a major international airport in Prague and in a country where disc golf was on the rise, Konopiště was a clear winner for the tour.
"They felt like it was a good event in a good place with potential to grow the sport," Krystof recalled. "And then they told us they could get Paul McBeth to play, and we said, 'Ok, we will do anything you want!'"
The 2016 competition was a success and produced one of the most exciting pro disc golf finishes of the year or, really, ever (see the next section for details). It also cemented Konopiště and Franz Ferdinand into the minds of pro disc golfers and fans as a venue worthy of the best.
Konopiště's Biggest Disc Golf Moments
Konopiště and the Franz Ferdinand course have produced very notable moments in competitive disc golf history.
2016: Simon Lizotte's Stunning Comeback
The Konopiště Open's first time on the worldwide disc golf stage in 2016 ended with fireworks. With two holes left in the final round, German Simon Lizotte trailed co-leaders KJ Nybo and Paul McBeth by two strokes.
On the par 4 hole 17, Lizotte had an errant drive but had no path to victory other than running the basket for an eagle out of the rough on the edge of the fairway. With what's one of the most unlikely intentional throw-ins at a tournament caught on film other than James Conrad's "Holy Shot," Lizotte threw into the chains from over 200 feet/61 meters away.
But his work was far from done. He was still behind by a stroke going into 18, which he birdied thanks to a very long putt while the former leaders parred. Lizotte went on to win the event in a three-way playoff.
"It was some the most exciting last few holes of disc golf ever," Krystof declared.
You can see the shot and get a bit more of the story in a section of our post "11 Important Disc Golf Shots You Should See."
2018: Eagle McMahon & Eveliina Salonen Win First Majors
In 2018, the Konopiště Open was a PDGA Major, which is the organization's highest event tier. It was the first Major in Europe held south of Denmark and remains the only one so far.
The event's MPO and FPO winners were also historic as neither had claimed a Major title before. In MPO, mega-talent Eagle McMahon dominated the competition and won the division by five strokes in a masterful performance that included two 16-under par rounds. The FPO champion was Finn Eveliina Salonen who eked out a one-stroke victory over Henna Blomroos.
2021: European Disc Golf Championship Host
Though often overlooked outside of Europe, the European Disc Golf Championship is revered by competitors on the continent. The Konopiště Open team was proud to host the event in 2021, and it crowned Niklas Anttila (a name you might recall from the 2022 USDGC) MPO champion and Henna Blomroos FPO champion (this time she topped Salonen).
The Future of Franz Ferdinand Disc Golf Course at Konopiště
The Konopiště Open crew has said due to the amount of time it takes to run an event on the Franz Ferdinand course, they only plan to hold an event every other year. 2023 is one of those years, and this iteration of the tournament will be part of the PDGA Euro Tour, for which registration is now open.
One reason the commitment is so big is that the course has to be built anew for every Konopiště event. That's because the land for the course is never free, and they always have to rent it out to hold a tournament. If they wanted to have the course there permanently, they'd need to perpetually pay rent, which isn't financially viable at this point. Krystof emphasized, however, that the Konopiště Open team has recently started working closely with the Czech Disc Golf Association, which makes the workload and costs associated with the tournament more manageable.
Krystof recalled that someone once told him throwing at Franz Ferdinand was "like playing in a fairy tale," and that sensation of enchantment will resonate with anyone who has experienced the course. And though it would be amazing for Czech and other Central European disc golfers to have it available year-round, it's also an open question whether part of the magic comes from knowing how quickly it will all disappear.