Just like in rock and roll, this story also starts in a hotel room after a few beers. It was 1992 and Tolsten Schilling was working for a television channel setting up television facilities for sports events. His professional life involved travelling around the world, working hard for a couple of days setting up, followed by a lot of free time.
During one trip, Schilling and three colleagues decided to kill some time by playing a game of mini-golf in their hotel. It was the first time they had ever picked up gold clubs and things soon got out of hand. In no time they were taking mighty swings inside their room. The final result: 78 over par and walls peppered with holes. The new variety of golf went down a storm among the crew and the night-time golf matches went on for some time (with the consequent damage to hotel furniture in a number of establishments).
Tired of apologising to hotel managers and reception staff, this easy-going Hamburger with the look of a hardened biker decided to give up his job to dedicate some time to his new hobby, although in a form that caused less damage. His first option, to join a conventional golf club, was immediately rejected. He moved straight to the second: to play in the street.
What started as a few rounds with a group of friends and some beers for company turned into, 20 years later, a Berlin-based community called Natural Born Golfers (NBG) which has more than 200,000 members around the world. Its success has forced Schilling and company to look for new forms of organisation.
Previously, they would announce a location for their Sunday round on Facebook, but “now we can’t do that. One day 200 people turned up and you can’t play with such a crowd. Now we just arrange it among friends, and if they want to bring a few more that’s fine.” Schilling himself takes charge of teaching the basics to beginners (even though he has never taken a class in his life) so that they know how to take a decent swing. “I’m not a professional. In fact I’ve never been on a golf course. I only explain some basic movements and that’s all. If you want to get good, hire a private tutor.”
The attraction seems to lie in the rock-and-roll atmosphere, the underground feel to the sport; or perhaps it is that sensation of doing something where you shouldn’t be doing it. At any rate, people are lining up to join the Berlin NBG club, hankering after the opportunity to hit balls from roof tops and down alleyways to imaginary holes. Aware of the interest from the sport’s followers, every so often the organisation runs large-scale, sponsored events.
They are known as Community Events and, unlike the spontaneous Sunday outings, the organisation is at a higher level. Rooftops are hired, permits requested and 40 participants are drawn from the NBG membership, plus an extra 10 from outside the community. 50 people can take part, not one more or less.
The organisation has a list of 10 top spots in the city for meetings. All are easy to get to, accessible by bike, and with a low number of passers-by. This last attribute is important to avoid lawsuits. “We can’t play in crowded places, but in Berlin there are lots of open spaces with few people around, even in summer. Anyway, if you are playing and someone comes into sight, you stop, wait and then continue.” When there are lots of people around, the use of soft balls is always an option. “We have never had an accident in 22 years.
The most serious thing has been a few broken windows. In fact when people see us with our clubs, they often stop to ask what is going on, and occasionally they even join in.” The group’s success has been phenomenal. Although it is not the only urban golf club in Berlin, it is the oldest and largest. Its powers of organisation are such that often companies will hire its services for private events (they run around 20 a year).
Some of the holes they have created on these occasions are startling and surreal: for example a recreation of a living room, with sofa, table and television, placed on a floating platform on a river; contestants had to try to break the TV screen from the rooftop of a nearby hotel. It took 4 hours for them to succeed.
So what are the rules in a sport that seems to have no constraints? Schilling makes it quite clear: “there are none.” People meet at an arranged place, open the beers, put some music on and have a look for possible targets (a pole, for example).
Then the group goes from target to target, like on a real golf course, following the ball wherever it might fall. “Actually, the aim is to have a good time. We never count the number of strokes. Here nobody is interested in what brand of clothing you wear, or whether you are the best. Who cares about that?”