Michaela Bakala’s interview with Golf Digest C&S magazine was published on September 15, 2022. With the permission of the editors, we are publishing it in full. It’s online version is available here.
Author: Robin Drahonovsky, Photo: Dominik Broulík
I PLAY GOLF TO MEDITATE
I consider the time I find for golf a special gift
HARBOUR TOWN Golf Links is one of the most famous golf courses in South Carolina. It’s not to be missed – the PGA Tour plays one of its tournaments here regularly. The winner of the RBC Heritage wears the traditional red plaid jacket, with the legendary Pete Dye and Jack Nicklaus behind the course’s great design. And it’s not just the water you should be afraid of, but also the alligators that occasionally stroll the fairways. “It takes calm and a little bit of courage,” says businesswoman and philanthropist MICHAELA BAKALA, who lives near Harbour Town and is right at home on the course. She prefers to golf alone in the evenings, to meditate, and find strength for her charitable endeavors worldwide.
What was it about the Harbour Town course that attracted you?
It is both a sporting and a heartfelt affair and a daily challenge for me. It’s one of the first playgrounds that really excited me and made me happy. It took me a few years to master it. I had a lot of respect for it from the beginning, and I still do. It may not look like it at first glance, but it is very technically demanding. Rumor has it that even Tiger Woods skipped this tournament because of its technical difficulty.
What’s so hard about it?
Well, the fairways are very narrow, set among mature oaks and pines, and the greens are very fast and relatively small. So, when the wind picks up, everyone has to do their best to keep the ball in play and not lose a lot of shots in the trees, the bunkers, or the water.
And you, how do you deal with it?
I guess I’ve made friends with it; it’s my home course now. I really like it, and I’m flattered – I’ve been playing it quite well lately for my standards. I can play 18 holes in two hours. (laughs)
What does golf mean to you?
It’s not only a sport for me, but it’s also a way to relax. I fell into it because of its beauty, rules, environment, people, and everything that goes with golf. My golf philosophy is actually the same as my life philosophy: it’s a simple game, in a way—one where you just keep your head down and play straight. To me, playing with your head down means humility, and playing straight means not only direction but also honesty. And that always counts.
What else do you like about golf?
It’s a sport where I can play against myself in the beautiful countryside. Maybe it’s my nature – I enjoy setting my own goals. That’s probably why I’m not a good teammate in tournaments; I sometimes lose my temper and feel ashamed of my game. But when I play for myself or with close friends, I can occasionally hit the ball. (laughs)
What do you think about when you are alone on the court?
Occasionally, I think too much when I’m golfing. I’m thinking about the kids, work, or our upcoming plans and activities. Sometimes I’m angry at myself on the course; sometimes, I cry. Like every person, I have my joys and sorrows that go through my mind. But you know what’s interesting? It’s improved my game. Maybe it’s because I wasn’t thinking so hard about playing. Otherwise, I also use my time on the field to meditate.
Yes, we have four kids at home, many people constantly surround me, and my daily decisions affect many other people and things. So for me, golf offers a kind of rest and relaxation where I don’t have to talk to anyone. I can even mumble to myself or swear in my head. The Harbour Town course has beautiful scenery. That’s why I prefer to play in the evening when everything starts to wake up again after a hot day and look for dinner. You can watch turtles, and many species of birds, including eagles, or alligators, right from the fairway while watching a beautiful sunset. At that moment, you’ll say to yourself; there’s nothing more beautiful in life. So, I consider the time I find for golf a special gift—a lovely hour or two all to myself.
You mention important decisions. Do they also revolve around your philanthropic activities supporting talented students? How difficult is it to select candidates for support?
It is both a challenging and positive experience. Our Scholarship program has been running for 13 years and, in that time, has helped nearly two hundred students achieve their dream of a top-notch study abroad experience. Each has to undergo a rigorous selection process in which their abilities and motivation are judged by an independent panel of academics and successful professionals from various disciplines. Every year I attend the final interviews, participate in the preparation, the process, and the evaluation, and enjoy talking to the students. It is inspiring to see their successes and their future path in life. Most of our graduates stay in touch not only with us but also with each other. They are active, help the next generation, and bring back to society the experience they have gained abroad. Figuratively, but also factually, we are helping change the lives of young people and thus positively impact the future of the Czech Republic for all of us.
You say your activities include promoting the role of women in society. What do you mean by that?
Life has repeatedly put me in a position where I’ve had the opportunity to speak to the public, and I’ve realized I can make a difference. I have met many impressive women and gained valuable experience in many different fields – business, modeling, as a beauty pageant director, politics, the media, and philanthropy. Then also, in my personal life, I am a mother of four children and a wife in my own right. Meanwhile, I also have experience and comparisons with lifestyles from various countries abroad.
Therefore, from my position as patron of the Hospodářské noviny Top Women of the Czech Republic poll and with all these perspectives, I try to help women and men understand that our roles should be balanced and appreciated as a partnership. Having the courage to talk about unresolved societal issues and show positive examples of progress is my goal and purpose in life. I firmly believe, and there are many statistics to prove it, that companies and countries with a strong representation of women in management perform better, and not just economically. The examples of the award-winning ladies in our survey prove that women are rightly associated with empathy, collaboration, and the ability to connect. I am certainly not alone in feeling the need for all of this at literally every turn lately. Therefore, I say with confidence that “the future is feminine.”
You also serve on the board of the Václav Havel Library – what specifically does your work involve?
The development of a democratic society is one of the main themes of our family philanthropy, alongside support for education. For this reason, my husband Zdeněk and I have supported the Václav Havel Library since its inception. Thanks to the Library, we have spread the legacy not only of Václav Havel, our friend, but also of a whole generation of his fellow workers contributing to the creation of our modern democracy.
I certainly do not take freedom and democracy for granted; they require constant nurturing. But unfortunately, not everyone understands it that way today. That is why we are striving to keep Václav Havel’s legacy alive and to allow the younger generation to learn about his views on democratic values and modern history. For example, his Library, which today is a living institution, organizes many events across generations, both in the Czech Republic and abroad. My role is that of a supporter, sponsor, advisor, and sometimes a communicator, a member of the board of directors. It is a role I approach with respect, humility, and gratitude.
We should also mention the Frederick W. de Klerk Foundation in South Africa or the Aspen Institute Central Europe. What do these projects do?
I have been seriously interested in politics, society, and the world’s workings all my life. I like to help find ways to preserve democracy and freedom, increase education and help the state function effectively. To do so also involves trying to educate and support young leaders. So, naturally, these initiatives intersect with the activities of the Aspen Institute Central Europe. But Aspen’s support for us is also linked to our advocacy of the values of Western civilization and our emphasis on Euro-Atlantic ties as they pertain to economic cooperation and security support. Despite years of criticism, many are now recognizing these ties as critical due to the war in Ukraine.
We have been returning to South Africa regularly for years – we have found friends and the opportunity to get involved in life there. I see many parallels there. South Africa also underwent a revolution thirty years ago and had to re-establish democratic principles. Thanks to Nelson Mandela and his people, as well as the former President de Klerk, it has come a long and successful way. They have shown the world that building a democratic, prosperous, united country is possible, and their modern constitution, adopted in 1996, can be a model for many other countries.
We were close to President de Klerk regarding life values and attitudes. Therefore, we support his foundation’s activities, which seek to develop democracy in South Africa and to support and promote the South African constitution, with the same commitment as the Václav Havel Library. The Foundation fosters unity in diversity, supports charities that care for disabled and disadvantaged children, and spreads information about the legacy of the presidency of de Klerk and Nelson Mandela. We need to prevent the return of racism, totalitarianism, nationalism, and populism not only in South Africa today but also in the world. Our efforts do not end.
I’m slowly beginning to understand why you go golfing alone, meditate, and only find two hours for it. But where do you find the time for everything?
If you want to, everything works out. I have the support of my husband and my children. Our children are also growing up to be golfers and enthusiastically joining in. My elder son is already giving me advice and is fast approaching a single handicap.
And what gives you the most strength?
Friends, family, nature, music, literature, sports. Faith in goodness, in human wisdom. Faith that our existence and everything around us makes sense in the end. We’re just a small part of it. And that it’s demonstrably better to try to be good than to serve evil or our own benefit.
Can you tell us your immediate plans for the future?
I’ve been accepted to a master’s program at The Wright Institute in Berkeley, California. I’m going to be a psychology student.
What is your dream in life?
To live life to the fullest with family and friends and do meaningful work.