Sat, Aug 02, 2003 - Page 18 News List

Golf looks for way around old Iron Curtain

BUNKERED With only two golf courses in the whole country, Russia is not at the leading edge of the sport. However, a few pioneers are hoping to change that

MOSCOW , REUTERS

Not so long ago, golf in Russia was regarded as a novelty rather than a serious professional sport.

But that perception has changed in the past few years and Russians have begun to discover the pleasures of the ancient game, which traces its origins back to the Roman Empire.

This month, the Russian Open will become part of the European Tour for the first time and local enthusiasts hope golf will soon catch up with the country's more popular sports.

They point to tennis, also considered a bourgeois sport in the communist Soviet Union but which has flourished since Boris Yeltsin, Russia's first president, picked up a racket just over a decade ago.

Some say golf will become a truly popular sport in Russia only if Yeltsin's successor, Vladimir Putin, a keen sports fan and a judo black belt, takes to the greens.

"It would be a major boost for the game of golf in this country if we could get the president involved," said John Wood, general manager of the Moscow Golf and Country Club (MGCC), one of Russia's two golf courses and venue for the Aug. 14 to 17 Open.

"Imagine, if we could get Putin playing golf with [US President George] Bush -- it would not only raise the game's profile but it would also help to establish better relations between the two nations."

Other golf advocates, however, maintain that first and foremost Russia needs to produce a golfer capable of competing among the world's elite.

"Of course, having the country's leader playing golf would help but it's not necessary to develop the game in Russia," said South African Nigel Roscoe, who spent five years as a teaching professional at the MGCC before returning home last year. "What you need is someone whom Russian kids could look up to as being their sports hero, similar to what [Yevgeny] Kafelnikov has done for tennis."

Ironically, Russian golf officials have turned to Kafelnikov to help boost the image of their sport, electing him to the post of vice-president of the Russian Golf Association (RGA).

The former world No. 1 is an avid golfer with a handicap of six.

"I think being a great athlete himself, Kafelnikov can play a leading role in helping us turn golf into a major sport in this country," said RGA president Konstantin Kozhevnikov.

Kozhevnikov, a former wrestler, has a plan to build 500 golf courses in Russia in the next 15 years.

"When people say it's impossible to cultivate golf here because of long Russian winters, I tell them to look at Sweden," Kozhevnikov said. "They're a northern country just like us, yet they have more than 450 golf courses, while neighboring Finland has about 180."

So far, the world's largest country has only two golf courses, both in or near Moscow. Plans to build a couple more in St Petersburg and central Russia have fallen through.

The first course, with only nine holes, was built in 1989, while the MGCC, in suburban Nakhabino just north of the capital, opened in 1993.

The following year the MGCC began hosting the Russian Open.

Just a decade ago golf was viewed rather differently in Russia.

"Back then people saw golf as nothing more than some sort of curiosity," recalled Alexander Yarunin, one of Russia's golf pioneers.

"We had rich Russians coming in their Mercedes to watch us play and some seriously thought that the greens were for parking rather than for putting. Some even tried to park their cars there," he said.

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