The Golfing World's Underdog Finds Its Stride

MTA golfer working to improve his swing at the indoor driving range in Korean House.
With a grand total of just three courses, Russia is by no means a golfers' paradise. But the good news for frustrated golf lovers is that things are about to get better -- at least according to the United Golf Federation of Russia, or RUSGA.

RUSGA says three new courses are slated to be built in Moscow and St. Petersburg over the next two to three years, with plans for more to follow. Among these is a 27-hole public course to be designed by Nick Faldo near Sheremetyevo Airport, which will also include a junior golf academy.

People involved in the game say these developments cannot come soon enough to satisfy growing demand for golf in Russia. "There are plenty of people who want to play golf," said John Wood, the managing director of the Moscow Country Club, which runs the only 18-hole course in Russia. "In fact, we have had to cap our membership."

There is certainly room for the game to grow. In the United States, for example, there are just shy of 17,000 courses and 10 million active golfers. In Russia, RUSGA estimates there are just 5,000 regular golfers.

For the moment, Russia's golfers live off thin pickings -- the country is ranked last by the European Golf Association for number of courses, with one in St. Petersburg and two in Moscow.

Along with the Country Club, there is only a nine-hole course near Moscow State University and a handful of indoor driving ranges to keep golfers in the capital happy.

Given the lack of facilities, it may come as a surprise that the game has some history here. In the early 20th century, Grand Duke Mikhail Mikhailovich, brother of Tsar Alexander III, became obsessed with the game and headed over to Scotland to play a few rounds.

Legend has it that his caddy (kadi in Russian) -- a man named Big Crawford -- posted the Scottish flag at the 14th hole of a course Mikhail was playing. When the grand duke asked for whom the flag flew, Big Crawford apparently looked down his nose and replied, "A better mon [sic] than you."

The first golf course in Russia did not appear until 1989, through the unlikely source of professional hockey player and Swedish national icon Sven Johansson.

Finding nowhere to play, Johansson decide to lease some land near Moscow State University and build his own course. The result was the Moscow City Club, or Bumba, as Johansson and his course are nicknamed.

Bumba was followed by Le Meridien Moscow Country Club, set up in 1990 by the Foreign Ministry's administration for service to the diplomatic corps in conjunction with Nikko Hotels. The front nine holes opened in 1993 and the back nine a year later.

The club now hosts a handful of tournaments each year, the highlight being the Russian Open, a European PGA tournament that takes place this year on Aug. 8-11. Pam Hosford, the club's PR manager, said six Russians will be competing in the tournament this year, representing real progress since the sport started in Russia. "It has been a slow process of educating people about golf," Hosford said. "The Russians were shocked that you had to dress up to be outdoors, for example."

But the club says the learning curve has not dampened anyone's ardor.

"One can see how important golf is to Russia by the number of people interested in the game," said Yiannis Tsioukanis, a professional at the club.

Where to Tee Off
Korean House
Indoor driving range. 26 Volgogradsky Prospekt, Bldg. 1, Metro Volgogradsky Prospekt. Tel. 270-1300/9070
Le Meridian Moscow Country Club,
18-hole golf course, mini golf, indoor golf simulators. 1 Nakhabino, Moscow region, Tel. 926-5924/19/11,
Moscow City Golf Club
9-hole golf course, mini golf, indoor golf simulators, 1 Ulitsa Dovzhenko, Metro Kievskaya, Tel. 147-8330/6444,
Golf simulator. 21 Novy Arbat, Bldg. 1, Metro Arbatskaya, Tel. 291-1170,
Golf Dome
Indoor driving range. 22 Starokachalovskaya Ulitsa, North Butovo, Metro Annino.

While this may be true, it is also clear that golf is beyond the financial means of most Russians. The cost of a round at the Country Club is $130 on the weekends, more than most people's monthly salary. But Wood says the costs are necessary and not designed to exclude anyone from the game.

"Golf anywhere is not cheap," he said. "But most courses have 12 months in which to cover the high costs of running a golf course, whereas we only have six. It's not cheap to play what many people consider one of the top 70 courses in the world."

The City Club also admits that golf, financially speaking, is not for everyone. "Of course, we cannot expect golf to become a popular entertainment for ordinary people," said Dmitry Kozhemyakin, a professional at the club.

Both clubs are open to nonmembers and rounds need to be booked at least one or two days in advance.

A round at the City Club costs 650 rubles before 3:30 p.m. and 1,300 rubles afterward, including a bucket of balls with which to practice on the driving range. A round at the Country Club is priced at $75 during the week, $90 on Fridays and $130 on the weekend.

While both places rent clubs for about $30, they do not rent golf shoes, which, along with a collared shirt and slacks, are necessary to play the courses.

As well as the two full-fledged courses, Moscow has some less weather-sensitive options for golf addicts.

The Korea House has an indoor driving range ($10 per day on weekdays, $20 at weekends), while Sportland has a golf simulator (800 rubles per hour).

The most recent addition to the Moscow's golfing scene is a "golf dome" in the North Butovo district in the south of the city, described as the biggest indoor range in Europe. While the official opening is not until the first week of September, it is already up and running.