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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

PGA Hopefuls Set Sights on BMW Russian Open

It would take a hurricane to stop players from teeing off at Russia's top golf tournament on Thursday.

Preparations for the BMW Russian Open have proceeded at a furious pace for the past two months at Le Meridien Moscow Country Club and on its well-appointed course in particular, which opens out among the trees near Nakhabino to the west of Moscow like a mirage to golf devotees.

Needless to say, the furious wind storm that wreaked havoc in the capital last Tuesday was an organizer's worst nightmare.

"Everyone is involved — engineers, technicians, green keepers. … We lost 60 trees, but the guys worked from five in the morning through to eight at night to put us back in line with PGA course requirements," said Nigel Roscoe, golf director at the Moscow Country Club.

The four-day Russian Open established itself as a professional international tournament when it was invited to join the PGA European Challenge Tour in 1996.

BMW Russland took on title sponsorship two years ago.

The Challenge Tour is a crucial starting point for professional golfers. By accruing points and prize money, players have a chance to qualify for the main PGA European Tour and vie with the big names for their place in the golfing firmament.

Golf is gaining ground locally, and organizers say it's only a matter of time before the PGA European Tour itself comes to Russia.

"This has always been planned … nothing has been decided finally, but it could realistically happen in the next three to four years," Roscoe said.

Denis Zherebko, president of the Russian PGA is enthusiastic about the forthcoming competition.

The Russian Open "is of considerable significance, especially for professionals — it really gives them something to aim for," he said.

But while he acknowledges that hosting the European Open is a possibility, Zherebko said, "It's all a question of money."

Additional facilities would have to be provided to cope with the flood of spectators and media that such an event entails.

On Wednesday, the proceedings will be launched with a Pro-Am competition sponsored by Mild Seven. Twenty-two teams each comprising one top-ranked PGA Challenge Tour professional and three amateurs will compete in a four-ball alliance stableford with a shotgun start at 11 a.m.

The Russian Open itself begins in earnest Thursday, with players battling it out until Sunday evening.

More than 150 professional and amateur golfers from all over the world are slated to lock horns for their slice of the $150,000 prize fund. First prize is set at ?16,407 ($23,390).

The competition has produced some thrilling golf in the past. In the 1999 BMW Russian Open, Niels Kraay of Holland made a hole-in-one to win a 523I BMW worth $75,000, and last year, a new course record of 19 under par was set by Italian Marco Bernardini.

Upping the ante among the sponsors this year, Mild Seven has increased its major sponsor hole-in-one prize to $100,000 on hole four (162 meters).

And if any of the competitors manage a hole-in-one on No. 8 (180 meters), they can expect to cruise from the club's gates on Sunday evening in a 525I BMW provided by the Title Sponsor.

The line-up includes Russian professionals Konstantin Lafanov and Alexei Matrosov as well as rising star 17-year-old Grigory Bondarenko, who is considered the one to look out for this year.

Roscoe is upbeat about the home-grown talent's chances on the course and, with a mystery prize for the best Russian player to be unveiled at Wednesday's opening news conference by associate sponsor Aton Capital, local players have plenty of incentive to perform their best.

"It's hard for players to make such a sudden transition coming out of the Soviet era, but I'd say, in a few years, they will be competing at their best," Roscoe said.

As well as the Russian Open, which has been held at the Moscow Country Club since 1993, the club plays host to the President's Cup, a charity tournament held on Children's Day in June.

For Roscoe, who hails from Johannesburg, South Africa, and first came to Russia in 1996, this year's Russian Open will be the last he organizes at the Moscow Country Club.

A few days after the competitors leave, Roscoe flies home to take up a new position with a major South African club as marketing and sales coordinator.

While he feels satisfied with the achievements made during his tenure, including the installation of a new IT system, parting clearly won't be easy.

"I've made a tremendous amount of friends here — we have gone forward in leaps and bounds," he said. "I'm leaving with a sore heart."