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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Golfing Greats Seeing Green in Russia

There are fewer holes in the country than in a small English county, but golf in Russia is experiencing an unexpected boom.

Golfing greats Jack Nicklaus and Nick Faldo are set to design new courses in Russia, and the country will have its first top-class tournament this summer.

Officials said there are plans for half a dozen more courses around the country.

Nicklaus signed a contract Saturday while at the Masters tournament in Augusta, Georgia, Russian golf officials said.

No details were released as to where and what Nicklaus will design, but Fyodor Gogolev of Golf Digest suggested it might be built near the town of Dmitrov, just north of Moscow. Nicklaus has designed courses all over the world.

"It is the second coming of a legendary golfer," Gogolev said. "The first was the legendary Arnold Palmer, who designed the champions course in Almaty."

Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev is a very good player, he added, with a handicap of 20.

Faldo will design a $15 million, 27-hole course near Sheremetyevo Airport, said Igor Malyshkov, the president of the United Golf Federation, one of the investors in the project. The United Golf Federation is in charge of the golf program for the next 10 years, said Malyshkov, whose father, Vladimir Malyshkov, is a minister in the Moscow city government.

Igor Malyshkov is president of the Moscow City Club, a nine-hole course.

Faldo's course, to be situated on a 64-hectare site, will have a professional 18-hole green and a nine-hole course for the public. Officials said they would eventually have a hotel and a golf village. Construction will take 2 1/2 to three years and the course is expected to make a profit within eight years, Malyshkov said.

Faldo won the tender to design the course out of 13 other designers, including Tom Lehman and Robert Trent Jones Jr., the designer of the much-acclaimed course at the Moscow Country Club, Malyshkov said. Officials chose Faldo based on his program for a golf academy.

Gogolev said he expects Faldo and Nicklaus to be handsomely paid for their work. Jones charges around $1 million to $1.5 million per course, Gogolev said.

The course near Sheremetyevo will be built by the same Swedish company, Feikom, that built the Moscow Country Club's course, Malyshkov said.

The millions of dollars being invested reflect the boom that golf officials say is already sweeping the nation.

"There's enormous interest in the regions even in areas where there are no courses, judging by the letters we receive," Gogolev said.

Last weekend, the U.S. Masters tournament was shown for the first time on Russian television, with sport channel 7TV devoting more than 10 hours to the tournament.

Golf Digest has a circulation of 15,000 throughout the CIS, a remarkable figure for a sport that realistically fewer than 1,500 people play.

Three or four years ago the membership of the Moscow Country Club, the country's only 18-hole course, included a negligible number of Russians. Now the Russian membership is up to 30 percent and growing.

Apart from the planned designer courses, clubs are also earmarked for Tolyatti, the Rostov region and Nizhny Novgorod.

Popularity is growing despite the fact that to play on the country's only 18-hole course you have to have a spare $25,000 a year to play at the club.

"It's expensive because there are few courses," said Albina Byzer, the deputy editor of Golf Style Next, a golf magazine set to be published by Independent Media, the publisher of The Moscow Times. "It'll be cheaper if there are more."

"Golf can help change the mentality of the Russian people. They need golf to help understand people," said Malyshkov, a member of the Moscow Country Club. It is very important for business, and it is very important for the family."

"Everyone has played tennis," Gogolev said, referring to the craze for the sport in former President Boris Yeltsin's times. "And now they are bored. The average businessman needs something new.

"The important thing is that our president takes a swing," he said. "Then we will be OK."

The Russian golf industry will experience an even bigger boost this August when the BMW Russian Open graduates to the European Tour. The tournament, with a prize of $400,000, moves up to the elite level rather than the second tier of the Challenge, meaning Russian fans will see some of the top players.

Still, the top 50 players or so will not take part in the tournament as the Russian Open coincides with the last of the majors of the season, the PGA Championship in the United States.

Golf aficionados can pinpoint the exact day when golf arrived in Russia: April 4, 1988. That was the day the first bulldozer moved in to dig the course for the Moscow City Club, a course designed by Swedish hockey star Sven "Tumba" Johannsson.

Before then Russia and golf met only very tenuously. Tsar Nicholas II's brother, Prince Mikhail, built France's first golf course near Cannes in 1891, Gogolev said. Lenin once played golf, if only in fiction, in English comic novelist P.G. Wodehouse's short story "The Clicking of Cuthbert,'' published in 1922. The story is about a round of golf between a gloomy Russian novelist, Lenin and Trotsky.

"Someone in the crowd tries to assassinate Lenin with a revolver," the novelist wrote. "You know that is our great national sport, trying to assassinate Lenin with revolvers -- and the bang puts Trotsky off his stroke, we win the hole, and I clean up 396,000 rubles, or 15 shillings in your money. Some gameovitch!"