You would think a 9 1/2-hour flight from New York to Moscow would afford ample opportunity to come to grips with the basics of Russian language and history. My fellow comrades, you would be well advised to think again.
Somewhere over the Atlantic, after interminable hours grappling with the Cyrillic alphabet and the endless trail of renegade Romanovs, czars, commissars and other assorted autocrats--including those hilarious interlopers, the first, second and third false Dmitris--I gave up and ordered a vodka.
The trip had not begun well. The woman at the JFK check-in desk had looked at me in a disturbing way and asked: "Why on earth would you be taking golf clubs to Moscow?"
It was a good question. It had seemed like such a fine idea at the time--to go to Russia and attempt to become the national champion of the world's biggest country. But now that I was actually headed for the former Soviet Union, I was struck by the same thoughts that occurred to Anna Karenina moments before she flung herself under a train: "Where am I? What am I doing? Why?"
In the same way that the dollar looks stronger than usual when compared to the woebegone ruble, I had hoped that my weak fade and intermittent 8-handicap would seem majestic alongside the flounderings of a handful of beginners called Vladimir. Russians make good cosmonauts, gymnasts, chess players and totalitarians, certainly, but golfers?
The vodka tasted bad. Eventually, it would taste good.
It's everyone's dream to be a national champion. The U.S. Amateur was well beyond my means, since my handicap was six strokes too high even to enter sectional qualifying. The British Amateur wasn't any better. Even the Finnish (handicap limit 4), Slovenian (6) and Czech (7) championships were out of reach. Last year, however, in the spirit of glasnost, for the first time the Russian Amateur Championship was opened to outsiders, and the handicap limit was set at 10.
And so it was that, armed with three words of Russian--"yes," "no" and "vodka"--a set of clubs in dire need of new grips, and a wellspring of completely unfounded optimism, I set off to conquer 11 percent of the earth's surface.
Of course, as I was to discover, there are Russian golfers now, and much else besides. Moscow today is very different from the place we used to see only once a year, in May, on bad TV, when the annual parade of tanks rolled through Red Square beneath a sinister cabal of grim-faced politburo heavies. In the past decade, the Iron Curtain has been abruptly swept aside. Kids in knockoff Nikes chow down on "BigMaks" in one of the city's 26 McDonald's, and shoot open-air pool in Manezh Square to the sound of Mariah Carey. Joseph Stalin's daughter and Nikita Khruschev's son are both American citizens. Missile factories that used to make warheads intended to wipe out capitalism now make golf clubheads for export to America. In small but ever-increasing numbers, there are Russians learning to pivot, pitch and putt, trying like the rest of us to do the right thing.
The ride from the airport to the Moscow Country Club takes about half an hour if there are no delays, but there will be, and the route will be lined with clapped-out cars, their owners hunched under the hood. We passed, too, an unending stream of massive, Soviet-era apartment blocks, thousands of them seemingly strewn at random, gulag architecture at its worst. Those commies really loved their concrete.
At the club, the first person I met, aside from a few AK47-toting security guards at the gate, was Nigel Roscoe, the ebullient director of golf with a Marx mustache (Groucho, not Karl), a golf emissary who came to Moscow from South Africa three years earlier to teach Russians how to play. He had to explain that golf balls weren't meant to be chewed, and that bunkers weren't meant for picnics. (He likes a challenge: Previously, he was the pro at a course inside the walls of Leeuwkop prison in Johannesburg--the greenstaff were all inmates.)
Roscoe took me for a spin around the course in a golf cart, which provided momentary relief from the unfathomable heat. As we waited under a tree for a nearby group to hit shots, I asked him about life in Moscow.
"Look, it's been difficult; it's been hard," he said. "I've got a wife and kids in South Africa. But it's also exciting. It's completely different out here."
It was hard to believe we were just 20 miles from the Kremlin. The course looked majestic, each hole weaving through a forest of white birch and pine. Its origins lie with the late billionaire businessman Armand Hammer, a former friend of Lenin and son of a founding member of the American Communist Party. One day in 1974, Hammer suggested to Leonid Brezhnev--whom he described as "a man of great humanism and warmth"--that what Russia really needed was a golf course. Build it, he told the president, and Western businessmen will come.
Hammer, Robert Trent Jones and his son Trent Jones Jr. traveled to Moscow to present their plans and inspect sites. But in the stagnant years of Brezhnev's reign, little progress was made. There were many delays, including Brezhnev's invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. Jones Jr. finally signed a contract with the Russian Foreign Ministry in 1986, and the course opened seven years later.
Of the 550 current members--memberships start at $28,000--about 70 are Russians. There's also a thriving golf academy of juniors. In a country of 148 million people, there are probably fewer than 300 Russian golfers.
Back at the clubhouse, I examined the start sheet. There were 84 entrants in the men's division: 50 Russians, 11 Czechs, 4 Germans, 4 Latvians, 3 Americans, 3 Dutch, 2 Brits, 2 Japanese, 2 Koreans, an Indian, a Swede and a Swiss. The lowest handicap was 3.
I'd heard that people who win golf tournaments often practice beforehand, so I got a big bucket of balls and took them to the well-appointed range. A serious-looking Russian girl with a long blond ponytail was methodically whacking balls into the middle distance. She'd been there all day. I showed Nigel my swing, and asked him if he thought I had what it takes to become the Russian Amateur champion.
"No," he said.
You may say he's a dreamer. But he's not the only one.
"In 10 years time there will be a Russian pro competitive enough to win in Europe or the U.S.," says the man. "We think that's a very realistic goal."
The man is Alexander Yarunin, general secretary of the fledgling Russian Golf Association and the de facto commissar of the tournament. He tells you this at a Friday afternoon press conference. Four people are giving the press conference; five are receiving it.
Interest in the event was so strong, says Alexander, that the handicap limit was raised from 10 to 28 to allow more people to participate. We were shown the brand-new trophy. I tried not to, but I couldn't help picturing it on my desk at home. After a few more speeches, including the announcement of the launch of Russia's first official handicap scheme, we were each given a copy of the first-ever Rules of Golf in Russian.
Alexander used to be in "diplomacy," in Mozambique, Brazzaville and Congo. He took up the game four years ago. Now he has an 18-handicap. His pet project is to try to get a truly public, municipal course built in Moscow. Three sites have been looked at. An account has been opened and is welcoming donations. "The Moscow government has been very favorable," he says. "But they want to see the money, to see if we are credible. We are optimistic. We expect a big boom in golf here in 2001, 2002."
Back on the range, I met one of the club's assistant pros, Andrei Chere- vatenko. His best score is a 72. I asked him how many Russian golf profession- als there are. He counted them on his fingers: eight. I asked him if golf could become popular in Russia. He frowned.
"It depend on the economic," he said. "On the government. Maybe, yes."
1. Future star Grigory Bondarenko. 2. Moscow Country Club. 3. Open-air pool in Manezh Square. 4. "BigMaks" and fries for sale for the chosen few. 5. The omni-present Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, father of the revolution. 6. Russian golf fashion.
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On Friday night I went to a party in one of the dachas that are clustered together in the woods beside the ninth fairway (Trent Jones Jr. calls them "dachaminums"). They rent for $120,000 a year. There is a waiting list. The party's host was a charming fellow called Andrei, who works in "banking."
The air was thick with eastern bloc testosterone. A burly, bald man with a big mustache approached the table bearing three giant skewers of barbecued sturgeon. "It is here the good life in Russia, no?" he said.
Some of the golfers in the tournament are known as New Russians. There are several jokes about them. Two New Russians are having a conversation, and one of them says: "What do you think of my new tie? It cost me a thousand dollars." And the other one says: "Oh that's too bad. I know a place where you could have gotten it for two thousand.
In the frantic, chaotic blur between communism and unrestrained capitalism, a few well-connected Russians snapped up formerly state-owned industries for bargain-basement prices. A lot of them literally have more money than they know what to do with. There are only so many cars worth buying; only so many expensive European resorts to waste one's days in; only so many mistresses to be kept in fancy downtown apartments. Some of these robber barons took up golf.
My sturgeon-bearing friend was holding court beside the grill. He had just returned from a trip to London. "My wife, she buy half of Harrods," he said. Until he discovered the joys of a free market, he was a career KGB agent.
Much later, back at the hotel, I tried to find some highlights of the British Open on TV. There weren't any. But I did find an interview in English with the editor of the Russian edition of Vogue. she talked about her grandmother, who spent 17 years incarcerated in a gulag for the crime of being an artist. "A lot of people here carry a lot of pain," she said. "But we do not speak of it."
Saturday. The first round. The players were being announced on the first tee by a man with a microphone. The tee markers were all the way back. I was joined by my three playing companions--two Czechs and a Brit by the name of Chris--and by something else too: an unwelcome visitor called fear.
I began my attack on the Russian Amateur by foozling the ball off the tee and into a nearby bush. Amateur hour. A few holes later, however, I started to enjoy the day. It is a wonderful course. And it's the only time I've ever seen a beverage cart stocked with vodka and driven by a man in a tuxedo.
Chris, who works in "securities," was noodling along quite well until we came to the fifth, a devilish par 5 where water must be crossed three times. Chris didn't make it over the water. A lot. He made a 13. The silence as we walked to the next tee was dreadful. One of the Czechs patted him on the back and said: "This can happen to anyone." Chris took the calamity well. Doing business in Russia, you get used to sudden fluctuations in fortune.
But alas, his troubles weren't over. At the 11th, the shortest hole on the course, he made a 14. A lot of raking was involved.
His summation of the situation was thoughtful. "Bollocks," he said.
The day was hot and slow. Too many strokes leaked away. I shot 89, and felt like I'd done time in the salt mines. But I had a 20-shot lead on Chris, who astonishingly was not in last place--he was ahead of 11 people, including a fellow from St. Petersburg who recorded a heroic 132.
A more tedious person might have retreated to his room after such an ordeal, or worse, the range, but Chris had a better idea: "Let's go have a beer."
We joined the other idle bourgeoisie on the veranda. Chris entertained the crowd with his gory details. An American fellow called Bill, who works for a cigarette company, was describing life as an expat in Moscow. "The Russians are the most hospitable people in the world," he said, and having lived everywhere in the world, he should know.
Bill's wife, Anne, the only Australian in the field and the only non-Russian in the 16-strong women's division, had played with the two star Russian girls. Svetlana Afanasieva had shot a three-under-par 69 that included an eagle on a tough par 4. But the ponytailed blonde who had spent all of the previous day hitting balls, Maria Kostina, was not so happy. With her father caddieing for her, videotaping every shot, and dispensing advice at every turn, she had managed to shoot 75, but was inconsolable. She left the course in tears.
"It's the nature of this country," said Anne. "You have to be good at whatever you do."
Later that evening, the tranquil, pine-fresh air was pierced by a sudden outbreak of shrieks and cheers. It was those crazy Czechs. An impromptu chipping contest had erupted from the foot of the clubhouse steps to the ninth green. It seemed to be part of a tournament within a tournament that was going on between the 11-strong Czech contingent and a Russian team, which confusingly consisted of several players who weren't Russian. The tournament also involved plenty of drinking and good-natured banter about 1968. Rumor had it that one side won, but no one seemed to know for sure.
There was a prize-giving party for the two teams. Everyone got a prize. The baldest golfer award, a bowling ball, went to an American called Greg, a wheeler-dealer who lives in Moscow and has a splendid, perfect head of Art Garfunkel hair. The low-gross Czech got not a green jacket but a full Russian commissar's uniform complete with gold braid and pips, which he immediately donned and paraded round the room. More high fives. More drinks.
It doesn't matter where you're from. Viewed through the lens of golf, it's obvious that we are none of us so very different, after all.
Sunday morning. The field for the final day had shrunk considerably. There was no halfway cut, but there were a lot of no-shows. Chris commendably made his early-morning tee time despite a rough night largely conducted in a nightclub in the bowels of the hotel.
My miserable round the day before meant I was paired with three other high-80s shooters: two Russians and a Czech. One of the Russians, Artum, has a doctorate in history and his own medical-supplies business--"in Russia they don't like academic, so you must be businessman"--and was clearly a very smart fellow. He also had a Zen-like calm on the golf course. His bad shots seemed to provide him with small moments of private amusement. I asked him how he came to take up the game.
"I had a friend in Cincinnati, and I go see him," he said. "We were driving around, he was showing us the city, and then he say, 'You want to see my golf club?' So we drive into this place, and it is Jack Nicklaus' course, Kings Island. so we go to the clubhouse, and Jack Nicklaus is there!"
After shaking hands with the golfer of the century, Artum was a convert. When he got back to Moscow, he got some clubs and started hitting balls.
With a free market comes, ineluctably, slow play. You couldn't help thinking that if Stalin had been running the tournament, the pace of play might have been better. The front nine took almost three hours. You could have read a lot of The Brothers Karamazov during the waits between shots.
I was playing OK, but then it all started to catch up with me. The jet lag, the vodka, the sturgeon. I dropped 10 shots in the last six holes for an 88.
I finished 28th. My performance didn't earn me an invitation to the Masters, nor a call from the White House. There were no agents hovering by the 18th green waiting to shake my hand.
I came to Russia hoping to play like Ivan the Great; instead, I played like Ivan the Terrible. In a foreign country, it's easy to pretend to be someone different, to imagine yourself in a better, brighter incarnation. But there's no escape. Wherever you go, there you are.
The hopes of the Russian Golf Federation are piled onto 15-year-old Grigory Bondarenko. Grigory shot 72, 74 to win the tournament by three. Will he be a future star, or just another false Dmitri?
"I am still young," said Grigory. "I want to enjoy. I want first to see how good I am."
"He only took up golf three years ago," said his mother, Elena. "Last year here, he score 90, 87."
Svetlana, too, was all smiles, having held off Maria to win by two. At the prizegiving, free champagne was given out to everyone, including spectators. Alexander was beaming. "Next year we will be even better," he said. "Lower scores. More good players. You'll see."
The closing $60-a-head barbecue was a subdued affair. Even the Czechs had had enough. They sipped at Cokes with an air of resignation.
Later, to get some air, I wandered back to the golf course. The parking lot was deserted. There is no emptier place than one which a few hours earlier had been the scene of so much human activity and drama. But I wasn't entirely alone: There in the practice bunker was young Uliana Rotmistrova, who finished third in the women's division. In the failing light of dusk, she took the club back, cut the blade through the sand, and the ball popped up onto the green in a perfect arc. Then she did it again. And again. She would be there until it was too dark to see.
Russia is a transient nation. Every day it grapples with its newfound democracy and an ever-revolving door of prime ministers. When the snow melts this spring, there'll be a whole new cast of characters who will come to sit on the veranda at the Moscow Country Club and seek a few hours respite from the turbulent waters of this brave new world. Chris got posted to Milan in the fall. Bill and Anne were sent to Jamaica. And Nigel returned to South Africa--his wife told him he could either come home for good, or not come home at all.
But Uliana and her growing army of friends will be there. They'll head confidently to the range, their heads full of swing thoughts, their hearts full of dreams.
Moscow Country Club is as much a reflection of Russia as, say, the piano bar at the Waldorf-Astoria is a reflection of America. So the day after the tournament I took a cab to the Intourist Hotel in downtown Moscow, a five-minute walk from Red Square.
The lobby of the Intourist is full of interesting people. A security guard stands at the door. To visit the Chinese restaurant inside the hotel you must walk through a metal detector. Demand for prostitutes appears to be high, but even so the demand is exceeded by the seemingly inexhaustible supply--clusters of women with hollow eyes huddle in dark corners, consoling themselves with cigarettes, lipstick and gossip.
Before I left the U.S., my Russian friend Osman told me a bomb had gone off in the Intourist just a month earlier. "It was mafia," he said. "Just trying to scare some people." I had also called up the State Department Web site and read the following helpful advice: "Crime against foreigners is a problem, especially in major cities. Pickpocketings, assaults and robberies occur frequently and at any time or place."
It is true that the coffee is bad, the traffic murderous, and the concept of service with a smile, or even service, hasn't quite caught on yet. And it is the law for all Russians to smoke in all public places at all times, or so it seems. But otherwise, this is a wonderful, vibrant, place to be. You can keep April in Paris.
The big must-see sights, of course, are mostly in and around Red Square, dominated at one end by St. Basil's Cathedral, Moscow's beacon, stirring twists of color in a city that is otherwise remembered so much in black and white. In the middle of the square, against the walls of the Kremlin, is the Lenin mausoleum, which houses the embalmed body of the father of the revolution himself. With his luminescent skin, wretched, shriveled ears and browning fingers, it's a monstrous sight. It's not clear how much of what's there is really Lenin anymore, but it's still hard to take your eyes off him. There's a plan to bury the old Bolshevik and finally let him rest in peace.
My enduring image of Russia, however, was a bent-over babushka in a pool of shade beneath St. Basil's, her body ravaged from a lifetime of deprivation. The scars of the hammer and sickle. the end of communism had done no favors for her, either, nor yet for most Russians. she held out a weathered hand, and I gave her all the change in my pocket--a meager collection of practically worthless rubles. The woman looked up at me, then took my hands and kissed them; a simple, wordless, heartbreaking benediction.
On an overcast afternoon, I took a short ride through the suburbs to meet up with Alexander and Anne for a round at Moscow's other golf course, the nation's first. It's called Moscow City Golf Club, but everyone refers to it as "Tumba."
Sven Tumba, the former Swedish hockey star, became a household name in Russia in 1957 when he led Sweden to the world hockey championship at an outdoor rink in Moscow.
Tumba was a pioneer in bringing golf to his own country. A decade later, helped by the Moscow Sports Committee and backing from Finland, he brought golf to Russia. The nine-hole course opened in 1989. On the walls are photographs showing the honorary members who gathered for the ribbon cutting: noted nongolfers like Pele, Mike Tyson and a jowly Boris Yeltsin.
Tumba is built on a pocket-size parcel of land, ringed by looming, drab apartment buildings, on what was once the biggest garbage dump in the city. It's probably the toughest, quirkiest 2,537 yards of golf on the planet. We putted out on the fiendish island-green ninth hole, then sat on the terrace drinking tea poured from a samovar.
A pro was teaching a group of toddlers the rudiments of putting. Tiny boys and girls with perfect swings lined up along the range. There's a big white shed beside the third tee, where golf is played during the long winter months--there are practice nets inside, and a little chipping course.
In the words of Winston Churchill: "these people will never be beaten."
On my last night in Russia, I was taken out to dinner by Alexander and Fedor Gogolev, the editor of GOLF DIGEST Russia. We went to a place whose enviable name--and address--is One Red Square, a restaurant inside the State Historical Museum.
The conversation turned to John Kennedy Jr., whose plane had dived into the sea a few days earlier. "It was maybe the fourth or fifth item on the news," said Alexander. "People here do not really know who he was. And besides, we have plenty of news of our own."
They surely do. They always have. I wanted to talk about the difference be- tween our lives. I wanted to know what it was like growing up in a country that has witnessed so much spoliation--26 million killed in World War II, more than all the other European countries put together; Stalin's reign of terror, the arrests, the show trials, the mass executions; the unending landscape of poverty. But I didn't. We do not speak of it. So we talk golf instead.
The food was a breathtaking variety of fish, crocodile and assorted animal parts. I made a discovery: A person can grow to like semi-raw sturgeon.
The toasts got longer and less coherent as the evening wore on. The general sentiment, as far as I recall, was that Russia is great, America is great, vodka is great, and, of course, golf is great.
The sport in Russia has a long way to go before it'll be the opium of the masses. But it's heading in the right direction. the Russians, one might say, are definitely coming.
For stays of up to three months in Russia, U.S. and Canadian citizens need a valid passport and a visa. If you travel as part of an organized package tour group, your tour operator should handle all the details. Otherwise, you must apply for a visa from the Russian Consulate General (212-348-0926). To obtain a visa, you first need to be "invited" to the country by a sponsor--usually a Russian tour operator, hotel, educational establishment or an individual. I found Star Travel (011-7-095-935-8336; email@example.com) to be very helpful in organizing my trip. Further information is available from the Washington Russian Embassy (202-939-8907; www.russianembassy.org