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A new life

How golf came together to rescue a 15-year-old Ukrainian from a war zone and bring him to the United States

March 12, 2022

Mykhailo “Misha” Golod and his mother, Vita, are greeted at the Orlando International Airport by David Leadbetter on Friday night after making their way over four days from the Ukraine to the U.S.

ORLANDO — It’s rare to find salvation in baggage claim at the Orlando International Airport. But there it was Friday night, just off carousel 29 in Terminal B. The boy and his mother had just finished a journey that spanned 54 hours and some 5,000 miles, that began in a car south of Kyiv, Ukraine, that saw him say goodbye (for now) to friends and family and country and everything he knows about life in order to keep living his.

So when 15-year-old Mykhailo “Misha” Golod and his mom, Vita, saw the party awaiting—a party that had come together to welcome them and more importantly to let them know it was going to be OK—the boy smiled, the mother welled up and both exhaled.

“I am exhausted,” Misha said, “but I am happy to be here. I can’t believe this happened.” Added Vita, through tears: “This is all just a dream.”

Last week we relayed the story of Misha, one of the best golfers in Ukraine who found himself stuck in a war zone following the unprovoked attacks by Russian forces. Following the story’s publication, the golf community found a way to help its own.

It began with folks reaching out to Misha on Instagram, sending prayers and thoughts and encouragement. A number of junior players Misha had met in competition let him know if he needed a distraction and wanted to chat, he had an open ear. Instructor Jason Birnbaum connected with Misha, studied a handful of swing videos and offered feedback.

But things progressed further thanks to golf instructor David Leadbetter and Global Golf Post founder and American Junior Golf Association board member Jim Nugent. Nugent assembled a fundraiser, rallying some of the industry’s leaders—including the USGA and the Country Club of North Carolina, where Misha became the first Ukrainian golfer to compete in the U.S. Junior Amateur last summer—to pitch in. Thousands of dollars have already been raised from average golfers looking to help. Meanwhile, Leadbetter offered Misha a full scholarship to his Orlando golf academy and arranged for housing accommodations.

“You read what’s going on over in Ukraine, and it’s just terrible. You feel so helpless, and it doesn’t feel like you can really do anything at this moment,” Leadebtter said. “Then we saw Misha’s story and realized, ‘Well, maybe there is something we can do.’”

Of course, generous as Leadbetter’s offer was, there remained the obstacle of extracting Misha in the midst of the Russian invasion. Initially, Misha’s family believed it too dangerous to leave Kyiv; there was conflicting information on what was happening outside the city's limits, what evacuation routes were safe and what were not. However, hours after Misha’s story was published on March 4, the Russian bombardment became too extreme and too fierce to stay any longer. Misha, his mother and his father traveled south of town to stay with grandparents and strategize on their next moves.

It was there Misha began receiving word of how far his story had reached and was humbled at the outpouring of love and support. “Flabbergasted” fails to do his reaction to Leadbetter’s offer. “He never met me,” Misha said. “To do something like that to someone you never met takes a special person.”

Conversely, the offer was bittersweet. Ukrainian conscription meant Misha’s father Oleg would have to stay behind, and with his grandparents in poor health, his mother felt called to remain in the country as well. If Misha was to go to Florida, he would be separated from his family. It was a heart-wrenching decision, yet Misha’s parents understood the magnitude of the opportunity and the lifeline they were given that many in the country did not have. Coupled with the Russian assault becoming more ruthless and closer by the hour, it was time to get Misha out of the Ukraine.

Misha and his parents began heading west in a car on Tuesday night. They initially planned for a four-day trip out of the Ukraine, accounting for the millions now trying to flee and that the safest routes were on country backroads. To the family’s surprise, they encountered light traffic and no Russian resistance, making it 500 miles in 15 hours before pulling over to abide by Ukrainian curfew laws. Not to say it wasn’t a surreal trip.

“All the vehicles going the other way were tanks,” Misha said. “The people who are also driving are literally knocking into people’s homes down the way, offering them money to let them sleep on a floor. All of the hotels are packed.” Luckily for the Golod family they were able to find a roadside motel. It was the last night they spent together as a family.

Only 100 miles remained to the Hungarian border, which they made the following day. Reaching the confines of Hungary was an overwhelming relief, Misha says. It was also sentimental: Misha had to say farewell to his dad. He did his best to be brave, to have a stiff upper lip. He’s also 15 years old.

“It was pretty emotional ‘goodbye’ for me,” Misha said, and though he wants to say more, it's clear some things should remain between father and son. His mother continued with him to Budapest, accompanying him on a flight to London then Orlando before returning to Ukraine and meeting Oleg at the border to return to Kyiv.

The flights were long, made longer as reality was setting in. Misha was exhausted from the mental and psychological and emotional toll of the past two weeks, a toll that won’t be wiped away quickly. Still, as Misha and Vita descended Terminal B’s steps to baggage claim, he took stock of what was happening and how quickly it had come together and couldn’t help but shake his head.

“This is all crazy, isn’t it?” Misha said.

He did seem a bit perturbed, and there was worry among the welcoming party that Misha was having a fit of cognitive dissonance. Instead, it was a frustration that many a golfer has encountered during travel. “I haven’t practiced in two weeks and was looking forward to hitting balls tomorrow,” Misha said. “But somehow my clubs were lost in London. Very upsetting.”

Not to be the bearer of bad news, but Misha’s Saturday is already filled with appointments. He and his mother will be setting up bank accounts and signing up for credit cards and getting an American phone number. Though Misha will finish out the academic year at his school in the Ukraine through remote classes, the family has already decided Misha will stay in the United States for his junior and senior years of high school before making the leap to college, so his mother wants to see what academic options are in the area. Misha also wants to spend time with his mom, who is returning to the Ukraine in three days, not knowing when he will see her again.

And, if there is time on Sunday, he wants to make the two-hour trip from Orlando to Ponte Vedra Beach to see the Players Championship. His eyes light-up when he hears about the forecast of cold weather and high winds. “Oooooh, that could be very, very interesting,” he says.

It’s now past 8 p.m., or 3 a.m. in Kyiv, where he started this trek. The boy is beat, asking if it’s okay to get settled into his new digs. He heads off with Leadbetter and Leadbetter’s assistant, Angela Hucke, who he will be staying with for the near future. Before they depart, Misha asks to pass along a message.

“I know I’m very lucky. I can’t say thank you to everyone who helped,” Misha says. “Tell them I won’t let them down.”

The group hears these words and there’s not a dry eye in the bunch. It’s clear Misha isn’t the only one who has found salvation.

To help pay Misha’s travel and relocation costs, the AJGA has established a fund. Any additional funds will be used towards relief efforts in Ukraine. Donate here.