Golf’s Next Frontier: Russia? (Video)


Jun 7, 2015; Dublin, OH, USA; General view of the clubs of Tiger Woods practices prior to the final round of the Memorial Tournament at Muirfield Village Golf Club. Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Golf and Russia just aren’t an automatic fit in my mind, but then neither are Golf and China, and the Chinese love affair with the sport seems boundless, despite current official efforts to cap golf course growth and troubling signs of official resistance to the sport.  But Russia?  There’s the geography, and the climate, and the politics, and the struggling economy.  At first glance it all seems an unlikely fit. 

On the other hand, the sport has also seemed an unlikely fit elsewhere, even as it has drifted along on the current of athletic popularity and sports celebrity.  Where would golf be in Spain without Seve Ballesteros?  Or in Germany without Bernhard Langer?  Or in South Korea without Se Re Pak?  Or in China without Shanshan Feng? Perhaps it’s going to take a star athlete to move the Russian golf needle from its current position — relative obscurity — to a flickering competitive edge on one of the pro tours. Perhaps there’s already a future star waiting to tee off.

Golf Courses Around the World. Source: Wall Street Journal, June 14, 2014

Finding the Playing Field

Golf, like many sports, requires a playing field and the sport that traces its origins to field games played on the relatively useless land between the sea and Scottish farmland — the links — has never found an easy fit in Russian culture, despite the Grand Duke Michael Mikhailovich’s effort in the 1890s to introduce golf to Russian emigres in Cannes and despite Nikita Khrushchev’s flirtation with the notion of building a communist country club at which to entertain that most golf-obsessed of all US Presidents, Dwight Eisenhower.  Perhaps Mikhailovich and Khrushchev were attempting to begin at the wrong starting point?

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But then in 1990, history began to repeat itself.  The sport found some land that wasn’t being tilled or lived on and Russia’s first real golf course emerged, built on the site of a Moscow dump.  (Do you suppose that’s where The Donald got his inspiration for Ferry Point?)  A decade or so later came a second course and then a third, all private, all mirroring the United States model of fusing golf courses to residential developments. (Let’s set aside thoughts about overbuilding and exploding real estate bubbles.)  Almost inevitably, Jack Nicklaus carved the Tseleevo Golf & Polo Club from the lands of a former collective farm.

Attracting the Golfers

Now there are some 30 golf courses — most in the Moscow area, most with membership and greens fees that would make most of us recreational weekend golfers break out in a sweat and clutch our chests — a Russian Golf Association that’s taking a close look at The First Tee and provides access to video golf lessons via YouTube; and there’s always the much-anticipated 2016 return of golf to the International Olympic Games fueling popular as well as official Russian interest.  (The possibility of a new opportunity for global athletic dominance may prove the irresistible tipping point for the Russian Bear.)

The sport may be in its infancy in Russia, but the European Tour is contending the M2M Russian Open at the Skolvoka Golf Club September 3-6, former tennis player Yevgeny Kafelnikov is trying to make a cut on the Challenge Tour, and Maria Balikoeva — who like German pro golfer Sandra Gal brings formal training in ballet to her golf game — is currently ranked 71st in the 2015 Ladies European Tour (LET) order of merit and has her eyes on the LPGA.

Ireland’s Padraig Harrington takes in the scope of possibilities for the development of golf in Russia and sees beyond the current barriers:

"“Russia, surely, is an untapped market in golf. You only have to look at how far China has progressed … given that this year was the 10th anniversary of the Volvo China Open being on the European Tour calendar.”"

Untapped, indeed!  I sense that the tap has been set to open and there’s a steady flow established on this Golf in Russia well. The tee box is open!

Next: Patrick Reed In the Mix in Switzerland