Golf is a big game outside of Russia, but in Moscow it is more noticeable for the millions of dollars traded over 18 holes. Is that about to change?
By Irina Sheludkova
The saying goes that most good deals are made on the golf course. Could it be true for modern Russia as well?
Surprisingly, given that golf is a major sport everywhere else in the world, there is no history of golf in Russia. Before the Russian Revolution there were no golf courses, and the only evidence we have that there was any interest in the game at all is the fact that France’s first golf course was built near Cannes in 1891 by Grand Duke Mikhail Mikhailovich Romanov, grandson of Tsar Nicholas I, and uncle of Tsar Nicholas II. The Grand Duke had played the game at St Andrew’s in Scotland, and upon his return to France he founded the Golf Club de Cannes-Mandelieu.
In the Soviet Union golf was seen as a sport of the bourgeoisie, and therefore it was not played. It was not until 1989 that golf came to Russia, when Sven Johannsson, a famous ice-hockey player from Sweden, built a nine-hole course in Moscow, at a waste lot near MosFilm. This course is now the home of the Moscow City Golf Club; the club now has 200 members and a thriving Junior Academy.
But since then the development of the game has been slow; no doubt the weather is a factor. There is still only one fully championship course, at Le Meridien Moscow Country Club in Nakhabino, opened in 1993. But it is a major course – the club is a member of the Great Golf Resorts of the World and is ranked amongst the European Top 100 Courses.
In its first year in service, 1993, and on only nine holes, the club played host to the first Russian Open. The next year, in 1994, golfers coming for the second Russian Open played on the completed international-class 18 holes. Two more years on, in 1996, the Russian Open was added to the European Challenge Tour of the Professional Golfers Association (PGA), and in 2003 it was given a higher dual-ranking tournament status, in which scores are kept on both the PGA European Challenge Tour and the PGA European Tour. The Club today has 727 members, of which some 50 are women. Guests are allowed to play, but the limit is three rounds per year. On weekends a guest can play 18 holes at a cost of 195 c.u.
Surprisingly perhaps, given that the game has no history, and has yet to became a popular televised sport in the way that it is say in the US, golf receives a lot of high profile attention from government authorities. (Of the right kind that is.) On May 31 every year, beginning in 1996, the Moscow Country Club puts on an international tournament for the Russian President’s Cup. This event is timed to coincide with International Children’s Day on June 1, and all proceeds from the tournament are devoted to the charity. This year each team contributed $5000. The Government of Moscow was represented by Yelena Baturina, Mayor Luzhkov’s wife. A total of $50,000 was collected for an orphanage in Istrinsky district.
Russia, however, lacks a sufficient number of younger players who could give the game a more modern, less business-oriented, profile. To this end, in 1997, the Moscow Country Club’s golf club instituted a Children’s Golf Academy, which seeks to promote children’s and junior golf in Russia. Today Russian golf teams are mostly made up of the Academy’s current students and graduates, who have already made a name for themselves in Europe and the world at large. There are about 50 young golfers in the Golf Academy today. Excepting the Russian President’s Cup and the Russian Open, about 30 other club and corporate tournaments are held at the Moscow Country Club, including the Russian Championship.
The Russian Golf Association is one of the most active groups dedicated to the promotion of the game. Konstantin Kozhevnikov, its President, and First Vice-President of Vneshtorgbank, asserts that golf has now made its breakthrough in terms of popularity. The Association has been responsible for putting golf on Russian television, and has launched a development programme called “500 courses in 15 years,” which title exactly describes what is planned. Kozhevnikov says that the programme has been well received throughout the country. More than 30 projects are in process at the moment – in Moscow, St Petersburg, Rostov, Kazan, Bashkiriya and even the Far East.
Yet, in comparison with other countries, golf is a minority sport. The main drawback is a lack of golf facilities, as Kozhevnikov readily acknowledges: “In the States there are more than 20 thousand facilities and more than 26 million players, so we can’t be compared to that. But, for example, the Czech Republic now has more than 40 golf courses. In many countries formerly within the Soviet Bloc the development of golf is paid for out of government funds. In Croatia there are 26 courses being constructed at the moment with official funding. The economic interests are obvious – an average golf tourist spends 7 times more money than a regular tourist. The total turnover for golf tourism worldwide amounts to 26 billion dollars per year.”
Kozhevnikov knows what is needed: “A golf tourist wants to play on at least three courses, and we have only one international class course at the moment. But many projects are being launched this year, and so Russia will soon finally be on the map as a golf destination.”
We asked him if it is true about golf being addictive? “Golf takes up a large part of my life; it is my work, hobby, passion and love. I am really lucky. Many colleagues abroad envy my chances – they couldn’t participate in the beginning and development of the game, unlike me in Russia.”
And what about the fabled connection between golf and money? “The game is certainly a great way to combine leisure and business interests,” Kozhevnikov says; and adds that he knows of more than a few multi-million-dollar deals that have been made on the Moscow Country Club’s golf course since its opening.
This summer business and sport will meet at The Cadillac Russian Open, which takes place from August 11 to 14 at the Moscow Country Club. The tournament includes 156 golfers from all over the world. 70 golfers come from the European Tour and 70 come from the European Challenge Tour. The three Russian Amateur champions are given wildcards to participate (handicap permitting). The remaining golfers gain entry into the tournament also through wildcards.
Within the framework of The Cadillac Russian Open, a Pro-AM tournament (which is always a favourite meeting place for businessmen) is held on August 10. The Pro-AM format has 22 teams composed of four players. The individual teams are made up of 3 amateurs and 1 professional. In this way team sponsors can provide their favoured clients with a chance to play 18 holes with one of the world’s top golfers. It also affords the sponsor several hours alone with his client in a relaxed but competitive atmosphere.
Warren P. Browne, Executive Director in Charge of General Motors Russia, explains the thinking behind the marriage of business and golf: “We like the atmosphere and feel of the Russian Open. I think Cadillac fits well in this type of setting. We sponsor this event to promote the brand inside of the Russian Federation and to meet potential clients. We expect about 14,000 people to attend.”
It helps, of course, that he himself is a golf player: “I love to play golf; my handicap is 24, and still my wife wins about half the time we play! Our entire family enjoys the sport. Just like tennis, golf will grow in Russia. While the months available to play may be more limited in Moscow, you can certainly play earlier in the morning and play much later at night. Yes, I think it’s a great place to play.”
So, if you haven’t yet decided which sport is for you, and you like to take your business skills with you… perhaps it’s time to tee off.
Le Meridien Moscow Country Club
Nakhabino, Krasnogorsky Region,
35 km along Volokolamskoe Shosse (4 km from MKAD)
Tel.: (095) 926 5919, 564 3434
Daily from 08:00 to 22:00. Individual lessons available.
Moscow City Golf Club
1 Ul. Dovzhenko. M. Universitet.
Tel.: (095) 147 8330,
Open daily from 10:00 to 20:00. Individual lessons available.