Baby Steps

For the handful of natives playing in the Russian Open, simply making the cut would have been a major accomplishment
August 22, 2004

He had made a 9 on the par-5 5th hole, Alexander Gruzdov said last week at the BMW Russian Open, because he had hit his drive into a bush. The bush was thick, so it took him two tries to get his ball back onto the fairway. Then the 23year-old amateur had unwisely gone for the green with a long iron, hooking his ball into a guarding creek. A penalty drop, a pitch and three putts later, Gruzdov walked

away with the almost certain knowledge that he was not going to become the first Russian to make the cut in a European tour event. "I made a tactical mistake," he told me later through an interpreter. "I should have chosen a three-wood off the tee."

I nodded, but I had read enough Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky to know that something more profound than club selection explained Gruzdov's downfall. He grew up, after all, in a two-room, ground-floor flat in one of those dismal nine-story apartment blocks that disfigure the Moscow skyline. ("He is the son of a lowly mother," a Russian golf apparatchik told me, "a middle school chemistry teacher.") It didn't help, either, that Gruzdov's home course, the nine-hole Moscow City Golf Club, is little more than a pitch-and-putt that is blanketed, during the long Russian winter, by two or three feet of snow. "There is no way you can improve yourself if you play only half the year," Gruzdov said, watching a light rain fall on the tall pines and silver birches surrounding the log clubhouse of Le Meridien Moscow Country Club, Russia's only 18-hole course.

"Who taught you to play?" I asked.

He shrugged. "Nobody."

Who was there to learn from? At 14 Gruzdov had picked up the fundamentals while caddying for duffers at Moscow City, and later he studied some instruction videos, although he doesn't remember the names of the teaching pros who had made them. "It's really hard to learn like that," he said, "with nobody watching you to point out mistakes."

Maybe so, I said, but he now had a sound, powerful swing that compared favorably with those of the European tour players entered in the 12th Russian Open. As the country's current national champion, he was regarded by many as Mother Russia's best golfer. "Is it your goal to play as a professional?" I asked.

His weak smile spoke volumes. "You cannot jump over your own head," he said. "To be better I need to be in training and play all year, but there is no money for that. I can maybe become a club professional."

I told Gruzdov that he sounded discouraged.

His answer was straight out of a Chekhov drama: "I despair."

Looking for a less dire assessment of the Russian game, I turned to 18-year-old Dmitry Vinogradov. At the 2003 Russian Open, won by Australia's Marcus Fraser, Vinogradov had come within a stroke of making the cut--a feat roughly equivalent to the launching of the first Salyut Space Station. A skinny kid with more finesse than power, Vinogradov joked with his caddie and looked carefree last Thursday while bunting his way around the 7,174-yard Robert Trent Jones Jr. layout in 81. But Vinogradov told me that his swing coach would not have been pleased. "'Why are you smiling?'"--he mimicked his scolding teacher--"'You have to concentrate on your shots, how you hit it!'"

Vinogradov rolled his eyes. "For me, it is good to laugh. Otherwise I'm nervous, thinking about the result." On the other hand, he admitted, his concentration does tend to flag at critical times. Last year, needing a par on the 18th to make the cut, he had pured a seven-iron over the green from 145 meters (159 yards) and made bogey. "Now when I'm thinking about last year, I'm very, very sad. I was so close!"

Maybe so, I said, but he had to be confident about his future. As a member of the Russian national team he trained at Moscow Country Club six days a week, and this year alone he had played in tournaments in Majorca, Hungary, Austria, Latvia, Morocco--even in Miami, where he finished 33rd in the Orange Bowl tournament. "Can't you see yourself someday playing in the PGA Championship next to Tiger Woods or Vijay Singh?"

He looked at me as if butterflies had flown out of my mouth. "I'm trying to be like them, but they play so good," he said. "They are stars. I'm not so good. In Europe there are guys 16 years old who play much better than me."

"You're only 18 yourself," I pointed out.

His gaze dropped. "I'm trying to be a player," he said. "If I can't, maybe a club pro, if I'm lucky."

Accustomed as I am to American schoolboy athletes who fancy themselves the second coming of Allen Iverson or Peyton Manning, I found Vinogradov's realistic self-appraisal refreshing, but I wondered if it bordered on defeatism. I mentioned this to another Dmitry--Demetrius Grigolaya, a young news editor from Moscow who has traveled and studied in the U.S. "He is simply being Russian," Grigolaya said of the melancholy golfer. "In the States you can be 22 or 23 and you're still considered a kid. In Russia you have to make a living at 18. You have responsibilities."

There was also, I suspected, a lingering belief among Russians that golf is a decadent game, although the commissars who pushed that view in the Soviet era have long since been swept away by an avalanche of commercial billboards and McDonald's wrappers. In 1974, when Secretary Leonid Brezhnev asked the American industrialist Armand Hammer how the Soviet Union could attract Western investors, Hammer famously answered, "With limousines, good food and golf courses." It was nearly two decades, however, before Russia opened the first nine holes of its new tournament course in suburban Nakhabino, an hour's drive from the Kremlin.

The capitalist game did not exactly take Moscow by storm. Alexey Nikolov, secretary of the Russian Golf Association, remembers a phone call in 1992 from a promoter who offered to bring Tom Watson to Russia for only airfare and hotel expenses. When Nikolov showed no interest, the promoter said he was crazy. "You're crazy," Nikolov shot back. "Ask 100 people in the streets of Moscow, 'Who is Jack Nicklaus? Who is Arnold Palmer?' Nobody here has ever heard of them."

Nikolov was the Moscow City director of golf in those days, and he tells the story of the three rich Russians who joined the club and showed up with their new sticks to play for the first time. Walking onto the practice range, they each teed up a new ball. One man hit his driver, another hit a wedge and the third smacked his ball with a putter, the longest shot going about 60 yards. They then picked up their bags and started walking toward the target flag, thinking they were playing the 1st hole.

"That happened only 10 years ago," Nikolov said, making the point that even a kid like Vinogradov is older than Russian golf. "Germany had its first tour pro about 70 years after people took up the game there. By that time they had 200 courses." Russia, in comparison, already has a tour pro--the European LPGA's Uliana Rotmistrova--but only 11/2 courses for 144 million people spread over 11 time zones. (St. Petersburg has an executive course and three holes of what will eventually be a championship 18.) Twenty more courses are in various stages of development, and if the Russian Golf Association gets its way, the next 15 years will see the construction of up to 500 golf facilities, a broad term that encompasses driving ranges, miniature-golf and ice-golf courses.

Making the game fathomable to Muscovites and Petersburgers may be the bigger challenge. At a Russian Open in the '90s a woman spectator retrieved a player's ball from the woods and handed it back to him as he walked up the fairway. To prevent such mix-ups, last week's Russian Open program provided etiquette tips and a glossary of golfing terms. The aim of the game, it said, was "simply to get the ball from the start of the hole to the finish in the least amount of shots."

A clear enough concept, but one that the five natives in the Russian Open sometimes lost sight of. Konstantin Gribkov, an assistant pro at Le Meridien who only recently returned from military service, showed his rust with rounds of 95 and 92 and placed last among those who finished. Amateur Vladimir Raskassov, a 38-year-old businessman who earned his spot in the field by winning the club championship, shot 78--81. That was almost as good as Vinogradov (81--75, 151st place) and Gruzdov (82--73, 150th).

So when Pushkin came to shove, there was only one Russian with a chance of making the cut--Andrey Pavlov, another 18-year-old amateur who, like Vinogradov, grew up in Nakhabino. I was told by Nikolov that Pavlov was shy and spoke with a stutter, "but from behind he resembles David Duval." With the striking Rotmistrova carrying his bag and offering advice, Pavlov opened with a 73. The next day, in front of the largest gallery of his career--about a dozen curious Russians--Pavlov hung tough and shot an even-par 72. That left him three strokes off the cut line in the tournament, which was eventually won by Gary Emerson of England with a 16-under 272, but Pavlov's top 100 finish will give the locals something to talk about during dogsled season.

"I felt a lot of pressure," Pavlov told me afterward. "For eight years people keep talking, 'When will a Russian make the cut?'" Asked if he had a favorite player, Pavlov cocked his head and pondered. "I would say I like the way [Phil] Mickelson plays. His short game is close to ideal. He's appealing."

"Will you get a chance to watch Mickelson play in the PGA?"

Pavlov looked confused.

I said, "The PGA Championship is in Wisconsin this week."

"Ah! No, I don't have cable," he said, laughing.

That evening in my hotel room I scrolled through the channels for PGA highlights. There were none, which made my heart heavy. Dark shadows descended from the corners of the room. Where, I asked myself, would Alexander find the money to pursue his dream? How would Dmitry learn to concentrate better? When would Andrey get cable?

I despaired.

"THERE IS NO WAY YOU CAN IMPROVE IF YOU PLAY ONLY HALF THE YEAR," Gruzdov said of the long winter.

"Ask people, 'Who is Jack Nicklaus? Who is Arnold Palmer?'" says Nikolov. "NOBODY HERE HAS HEARD OF THEM."

COLOR PHOTOPHOTOGRAPHS BY WARREN LITTLE/GETTY IMAGES FIRST WAVEYoungsters like (from left) Pavlov, Gruzdov and Vinogradov are the future of Russian golf. COLOR PHOTOPHOTOGRAPHS BY WARREN LITTLE/GETTY IMAGES PROFESSIONAL HELP Rotmistrova(left), the most accomplished pro in Russia, caddied for Pavlov last week. COLOR PHOTOPHOTOGRAPHS BY WARREN LITTLE/GETTY IMAGES DO SVEDANYA Vinogradov, who missed the cut at the '03 Russian Open by one, was worse this time.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)