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To Russia with Clubs

Sometimes a golf trip is just a golf trip. Blame it on jet lag, perhaps, but there are times when for a minute or two you can forget whether you're in Palm Desert or Desert Palms.

A golf trip abroad is different. Each is an encounter with another culture, as intriguing as hearing, for the first time, the notes of a beautiful song. A golf trip to Russia is that . . . and more. Visiting Russia now is like hearing the opening notes of a new song, then walking into the composer's studio and looking over his shoulder as he tries out different melodies and tempos, trying to get it right. Or so it seemed to me during the course of a few sultry days last summer when Joe Cocker played the Kremlin, Hair played Gorky Park and I played the Russian Amateur golf championship.

If, like me, you had lived in Moscow during the Cold War, you would know how remarkable each of those events would feel. In those years, when I was a correspondent for Newsweek, certain facts were as immutable as the frost under Siberia. One was that the Kremlin was a somber place of secrecy and intrigue. Another was that the state strictly controlled all sport and entertainment. And a third was that golf was a game for rich capitalists, not Russians.

Until a few years ago, in fact, the history of Russian golf could have been written in the margins of an old copy of Pravda. Robert Trent Jones Jr. learned how much Russians knew of the game when he brought a set of clubs to Moscow in 1974. Détente was in flower and Dr. Armand Hammer had told Leonid Brezhnev that if he wanted American businesses to come to the U.S.S.R., he had better provide a golf course for American businessmen. Jones went to Moscow to pitch his services as an architect.

A suspicious customs inspector examined the clubs, probably looking for transmitters or microphones. Jones, in pantomime, tried to explain what they were. Finally the inspector thought he understood. "Ah," he said. "New American hockey technology!" He waved them through.

Jones saw the sites the Russians were proposing for a course and recommended one near Nakhabino, about ten miles northwest of Moscow. He got as far as drawing up plans. But the project was hostage to the ebb and flow of détente, which ebbed for a decade. Nothing happened.

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