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To Russia with Clubs

He made himself the man to see for businessmen who had become prey in the jungle of early Russian capitalism. He went to court and recovered money for foreigners euchred in joint-venture deals. He went to court and recovered money for the Russian government after the pillaging of a state-owned oil company. His fee in that single case was well into seven figures—dollars, not rubles.

Dobrovinsky took up golf in 1992 when a friend invited him to play at Russia's first course, the nine-hole Moscow City Golf Club. He joined the Moscow Country Club in 1999 and now rents one of the dachas on the grounds at a cost of $10,000 a month. He thinks golf appeals to an emerging sense of individualism in Russian culture. "People used to blame others for their problems—the czars, the communists, the U.S.," he said. "Now people are learning to assume responsibility for themselves. And in golf you can't scream at anyone but yourself."

The fundamental barrier to the growth of the game in Russia is money. Dobrovinsky said estimates on the cost of new courses began at $10 million. Though a few projects are in various stages of development, the Moscow Country Club remains the only eighteen-hole course in the country. And the golfing population is small enough that anyone with a single-digit handicap is welcome in the championship flight of the Russian Amateur.

Ostensibly, that included me. My seven-handicap, however, had been established from the comfort of the members' tees on a short home course. After a couple of holes of practice it was clear that I had as much business playing from the championship tees of the Moscow Country Club as I would have had playing principal bassoon for the Moscow Symphony Orchestra. The course was more than 7,000 yards long. It was soggy from recent rains. Even my best tee shots were leaving three-irons and five-woods into well-guarded greens.

I showed up for the first round anyway. The morning was clear and warm. A few clouds drifted in the boundless Russian sky. The course had taken on a few accoutrements of a tournament venue. Sponsors' banners were strung around the clubhouse and the practice range. As the round began, I had a gallery of one, an old friend named Olga Belan. Olga is a Moscow journalist who edits a tabloid called Dekameron. Like the Moscow Country Club, it did not exist ten years ago.

Olga had never hit a golf ball, held a club nor seen a golf course. When she saw the practice green by the first tee, she bent down and carefully touched the grass with her fingers, checking to see if it was real or artificial.

"They must have some special equipment to get it this way," she said, sounding slightly awed.

"They do," I confirmed.


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