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To Russia with Clubs

My caddie met us near the first tee. Daniel Matveyev was fifteen, a stocky boy from Nakhabino with a brown forelock that flopped over his forehead. Boys from Nakhabino are the future of the sport in this country. The Russian Golf Association arranges lessons for kids in the Nakhabino schools. The more talented get to play and practice at the club on weekdays. On weekends, or during tournaments, they're expected to caddie.

My first-round foursome included an expat, Dan Gogek, a lawyer from Toronto. He was in the midst of a project to develop a mediation program for the Russian legal system. He carried a four-handicap. It also included two Nakhabino boys, products of the junior golf program. Sasha Mayorov, 17, was dressed in a red Russian Junior Golf Team shirt. He had a sharp nose and deep eyes that reminded me, for some reason, of Boris Pasternak. Viktor Ostankov, 20, was tall and lanky with brown hair that fell like a mop over his forehead. He wore khaki shorts and dark socks and studied, he told me, at a veterinary academy. Both spoke enough English to get by in a tournament. Of course, all they needed to know how to say to me was, "You're away."

I managed to play the front nine semirespectably, turning at five over par. But I was like an unprepared kid taking a calculus exam. By the time he's floundered through a few problems, he starts to forget algebra, and by the tenth problem, he can't multiply any more, either. On number ten, a 440-yard par four, I hooked my three-iron approach to the left of the greenside bunkers, the short side. I chunked my wedge into the bunker, blasted long, misread the approach putt and left myself a five-footer that I pushed. As I wrote seven on my scorecard, the remaining fantasies I harbored about a national championship flitted away.

Olga was oblivious to my pain. To her, a seven was barely distinguishable from a four. "Is the grass supposed to be wet like this?" she asked as we walked along. Her question reinforced the impression that I was starting to slog. I began to appreciate why all the accounts I'd read of Napoleon's failed invasion of Russia emphasized the long marches and the mud.

"No," I told her. "That's just our luck."

Soon a stocky unsmiling man in a black cap walked over and started watching Viktor and Sasha carefully.

"A coach?" I asked.

"He's Nikolai Ragovsky, the physical trainer of the national team," Viktor told me. "He used to be the coach of the Latvian weight-lifting team."

Russia does not yet have a homegrown pro who can teach elite players, Viktor said. The country's top juniors are sent abroad for instruction. Sasha, in fact, had spent the previous winter in Orlando with seven other young Russians, taking lessons at the Faldo Golf Institute. Ragovsky goes to keep tabs on them and supervise their weight training.

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