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To Russia with Clubs

Sasha and Viktor were playing for much higher stakes than I was. The top four Russian finishers in this event would be sent to Malaysia for the World Amateur Team Championships. Those who played poorly, on the other hand, could forget about seeing Mickey Mouse during the winter. It was reminiscent of the old Soviet sport system, which also selected, trained and weeded out young athletes, giving poor kids their only chance to travel abroad—as long as they performed.

"Does the team have a psychologist?" I asked Viktor.

He clenched his right hand into a fist and held it in front of my face. "This is our psychologist!" he said.

Sasha and Viktor were comparable to players you might see on an American small-college team. I could read in their faces the fear that that wasn't good enough. When Sasha missed a makable birdie putt on the fifteenth, he tapped in for par and hurled his putter into the shrubs. I felt more sympathy than I usually do for displays of pique.

My own putter, meanwhile, was beginning to feel like an odd tool unearthed among the pottery shards of a lost civilization. It looked interesting, but I had no clue as to how it was used. I three putted five of the last nine greens and carded an eighty-nine. Sasha played strongly coming in for a seventy-eight. Viktor had an eighty and Dan Gogek posted an eighty-five. The leader was a young Russian named Artem Nesterov, with an even-par seventy-two.

My consolation, though, was in my pocket: a ticket to Joe Cocker's Kremlin concert. I took the metro, and it gave me a fleeting impression of continuity in Russian life. Moscow still has the best subway musicians in the world—curly-haired, pale, bespectacled kids who can and do switch from Mussorgsky to Gershwin at the drop of a ruble. And the station at the end of the blue line was still called Lenin Library. But the crowd waiting outside the Borovitsky Gate to the Kremlin was like nothing I had seen in Soviet times. These Russians were well dressed, even elegant. Their faces shone in the golden evening light. Half of them were chattering on cell phones as they waited to pass through security.

The old Palace of Congresses, just inside the crenellated western wall of the old fortress, was built during the time when the Soviets tended to conflate the terms "big" and "good." A silvery bas-relief portrait of Lenin had been the only adornment of the red wall behind the stage. It was gone. So was the lectern from which I had heard Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko predict the inevitable triumph of socialism. There were new electric advertising signs mounted on the side walls. They informed me that the show was being presented by Radio Tango, 104.2 FM.


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