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To Russia with Clubs

Igor had discovered golf through a computer game. He got quite good at virtual golf, playing to a handicap of plus-eighteen or so. Then he took a vacation in America and stopped one day at a pitch-and-putt course near Salt Lake City. There he tried golf for the first time outside of cyberspace. Before long he'd bought clubs and joined the Moscow City Golf Club. Igor was reputed to be one of the best Russian amateurs outside the junior development program. But, like me, he'd found the Moscow Country Club a bit much from the back tees.

By the turn, we were all so far from the hunt we could have joined People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. I asked Igor and the boys whether they ever placed any impromptu wagers. They smiled. We staggered off, playing the back nine for 100 rubles, the equivalent of about three dollars.

Despite the monetary incentive, my play remained horrible. Daniel, my caddie, could no longer hide his disdain. He was too well trained to comment on my swing or my putting. But he started to correct my pronunciation, something that in my experience Russians do only when they are so disgusted they forget their normal manners.

"Malo PYES-ka v etom bunkerye," ("Not much sand in that bunker")

I grumbled after a half-shanked explosion skittered over the green.

"Pyes-KA," Daniel said firmly.

I chipped up unexpectedly close to the hole and saved bogey. "SMYESH-na-ya igra," ("It's a funny game") I said.

"Smyesh-NA-ya," he corrected me, sounding dour as a Scotsman.

By the time we came to the final hole, much had been decided. Artem Nesterov would win the championship with a three-round score of 221, five over par. Sasha Mayorov was on his way to a 232, fifth overall. He was fourth among Russians, good enough for a spot on the team going to Malaysia. Viktor Ostankov had been disqualified for failing to turn in a card after his disastrous second round. He will, I hope, be an excellent veterinarian. Alexander Dobrovinsky would win his flight, for players with handicaps from nineteen to twenty-eight, and accept his trophy in white duck trousers and a blue blazer with ROYAL NAVY embroidered on the breast pocket. And I would finish twenty-fifth, respectable only if you don't know that the championship flight had thirty-two players.

The future of golf in Russia was less clear, much like the future of Joe Cocker concerts, hippies and all the other novelties the Russians are trying. My friend Olga had told me she didn't think the game fit well with the Russian national character. "It's too philosophical," she said. "We like team sports, action sports like hockey." But Igor was more sanguine. "What other sport could I have taken up at thirty-five and still be competitive?" he asked. "We need that here."

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