Russian tanks have been churning up the fairways of Kyiv Golf Club, which occupies a dominant walled site on elevated terrain about 50 kilometers to the north-west of Ukraine’s capital city.
he owners are horrified by the intrusion, which has seen the killing of at least one security guard. Yet with a resilience typical of this extraordinary nation, they are already planning extensive refurbishment when the situation permits.
It is a proprietary establishment which came into golf little more than a decade ago, through the skills of veteran British course architect, Peter Chamberlain. In contact last week with the owners, he received an e-mail from their daughter di lei, Elizabeth, which she agreed he could pass on to me.
She wrote: “The clubhouse, as the place of observation (if you remember, it is high and allows very good view of what is happening around), they have tanks passing through. They are stealing and using golf cars for ‘fun’. Basically they are disrespectful to the whole property and courses.
“Our hearts are breaking, because it was a huge amount of work by several people during many years. We were able to see some things on the [CCTV] camera footage before they broke them all. Moreover, the club has closed territory [enclosing wall], which gives them the advantage of not being attacked by Ukrainian army. We had some workers inside, hiding when those bastards came, and one security service man got killed while helping others escape.
“Now, just recently, they burned the hotel. It was recently built, and we will also have to reconstruct it. So basically, the fascists are destroying everything they can, since they can’t win our army and get to Kyiv, which is very sad.
“These bastards come looking for food at the nearby villages, and they just shoot in cold blood the local people who disagree to provide it. Also they burned down the golf club of Lugansk (in 2014) and now the Kharkiv golf club with the missile attacks. They are all just bastards, randomly destroying things … “
The improbable notion of golf in Ukraine gained an international dimension recently through a Golf Digest story about Mykhailo Golod. The 15-year-old spoke in fluent English on a video call of hearing “50 explosions a day” around his home of him in Kyiv.
American interest in him was sparked by his involvement in Florida junior tournaments in January in which he was tied sixth in Miami and third at Doral. And he talked happily about the opening 65 from his favorite golfer, Rory McIlroy, in the recent Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill, which was transmitted on Ukraine television.
Remarkably, having been banned from golf when part of the Soviet Union, Ukraine has seven competitors inside the world amateur top 1,000, despite fewer than 4,000 players in the whole country. Golod’s ranking of 434th can be attributed to extensive international travel with his family di lui in pursuit of top-level competition, not available at home.
At 14, he became the first Ukrainian to compete last summer at the USGA’s Junior Amateur at the Country Club of North Carolina. Not surprisingly, his performances by him have been sparking interest from major colleges in the US.
He describes Kyiv GC as having one of the country’s two best courses, the other being in Kharkiv, which has been suffering grievously from Russian bombardment. While the missiles rain down, however, the optimism of youth prompts him to look beyond the current horror. “I want to play in the coming US Junior Am in July,” he says. “It’s at Bandon Dunes, where I’ve never been. This time, I will be ready. “
On February 24, Mykhailo’s father, who had traveled out of town, phoned his son with the grim message: “War has started.” Whereupon the youngster turned on the news. “It was horrible,” he said. “The worst morning of my life.”
It is probably naïve in the extreme to imagine an invading army respecting terrain in their path, especially a golf course. Yet Jack Statter, whom I knew as a golf writer with The Sunrecounted a tale involving a German Luftwaffe officer’s regular golf games, with his driver as a caddy, at Hilversum GC in occupied Holland during World War II.
One day, a team of German army engineers arrived at the course and began marking certain oak trees for felling to fortify the ‘Atlantic Wall’. On seeing the marks, the Luftwaffe officer headed off before returning with his driver. Together they unloaded from their vehicle a number of notice boards attached to stout posts.
In consultation with the club secretary, these were posted at every entrance to the course. The notices read: “Achtung! Es ist verboten … ” informing German military personnel that the golf course was out of bounds to all of them and to all German military vehicles, by order of the Gestapo. We’re told the golf-loving Luftwaffe officer was transferred elsewhere and was never seen again. But the oak trees he saved at Hilversum remain standing to this day.
At 76, Peter Chamberlain has had a full life in sport. Born in Birmingham where he became an Aston Villa supporter, he met the great Peter McParland and, in the company of his father di lui, played golf with Con Martin.
Later, as a golf professional, he played in the 1966 Carrolls International at Royal Dublin, where Christy O’Connor had his famous eagle-birdie-eagle finish.
Having been attached to Falsterbo GC, he has spent the last 50 years living in south-west Sweden where his company, Tema, produced a masterplan for the Kyiv project.
“I had done some work in the Baltic countries, in Lithuania and Estonia, and through a contact there, I was asked if I was interested in looking at a project in Ukraine,” he said. “That was about 14 years ago.
“The site was a generous 300 hectares [740 acres] and working with landscaping specialists and project leaders here in Sweden, we put together a plan for them. It was quite comprehensive, including not only 36 holes of golf, but housing, riding stables and a polo course. We completed our work about 11 years ago.
“Given the current circumstances, I feel restricted in what I can tell you about the owners, other than the fact that they are business people from Kyiv. When you contacted me, I asked them how much general information I could give you and they said quite a bit.
“The owners knew very little about golf when I first met them. So I had Duncan Weir [Director of Golf Development with the Royal and Ancient] and some people from the European Golf Association [EGA] to meet them, not only to do with this project, but regarding the general development of golf in Ukraine.
“Golf’s involvement in the 2016 Olympics in Rio was a huge boost and it prompted the celebrated Olympic pole-vaulter, Sergey Bubka, to become a representative on the Ukranian Golf Association.”
Chamberlain has been appalled by current events there. “Of course it’s awful,” he said. “Even though the threat was there for several months, it was only in the last three or four weeks that things started to happen. The club was the family’s second home and I became really worried about them having got to know them very well. But they’re amazingly resilient.
“The Russians moved in early in the conflict. I’m not sure whether they knew the golf course was there, but they came in from Belarus, on that side, in the north-west corner. It’s about four or five kilometers off the main road where the massive Russian convoy could be seen on television. So, the golf course wasn’t far away. How they actually got in there, we don’t know. “
Meanwhile, Elizabeth from the club owner’s family, referred to the wonderful support they’ve received from the public and from golf enthusiasts who actually sent money for bookings.
“We will reconstruct everything, so as to be able to invite those people and others to the Great Kyiv Golf Club,” was her defiant pledge.
At a remove of 80 years, it is possible these days to smile at some of the antics enthusiasts got up to while endeavoring to cope with the more extreme conditions for golf during World War II.
Indeed the secretary of St Mellons GC in Monmouthshire felt moved to post a list of revised local rules on the club noticeboard. Among them was: “During gunfire or while bombs are falling, players can take cover without penalty for slow play.”
Sadly, we can’t imagine golf being played in Ukraine right now.