The Quiet Golf Boom

How to Build a Golf Course in Russia

Golf is rarely seen on Russian television, and names of golf legends like Michelle Wie, Vijay Singh, Ian Woosnam and Sam Torrance are not widely recognized in Russia. The latter two are coming to Russia to help this cause and partake in the Pestovo Russian Seniors Open, the first ever tournament of the European Seniors Tour to take place in this country. The brand new golf club with a world-class course has made it possible for Russia to host such a major tournament for the first time. Such a tournament would have been hard to imagine just five years ago. Today, the sport is flourishing, but only for a select few.

Despite its many fields and lawns, Russia has never been perceived as a golf country, not only because of the game's lack of popularity, but mostly owing to the country's harsh climate that some may see as challenging for building a golf facility in Russia. The architect of the Pestovo course Paul Thomas had his work cut out for him, when he was asked by the Pestovo golf and yacht club president Oleg Kustikov to build the best golf course in the world. Thomas saw the main challenge he was facing as dispelling the myth of golf's incompatibility with the Russian environment.

"Obviously the first challenge is climate. But then there are other parts of the world where they have [a] similar climate and are successful in golf, [in countries] such as Canada," said Thomas. "You have to select the right golf grasses and make a decision whether to work through the winter, whether to shut down or make progress."

"It's a little different here. It's seasonal in construction, in growing and seasonal in play, but, beyond that, there is nothing unique or too difficult about golf construction in Russia," explained Thomas. "Building golf courses in the UK is relatively simple. Here [in Russia], you have a lot of problems with the deep cold winter and the irrigation system, as you have to drain. But you do that in the UK sometimes as well," he added.

The developers who worked on the projects had to be more concerned about the landscape they were dealing with rather than the climate. "What was really challenging about Pestovo was the lack of landform movement," said Thomas. "We built seven large lakes and the excavating material that went from the lakes went to the landings. We built up the course and the sides of the course from that material. It was flat when I arrived. When I left, it wasn't flat."

In the end, the drastic changes helped make the Pestovo golf course what it is today. "The European Seniors Tour takes place all over Europe and picks only the best courses," said Stephen Dundas, Director for Golf of the Pestovo club. "I have been fortunate to play during my career at some of the best golf courses in the world. I can surely say Pestovo is one of the best in the world," he added.

More than just a game

The mission of building a state-of-the-art course was accomplished. It now allows Russia to take a giant leap in the development of its golf infrastructure. And it does not look like it will slow down anytime soon.

"We're aiming to build a network of golf clubs in the nearest future," said Kustikov, who is also the head of the Protcion Management Company, which built the Pestovo club. "We're going to open a course in Yekaterinburg next year. We've started construction in St. Petersburg around Petergof, and we've also got two projects in the Moscow region."

The plans for the new courses are as ambitious as for Pestovo. "We're going to hold the Seniors Open in Pestovo for three years, and then we'll move the tournament to Yekaterinburg and St. Petersburg, if that also corresponds with PGA Tour's wishes," said Kustikov. "We want to host this tournament every year." Investments into each of the projects are estimated to be in the region of $200 million.

From the perspective of the development of the game, building top-notch infrastructure and holding world-class tournaments is an unalloyed positive, while it's also true that spreading and promoting the game around the country is just as critical. That's where the setbacks kick in, and most of them have to do with the high hurdles that have to be cleared by any would-be golfers. Membership in golf clubs in Russia remains very expensive, which puts it out of reach for the overwhelming majority of Russians.

At Pestovo, lifetime membership costs $200,000, with an additional $7,000 annual maintenance fee. For comparison, the prize fund of the upcoming Russian Seniors Tour is going to be $750,000. So far, the club, which opened in September 2006, has sold 225 out of the 450 available memberships.

"The prices are very high, but we can't fool the economy," said President of Russian Golf Association Konstantin Kozhevnikov. "The prime segment is going to be served first. Golf is associated with prestige and a high social status of the players." According to Kozhevnikov, the average player is about 35 years old with an annual income of over $50,000. "This segment is being filled quite fast, which is normal for the rapidly growing Russian economy," Kozhevnikov explained.

Making golf more accessible still remains among the priorities of the Association. "We're trying to promote the game among the governors and mayors," said Kozhevnikov. "Moscow now has its own golf development program; soon every district in Moscow will have its own golf course. As of today, there is huge potential and the Moscow region alone could consume dozens of golf courses."

The situation beyond the business class segment isn't that encouraging.

"In the UK, we have something like half a million golfers," said Dundas. "I think, at the moment, we have about two or three thousand players in Russia; there is lots of work to do."

"We have about 15,000 golfers in the country," commented Kozhevnikov. "If we count the mini-golf players, we'll have about 40,000. This pace of growth is among the best in Europe. Not all of them are members, as there aren't enough clubs for everyone."

The Russian Golf Association is hoping to raise the number of golfers in Russia to 500,000 with enough infrastructure to accommodate them to be built by 2018. As of now, there are 14 golf courses operating in the country.

"Five years ago we announced our program entitled `500 golf facilities in 15 years'," said Kozhevnikov. "During the first five years, we introduced golf to the country; in the next ten, we'll have to work on the rest."

It's very likely going to take even longer to rid the game of golf of its VIP label.


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