Let’s face it, if we were talking about where to go for a few days of golf, we probably wouldn’t put Moscow on the top of the list. Until this year, I imagined golf in Russia would be similar to golf in Iceland, where I once made a fool of myself competing in the Arctic Open at Akureyri. They had only one course and gave me a starting time of midnight during midsummer. I’d been drinking and came home 35 over par.
But how wrong I was. The game is flourishing in and around Moscow, where clubs and courses are opening within easy reach of the Kremlin. Pete Dye has been seen in the city and Jack Nicklaus has built one of his sophisticated and difficult courses at Tseleevo Village. Roman Abramovich has also hired Nicklaus and built a course close to Medvedev’s “City of the Future” at Skolkovo, only 25 minutes from Red Square. It was ready for member previews last month and will open in 2014.
The Russian golf season lasts from mid-May to the end of September; midsummer comes with 18-hour days and stunning weather. Not only can you play golf before breakfast and after dinner, but the condition of the courses is helped by the long hours of sunlight, which generates rapid growth and recovery of the grass. It is estimated that only around 15,000 Muscovites are playing the game, although the courses I visited all reported a healthy increase in membership this year. I talked to Mike Braidwood, operations director of the management company Braemar Golf, who rightly predicted that international golf tourists would find it easy to get all the golf they want in Moscow, particularly during the week.
Dave Thomas Limited was the first British design partnership to build an 18-hole project for the private sector in Moscow. The Pestovo Golf and Yacht Club is 28km north of the city and was opened in 2007. It is par 72 and 7,094 yards long and has all the character that you would expect from Dave and his son Paul. I’ve always liked their courses, particularly Bowood and San Roque, and I really enjoyed Pestovo, which was in fine condition even though it had just emerged from the heavy Russian winter. Paul told me that they had planted 7,000 trees, mostly birch and pine. The rough is largely fescue, which will turn gold later in the season, and the semi-rough is Kentucky rye bluegrass. The fairways are pure bent and the greens are seeded with 007 and very slick. Paul also said that with a five-month season, closing for even a day because of bad weather would be a disaster, which is why they’ve ensured that the water runs off quickly and the fairways are level – making it easier to play for the new golfer.
I walked the course, although there is a buggy track. The land is on the edge of the Pestovskoye reservoir and many of the holes have water hazards. The seventh woke me up: a long, 465-yard par four, bit of a dogleg left with a drive onto an elevated fairway and a hefty second to a platform green. This is where the trouble is: the greens are tricky and this one slopes forward and left and is tucked around behind a clutch of deep and voracious bunkers. The ninth, a 547-yard par five, is a tight drive with a magnetic bunker on the left waiting to catch a drawn ball. The green is hard to read and the only way to approach this hole, in my opinion, is to think of it as a par six: three good shots to the green followed by what PG Wodehouse described as “the regulation three putts”.
Pestovo is a grown-up golf course and the finish is there to remind you. The 17th, a par three, is a 221-yard hit onto a small, elevated platform green surrounded by bunkers. You just have to try to hit a five-wood or rescue club and drop it delicately onto the carpet. The 18th, a 382-yard short par four, is a real character-builder. It finishes behind a lake on the right, which generally means a wedge over the water for your second.
Pestovo is a bit over the top. The opulent clubhouse has a conservatory looking over the 18th and 13th greens, and fine dining, bars and massage rooms. The Scottish pro Stephen Dundas provides lessons for members, and there is a well-stocked shop with all the familiar brands. Dundas also runs a teaching academy with two assistants.
After a night in Moscow I drove 90km up the M10 St Petersburg motorway to the nature reserve at Zavidovo and the PGA National, which opened in September 2012. PGA courses are always well maintained (the brand is licensed to the developers by the PGA of Great Britain and Ireland) and suitable for professional tournaments. Hackers like me feel at home on them because there are five sets of tees that progressively reduce the length of the hole.
The Zavidovo PGA National Russia is a beautiful, peaceful course on the Volga River. From the back tees it is 7,400 yards and par 72. When the pro gave me the course card he said, “You’re going to enjoy this, there are 13 lakes and 72 bunkers.” In fact, I loved it. There is a Scottish links feel to Zavidovo, lots of wispy fescue and heather, rolling fairways, high-faced bunkers and a stiff breeze. I’m afraid there will be no concessions to players who stagger out of the “Fine Dining” restaurant (opening later this year) and expect to be able to steady themselves early on with a couple of easy holes. The course starts with three difficult fours, and the first is the hardest. It’s 410 yards and slightly bent to the right. Should you hit a good drive up short of the two deep cross bunkers, you have at least a five-iron to the green. There’s a pot bunker 20 yards short, which makes the pin look closer than it is and which I couldn’t carry. The green is narrow and lies diagonally right to left. On in three; three putts, then two over par and it felt like a birdie. The next is gratifyingly short (360 yards) and downhill. You must keep down the left. It’s a three-wood and a seven-iron. How you get down in two putts when your ball is on the front edge and the pin is on the left at the back is another matter.
The Zavidovo PGA is a course you need to play at least twice before you can get a feel for the distances. It’s not a slog and the fairways are generous but you need a sharp, short game. The 560-yard par-five 18th – a dogleg left that has a stream running diagonally across the fairway short of the green and a lake on the right – is a hole you have to work out. It will take you three to get on and the strategy is to play to the right and short of the stream in two, which gives you the length of the green to play to. It’s beautiful to look at, but difficult and dramatic.
The clubhouse has 10 comfortable suites. There’s a smart restaurant on the first floor with spectacular views across the course, as well as a library, cigar room, snooker room, a bar serving tapas and a well-stocked pro shop. The Golf Academy is overseen by director of golf Phil Jones and head pro Nick Solski.
We played a few more holes after dinner and set off the next day to look at the new Jack Nicklaus course, owned by Oleg Deripaska, about 20km north of the city at Tseleevo Golf and Polo Club. This is a very grand club and, according to Braemar Golf, very exclusive to Russians. Although international players are welcome, having an influential friend who’s a member would certainly help. The course is divine. At the turn there is a group of par fours – carved out of thick forest and, like many of Nicklaus’s creations, laced with water – that have an almost mystical feel. The par-four 439-yard 10th presents you with a long tee shot to the top of a hill; if you reach the crest, you will see the green below you – over a river and set before the dramatic backdrop of a thick plantation of tall birch on a high mound. It’s a sublime second shot to play because if you get it right, the ball steeples high above the stream and seems to hang in the air, dropping like a stone and holding its place, a white jewel on an emerald green. While this is a theatrical hole, the 436-yard 11th is a fairy tale. A rocky stream runs the length of it all the way down the left until it turns sharp right in front of the green. On the right is thick forest and the platform green is raised like a magic cake. The 430-yard 12th is similar, although the stream crosses it twice and the green is small and slanted with a deep bunker on the left.
I finished up at the Moscow Country Club, which is only 15km from the city. The course, a 7,154-yard par 72, was designed by Robert Trent Jones Jr. Planning started in 1988 and construction in 1990, but, inexplicably, the finished article was allowed to fall into disrepair until Paul Thomas was commissioned in 2011 to do some extensive upgrades of the drainage and bunkers, as well as installing maintenance tracks. Trent Jones had done the job under the direction of a golf-loving government official, Ivan Sergeyev. Now back in its original pristine glory, the Moscow Country Club is a classic parkland course, heavily wooded, immaculate and no pushover. This was the first 18-hole course in Moscow and is where the game originated in Russia. The club is only 40 minutes from the city centre and has over 10 guest rooms and suites. There are 700 members, 300 of whom are Korean. It’s not easy, but I really enjoyed the 18th, an imposing 420‑yard par four with a 230-yard tee shot across a lake. I took a five-iron for my second and skidded through the green, which is small with dangerous fall-offs. I managed to hole out in five and I thought of Trent Jones designing it as the final challenge in a tight game where finishing with a four would make all the difference.
There are rules about travelling to and around Moscow if you are thinking of a golf trip. I advise planning everything well in advance, booking early and through an expert agent, and going in a small group if you can. I used IntouristUK because they are Russian specialists who provide English speaking guides, deal with your visas and arrange your flights, transfers and hotels, as well as transport to and from the courses. They can also book starting times and green fees and ensure you have a local contact close by in case of emergency or change of plan. I believe Russia will quickly become a very popular golf venue. It has wonderful courses and I can’t wait to go back.