Mar 15th, 2017
Golf travel – GolfPunk goes golfing In The Ukraine
Yes, the Ukraine...
Words: Tim Southwell Photography: Tim Southwell
It was only a couple of years ago that Ukraine hosted the Euros. It was the biggest party of the summer, an amazing cavalcade of sporting excellence, adventure and beer. That summer, 2012, GolfPunk went in search of, not only Euro glory for England (pah!) but also a new, undiscovered, golfing mecca...
A lot of bad stuff has gone down in Ukraine. Large parts of eastern Ukraine still resemble a chaotic mess of militia insurgencies, claim, and bitter counter claim, disappearing politicians, closed schools and empty shops.
And Malaysian Airlines MH17, shot down near the village of Grabove in rebel-held territory, with the loss of 298 lives. A recent presidential election saw Ukraine elect Petro Poroshenko, an election not held in much of eastern Ukraine.
In various places across Ukraine, there are a cluster of golf courses, set up in order to introduce the game to the masses. Well, that’s what they say, anyway. We didn’t find much evidence of Ukranians rushing to the course.
Which is hardly surprising: In a self-labelled culture of shit and champagne, in Ukraine, only the gas barren locals and visiting Russian oligarchs can afford it. The Russians loiter about these sumptuous clubhouses looking out across yet another immaculate golf course with virtually no one playing on it.
We take a look back at our Ukranian adventure and wonder what the future holds for golf in a country that Louis Theroux recently declared was “One of the greatest countries in the world”....
The Golf Stream Kiev Golf Club has the biggest, most ludicrously ostentations clubhouse I have ever seen. It's like something out of the Thunderbirds.
I'm playing in a Ryder Cup style match, representing the Rest Of The World team against a Ukraine side made up of three Ukranians and nine assorted dudes who liked the idea of a guaranteed prize (everyone gets a prize on a Ukranian golf day, no matter how badly you play - you'll probably be asked to make a speech on behalf of your nation as well).
My opponent in the singles is, though, Ukranian. Well, half-Ukranian and half Russian. He's 17-years-old, as fit as a butcher's dog and smokes the ball like you wouldn't believe. His short game is incredible. So, naturally, I'm giving him five shots.
And I play of 14. Welcome to golf in the Ukraine. You could not – even if you'd been partaking of an industrial sized bag of illegal substances – make this shit up.
After going six down after seven holes I ask Max (my opponent) how they work out handicaps here.
"I don't know why they had me at 19," he says feigning some kind of eastern European bewilderment. "I should be playing of 15," he says without a hint of irony."
"15? You're one-under-par after six holes!"
"Yes, I play well today."
Unfortunately for Max, we'd seen him play two days earlier at Royal Kiev Golf Club and he was smoking it there and draining putts left right and centre. He should be off four at best and giving me nine shots.
But after six days of golfing in the Ukraine it seemed that the only thing you could be 100% certain of was that you had no idea what was going to happen next. Or why, or how.
It's bonkers. And no wonder. This is a country that has been pilfered and knocked about and abused by everyone from the Ruskies to the Germans. They've been invaded more times that Abi Titmuss's pants.
So much so that the only sense of national identity I could really detect was a vague sense that the Cossacks were a pretty decent bunch – what with all that marauding about the countryside on horses sabotaging whoever was in charge. That and the national football team. They love football.
Unfortunately, they don't love golf. They think it's stupid. Or rather, they think it makes them look stupid because they're not good at it straight away. And they don't like looking foolish. So they don't play golf. To be honest, the market isn't exactly vast either.
There is no middle-class in the Ukraine. You're either skint or a millionaire. So the millionaires build ludicrously expensive golf courses that no one plays on apart from them and their rich mates. The millionaires like the idea of golf because they get 10-year tax exemptions for building hotels at the golf courses.
These hotels are where the wealthy Russians come and stay to look out the window at yet another immaculate golf course not being used.
The golf courses and hotels are staffed by a seemingly endless supply of local youngsters who have never really experienced the service industry on the good side of the bar and so have about all the urgency of a fat cat after a nice meal. You can ask for some ice for your already delivered drink and wait 40-minutes. It can reduce you to tears.
The Ruskies consider themselves to be superior in ever way and order the minions about like they're herding sheep. After all, they did take over the place and install excellent facilities like the rail network. And all that.
This has resulted in a nation of people who are probably the warmest, friendliest and most self-effacing I have ever met. Like the Mexicans, forever in the colossal shadow of the USA, Ukraine is forever suffering from an inferiority complex with Russia.
They used to call Ukraine 'the bread basket of the Soviet Union'. And how everyone laughed. But the Ukranians, like the Mexicans, have a defiant "yeah, whatever, go on flex your muscles and show off but you do know that no one actually likes you, don't you?" attitude to the whole thing.
Ukranians give you the impression that all that capering about at 100 miles an hour is all very well and good, but how about we just sit down and have a glass of Georgian wine and get to know each other?
That's not to say they're unambitious but give them a chance, the Orange Revolution (an epic peaceful demonstration by millions of Ukranians in the centre of Kiev in protest at a rigged election) only happened seven years ago. They're still finding their feet as an independent nation and what with all the bad press they've been getting lately from certain quarters….
Panorama? Panorama?! You should hold your heads in shame. Am I completely mental or was Panorama not once upon a time the watchword for journalistic integrity and investigative reporting? It used to break stories that mattered. Now it just breaks the hearts of innocent bystanders, in this case a whole country of 'racist maniacs'.
If you didn't see Euro 2012: Stadiums Of Hate (no sensationalism in the title then), it basically writes off the entire nation as a breeding ground for nazi scum. Don't go to the Ukraine whatever you do or you'll come home in a pine coffin. The England fan contingent in Kiev was the fewest I've ever seen at a major championship.
Sol Campbell had told everyone to stay at home and watch it on the telly. He may have been lured in by shamelessly unbalanced footage but come on mate, have you actually been there? You might also like to know Sol that, not only were there exactly zero reports of racist incidents at Euro 2012, they also have shopping malls and restaurants and stuff like that in the Ukraine. I mean, who's in charge at Panorama, Chief Wiggum?
We broke our trip to go to the superb Olympic Stadium in Kiev to watch England beat Sweden 3-2. The England fans - outnumbered five to one by the Swedes saved their noisiest chant for the post match celebrations.
With the Sweden fans out of the stadium, the 5,000 England fans united in signing: "Fuck Panorama, fuck Sol Campbell, we're ENGLAND, we'll do what we want!" Made you feel proud to be English.
Anyway, back to the golf, we played three courses – Royal Kiev and Golf Stream in Kiev and the spectacular Golf Superior in Kharkiv. We also swung the wrenches at the Kiev Golf Centre, effectively a driving range smack bang in the middle of the city.
Except that, like everything golf here, it's less a driving range and more a luxury resort with a three-tier range attached. Every facility was majestic in its own way and well worth the two and a half hour plane ride (no it doesn't take nine hours). Kiev itself is a vibrant and welcoming city.
There are great restaurants and bars and as I've possibly said before, the people are very friendly and the girls are stunning. If they couldn't speak English they giggled their way through elaborate mimes in order to make themselves understood.
And if they could speak English (most did) they were as helpful as guide dogs. I thought it was bound to be cold out there but it was 80 degrees most days. And the beer? 50p a pint. Oh, yes.
A beautiful country has been hurt once again by foreign offensive, no doubt about, but the resolve of the Ukranian people is frankly incredible. Hopefully things will calm down, the fighting will stop and normal service will resume soon.
If you – like GolfPunk and Louis Theroux did – decide to take your sticks on a Ukranian holiday, you should take the overnight sleeper train from Kiev to Kharkiv.
The trains are old Soviet style and you have a lady looking after you in every carriage. And by that I mean she will bring you beer, vodka and sandwiches. Then stay and play at the Golf Superior Resort.
You won't be disappointed. And like all the golf courses in the Ukraine, you'll have the place to yourself.