He had made a 9 on the par-5 5th hole, Alexander Gruzdov said last week at the BMW Russian Open, because he had hit his drive into a bush. The bush was thick, so it took him two tries to get his ball back onto the fairway. Then the 23year-old amateur had unwisely gone for the green with a long iron, hooking his ball into a guarding creek. A penalty drop, a pitch and three putts later, Gruzdov walked
away with the almost certain knowledge that he was not going to become the first Russian to make the cut in a European tour event. "I made a tactical mistake," he told me later through an interpreter. "I should have chosen a three-wood off the tee."
I nodded, but I had read enough Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky to know that something more profound than club selection explained Gruzdov's downfall. He grew up, after all, in a two-room, ground-floor flat in one of those dismal nine-story apartment blocks that disfigure the Moscow skyline. ("He is the son of a lowly mother," a Russian golf apparatchik told me, "a middle school chemistry teacher.") It didn't help, either, that Gruzdov's home course, the nine-hole Moscow City Golf Club, is little more than a pitch-and-putt that is blanketed, during the long Russian winter, by two or three feet of snow. "There is no way you can improve yourself if you play only half the year," Gruzdov said, watching a light rain fall on the tall pines and silver birches surrounding the log clubhouse of Le Meridien Moscow Country Club, Russia's only 18-hole course.
"Who taught you to play?" I asked.
He shrugged. "Nobody."
Who was there to learn from? At 14 Gruzdov had picked up the fundamentals while caddying for duffers at Moscow City, and later he studied some instruction videos, although he doesn't remember the names of the teaching pros who had made them. "It's really hard to learn like that," he said, "with nobody watching you to point out mistakes."
Maybe so, I said, but he now had a sound, powerful swing that compared favorably with those of the European tour players entered in the 12th Russian Open. As the country's current national champion, he was regarded by many as Mother Russia's best golfer. "Is it your goal to play as a professional?" I asked.
His weak smile spoke volumes. "You cannot jump over your own head," he said. "To be better I need to be in training and play all year, but there is no money for that. I can maybe become a club professional."
I told Gruzdov that he sounded discouraged.
His answer was straight out of a Chekhov drama: "I despair."