Kazakhstan – One Of The World’s Newest Nations Getting To Grips With The Ancient Game.

It’s just two decades since Kazakhstan broke from the Soviet Union to form an independent state.

Kazakhstan lies where Europe meets Asia.

Bernie McGuire reported on the Kazakhstan Open a few years back and he recounts his experience for www.golfbytourmiss.com in travelling to one of the newest countries in the world to grasp the ancient club and ball game.

While the origins of the game of golf still remain uncertain there’s no doubting when golf  game was first played in Kazakhstan – 1991.

That’s the year the former Soviet State became a republic.

In fact, it became the last Soviet state to declare independence on December 16, 1991 whilst Nursultan Nazarbayev was declared the new country’s first President, and it was Nazarbayev’s fondness for golf that helped introduce golf to the country.

Welcome to the Kazakhstan Open – the Nurtau Golf Club

And the President enjoys his golf so much he arranged for a stunning mansion to be built overlooking the 10th green of the newly constructed Arnold Palmer designed Zhailjau in Almaty.

Kazakhstan is the world’s ninth largest country and is also the world’s largest landlocked country.

The nation is bordered by Russia, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and China.

It was Kazakhstan that Russian Yuri Gagarin became the first human to be launched into space and also orbit the Earth in 1961.

The Kazakhstan Open is the richest event on the secondary European Challenge Tour and was first played in 2005 but one wonders what this new nation made of Ireland’s Stephen Browne, and the event’s first winner, when he burst into song with a rendition of ‘Danny Boy’ at the prize-giving ceremony.

Browne also does a good interpretation of fellow Irishman and triple Majors winner Padraig Harrington but more about Browne and the talents of another Irishman in Michael Hoey later in my recollection.

Location board – Kazakhstan Open

I had been invited by Jamie Hodges of Parallel Media Group to travel to cover the 2008 Kazakhstan Open.

It seemed a marvellous idea as all but a few of my European Tour media colleagues had crossed the Atlantic and were in Kentucky, USA for the Ryder Cup, and it meant I had a 10-hour start on those reporting on the event in the U.S.

Almaty is a city of 1.4m and it was as the capital under Soviet rule before power for the running of the country was transferred in 1997 to the smaller city of Astana.

Astana also is the name of the official airline that flew players to and from Europe.

After a one-hour flight from Edinburgh to Amsterdam, it was then a six-hour overnight flight and arriving in Almaty at around 5.00am.

First task was to pay $US 70 for an entry visa. No problem!

Fifth hole at the Nurtau Golf Club in Almaty.

What began worrying me as I stood at the visa counter was that more and more flights were arriving and the nearby customs queues were getting longer and longer.

With my passport returned to me, I boldly asked if I could go to the front of the queue seeing I’d been be waiting for a visa for close to 45-minutes.

“No! Back of the queue,” is how I interpreted the response.

I finally got through customs around 6.15am and then began looking for my luggage and club.  Luggage and golf clubs located I headed for the exit and made my way to the on-course hotel.

However the hotel was not a Best Western, Marriott or Hilton but a former KGB sanitorium.

I had been invited also to compete in the Pro-Am playing alongside Scotland’s Greig Hutcheon, and I knew Greig well as I had spoken to him many times in my reporting for Scoland’s Daily Record.

Scotland’s Greig Hutcheon (third from left) leads our pro-am team to third place.

It was 11am shotgun start in bright warm sunshine from the 18th hole of the Nurtau course.

Nurtau was the first golf club built in Kazakhstan when nine holes were opened up for play in 1996 before a further nine was added. The outward nine, that is really the back nine for Nartau members, is the newer nine whilst the more mature back nine for the touranment was the more mature nine.

I recall that the Challenge Tour members had been forced to play under a one-club preferred lie rule a week early in China, so the splendid looking Nurtau course was a welcome change.

The course was as good as any A-grade course you would find anywhere in the world with lush fairways, superb greens and where water came into play on some 12 holes. Though in winter the course and most of Kazakhstan is buried under feet of snow.

Aussie Matthew Zions.

Greig holed two eagle putts in the scramble format of the Pro-Am whilst I remember holing two net birdies on route to a team score of 61.

However come presentation time we missed out by three stokes in each being handed a splendid piece of cyrstal.

Scotland’s Steven O’Hara led the opening two rounds with scores of 66 and 68 ahead of the tournament’s first official function – ‘The Cut Party’.

Two buses were put on to take the players and a handful of officials into a city nightclub – The Copacubna Club. Also on board were around a dozen female caddies as the club principally employs the 18 to 25 young women to caddy and, with the exception of a few, all those competing in the tournament were using the girls to caddy for the week.

So we headed off the city but no sooner had the buses left the hotel and a fellow working with the tournament got on the bus and ordered the young women from the back of the bus.

Then as we left the resort here was the group of women walking alongside the rough. “Stop the bus! Stop the bus!” came the cry from the players. So the bus pulled over. The girls jumped aboard but no sooner were they settled and the same fellow stopped his car and came on the bus singing out in Russian: “Off the bus!”. So the girls were kicked off for a second time.

“Quiet Please”

We arrived at the nightclub to be greeted by the staff and a superb buffet along with complimentary red wine and vodka. It’s just that you had to pay for your beers.

I bumped into Aussie golfers Matt Zions and John Wade and had a couple of beers with them.

Unfortunately, Melbourne’s Andrew Tampion and Hutcheon had been struck down by food poisoning with Tampion, who had won his first event in Ireland, only managing six second round holes whilst Hutcheon had been disqualified when he failed to make his 12 noon tee off.

It was not till Sunday morning that I learnt he had been in bed for two days.

But back to the party.

The young caddies finally arrived and it didn’t take long for them to liven up the dancefloor much to the delight of the players.

The first bus was due to return to the hotel at midnight but given there was no takers, the two buses left at 1am with everyone looking forward to some shuteye.

Zhailljau C’house (Left) & stunning new hotel (right)

headed off on Saturday morning to the new Palmer designed Zhailjau course located around a 20-minute taxi drive from the hotel.

There I introduced myself to the club professional and was allocated a caddy.

After hitting a dozen or so balls on the range it was off for a round on the 6,944-yard course though I elected to play off the white member tees that made the course play about 900-yards shorter.

The caddy, a 25-year old woman, spoke wonderful English indicating that English is compulsory in high school. I enquired of her how much of the 3,000 tenge I paid in the pro shop for the caddy does she receive.

Unfortunately, she replied ‘880’ and from that amount the club deducts meal costs.

All about the course is evidence of the wealth in Kazakhstan with many houses still under construction and they’re houses that easily mirror some of the grandioest seen on any American resort course including one overlooking the 10th green that the caddy pointed out to me that’s owned by the country’s President.

Standing in front of the President’s mansion beside the 12th green.

Zhailjau has only been opened a short while but it was probably one of the best Palmer courses I’ve played.

I thanked my caddy and then, much to her delight, handed her the amount that the club had asked of me initiatlly.

I then found my way back to Nartau where later in the day where England’s Gary Lockerbie had overtaken O’Hara to take a one shot lead into the final round.

On Sunday morning the organisers arranged a car, driver and an interpreter to take up up in the stunning 4,000 metre high snow-capped mountains that overlook the city.

Joining me was Browne, who has missed the cut along with Paul Symes, the European Tour Press Officer.

Bernie, Stephen Browne (winner of 1st ever Kazakhstan Open) and European Tour’s Paul Symes.

And guess who our driver was? The same fellow who had kicked the girls off the bus two nights before.

We visited a massive ice-skating stadium built by the Russians that Kazakhstan is hoping will be the focal point if awarded the 2014 Winter Olympics. Our hosts also took us to a ski resort at about 2,300 metres where we had coffee and a look around before making our way back to the course.

Lockerbie, a former Walker Cup star, eventually carded a last day 70 to win by two strokes and claim a maiden pro victory. But no sooner had the 25-year old been handed the stunning trophy and the end-of-tournament celebration party was in full cry.

There were two Russian heavyweights manning the bar-b-que, a complimentary bar with more vodka and this time there was no stopping the caddies who were up dancing to the music.

With final round TV coverage of the Ryder Cup due to start at midnight and the buses heading to the airport at 5.30am for an 8.30am flight, the big decision was whether to party to 12 and then stay up and watch the Ryder Cup or try and grab a few hours sleep.

Russian built ice skating arena where many world records were set.

After enjoying some superb bab-b-qued kebabs and a few beers, I chose the later. I got a wake-up call for 4.45am and then in the darkness found my way onto one of two buses to convey us to the airport.

Of course, the majority of players had stayed up all night partying and were now trying to catch a few minutes sleep though there was plenty also awake, and also in shock that Europe had lost the Ryder Cup by five points to the Americans.

Browne and Hoey were at the front of the bus and had everyone in stitches with their conversation.

Browne mimicked Harrington whilst Hoey did a superb impersonation of Graeme McDowell.

Browne’s could do Harrington to a tee, and after Nick Faldo had leaked his pairings to the press by showing a so-called ‘sandwich list’, Browne, as Harrington, revealed why Europe had come undone at Valhalla.

“Eirr! It was the sandwiches! Definitely the sandwiches,” Browne said in his Harrington tone.

”Eirr! I said to Nick I wanted a tuna toasty and I got a ham and tomato!”

There are strong rumours Kazakhstan will one day host a main European Tour event and I know I will be adding the event to my schedule.

You won’t find Kazakhstan on any golfing destination map but in journeying to this region of the world where Europe meets Asia, why not make you way to the Nurtau and Zhailjau golf courses – you will be pleasantly surprised.

‘Fly’ over the course…

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