The five-iron curtain
By Nic Brook 19/06/2010
Golf in Kazakhstan? NIC BROOK takes his clubs and loses his doubts
If you consider the world’s great golfing distnations, Kazakhstan doesn’t immediately spring to mind. It is, it’s fair to say, a long way from Pebble Peach, California, where this weekend the game’s greats are battling it out for theh US Open.
The only bunkers I could find reference to before my trip were ones from the Soviet era nuclear bomb test sites.
But as I stood at the side of the 18th green at the Zhailjau Golf Resort (www.zgr.kz) course watching the opening round of The Kazakhstan Open – the richest and arguably most important event on the PGA European Challenge Tour – it all became clear, literally.
It had been miserably wet on my first day in the former capital Almaty. Suddenly, the mists and low cloud started to clear and as the weather improved so did my spirits.
The most stunning and beautiful looking golf landscape I’ve ever set eyes on was unfolding before me.
Broad sweeping fairways and smooth, undulating greens were slowly coming into focus.
To the south, towering snowcapped peaks of the Tien Shan mountain range were unveiled in early evening sunshine.
Standing there I quietly thanked whoever it was in Kazakhstan who commissioned Arnold Palmer’s company to design a course in this remote territory.
Not for nothing is Arnie regarded as “The King” of golf.
He doesn’t lend his signature to anything less than perfect. And this was golfing heaven!
Golf is new to Kazakhstan. It is only now, since the collapse of communism and break-up of the USSR in the early 1990s, that the Kazakhs have been allowed to embrace a game once regarded as the most dubious of bourgeois sports.
Fortunately, Nursultan Nazarbayev, the nation’s president, enjoyed his introduction to golf when he visited the US in 1994.
Two years later, he backed a plan for a nine-hole course at the Alatau health resort near Almaty. Within six months the planned membership of 50 had spiralled to over 300 and the course was extended to a full 18 holes. That course became the delightful Nurtau Golf Club (www.nurtau.kz) and the first of six courses across the country to date.
When Italian Edoardo Molinari won the U64,000 prize at the Kazakhstan Open’s (www.kazakhstanopen.com), it saw him catapulted on to the bigger European Tour this season and well on his way to the chance of a place in Colin Montgomerie’s European team at this year’s Ryder Cup in Wales.
Kazakhstan’s love of the game is a proud sign of the nation’s new independence – a declaration that Kazakhs are open to business investment and keen to share their heritage with a wider audience.
Visitors are now welcome… and there is plenty to see.
Travellers have passed through Kazakhstan for many centuries. Almaty was just one of the stopping points on the Great Silk Road, which marked the trade route from Europe to China and the Far East.
Now it is at the heart of an affluent and thriving economy, clearly benefiting from Kazakhstan’s oil and mineral wealth. There seemed more fancy 4x4s on the roads than you’d find in Chelsea.
A modern city keen to embrace the West, it’s also trying to celebrate cultural traditions long suppressed by communism.
It has a population of just 16million but Kazakhstan is the ninth largest country in the world, pretty near the size of the whole of western Europe.
The old capital is Almaty, meaning “rich in apples”, and is a city once famed for its orchards. The fruit here is from trees that were the forbears of many of the varieties we have over-farmed in the West.
Wide, tree-lined boulevards and a grid street plan mean you must learn to look beyond the trees to see the grandiose Russian “colonial-style” buildings to get your bearings.
One of the grandest of these is the Kazakhstan Hotel (www.khotel.kz). For many years this 26-storey concrete tower was the tallest building in this seismic-sensitive region. At 334ft and topped by an elegant crown, it’s iconic. The rooms are plain but comfortable and it’s ideally situated for exploring the city.
Just a short walk away is a municipal garden that commemorates the 28 guardsmen from Major General Ivan Panfilov’s Kazakh Division who died in 1941 defending Moscow against advancing German tanks.
Several Second World War monuments adorn Panfilov park – the most impressive is a huge bronze of the heroes.
The memorial is overlooked by Holy Ascension Zenkov Cathedral. The Russian church was constructed in 1904 entirely from Tien Shan fir tree wood – and without a single nail. It was the only building of note to survive the Almaty quake (believed to be a magnitude of nine) of 1911.
For those seeking a more adventurous trip, Almaty is a great base for exploring a unique landscape. It’s home to ancient tribes’ rock carvings, some 3,000 years old, that adorn the cliffs and chasms of a UNESCO site at the Tamgaly Temple of the Sun, 105 miles northwest of Almaty.
Kazakhs love their horses and hunting. And trekking adventures can be arranged as can trips where you can learn about Sayat – the traditional methods of hunting with golden eagles (www.kazakhstan.orexca.com).
Coming up, the city hosts the Asian Winter Games in 2011 and the ski resort at Chimbulak in the Zailii Alatau gorge is being spruced up accordingly. Only 15.5 miles and a 20-minute drive from the city it has a consistent snow cover of 5ft from November to May. Three chairlifts take you to the Talgar Pass (7,418ft with a vertical ski drop of 2,961ft), and the climate is perfect for skiing. Ice skaters will love the Medeu Ice Rink further down the gorge. At 5,576ft it’s the world’s biggest open-air ice rink and a former training base for Soviet Olympic skaters.
As for golf, I’m sure it will flourish. I enjoyed a game at Nurtau with Konstantin Lifanov, the former Russian Open champion who is now director of golf at the club. We were joined on the back nine by Kazakhstan junior champion, 10-year-old Daulet Tuleubaev, who announced his arrival by almost holing his tee shot on the 10th.
Daulet was as keen as mustard about the game and a joy to be with.
Watching him and his enthusiasm for the game changed my attitude about golf being an Olympic discipline.
If it means that youngsters in countries like Kazakhstan can dream of one day teeing up with the world’s best then great!
I maybe wouldn’t wish him to be the next Tiger but he definitely had the smile of a Seve and you never know.
I just thought how superb it would be to see him or one of his pals one day lifting the Ryder Cup for Europe – and really putting Kazakhstan on the golfing map.
Nic flew with Air Astana, www.airastana.com. Return flights from ?470 approx.
He stayed at the four-star Kazakhstan Hotel, Almaty, rooms from ?150 a night.
To contact the National Golf Federation of Kazakhstan email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Time zone: GMT+6hrs
Currency: ?1 = 220.7 tenge
Best time to go: The 2010 Kazakhstan Open, September 9-12, at the Zhailjau Golf Resort