Golf’s final frontiers: The sport's expansion into Eastern Europe
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Golf’s final frontiers: The sport’s expansion into Eastern Europe

Take a glance at the upper echelons of the Official World Golf Ranking (OWGR), and there are certain flags which appear with predictable regularity. Golf’s traditional heartlands – the likes of the USA, Britain and Ireland, South Africa, Australia and Japan – are, of course, well represented. But recently a couple of less familiar nations have started to appear.

Viktor Hovland became the first Norwegian to win on the PGA Tour at the Puerto Rico Open in February 2020, and in November Carlos Ortiz became the first Mexican to taste victory in more than 40 years.

But there are some players travelling an even less well-trod path in an attempt to reach the peak of the men’s game. As a region, Eastern Europe has been almost completely bypassed by golf, with the sport having been virtually banned under Communism. There are only 25 golf courses in the entirety of Russia. For a country with a population of 144.5 million, that means each course theoretically needs to service 5.8 million people. In the US, the 15,000 courses on offer are the equivalent of one per every 23,000 people. But at the end of 2020, there were three Eastern European players within the top 200 in the world. OK, so Rory Sabbatini’s Slovakian citizenship – obtained by virtue of his marriage to a Slovak national – may still raise a few eyebrows, but we’ll cut him some slack for now.

While Sabbatini is 44 and hasn’t won a tournament of note since 2011, there are a couple of other Eastern European names who appear to be on an upward trajectory.
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Adrian Meronk of Poland ended 2020 ranked 192nd in the world and threatened to win the Alfred Dunhill Championship in November, an event co-sanctioned by the European and Sunshine Tours. He eventually finished tied for second, but that was enough to catapult Meronk inside the top 200 of the OWGR for the first time. Although born in Germany, Meronk’s family moved back to Poland when he was 2 years old, so his Eastern European credentials are a little stronger than Sabbatini’s. Now aged 27, Meronk won on the Challenge Tour in 2019 and became the first Pole to gain a European Tour card the same year. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves – there is still a long way to go before golf becomes mainstream in Poland. Only a few thousand people in the country play the sport at any level, though apparently numbers are growing. However, further success for Meronk could only help bring the sport closer to the forefront of public consciousness.

Adrian Meronk is becoming a more common name on European Tour leaderboards.

Another Eastern (or, perhaps more accurately, Central) European to make a splash on the professional golf scene recently is Ondrej Lieser. The Czech national won the Challenge Tour’s Grand Final in 2020, and this was far from a fluke result – he had also tasted victory in his previous start at the awkwardly-named Andalucia Challenge de España. In fact, Lieser has finished outside the top 15 just twice in his last 13 tournaments, with seven top-fives in that period, including appearances on the third-tier Pro Golf Tour. Although several of those solid performances were not rewarded with OWGR points, such is the lowly status of the Pro Golf Tour, Lieser has risen from well outside the world’s top 500, to 174th in the OWGR at the end of 2020. Like Meronk, Lieser is the first player from his homeland to earn a European Tour card.

At this point, it seems appropriate to pause for a dose of realism. Success on the Challenge Tour is far from a guarantee of future superstar status. Reading through the list of past winners of the Challenge Tour Grand Final reveals one or two big names – Henrik Stenson in 2000, Mike Lorenzo-Vera in 2007, but others fail to elicit any recognition at all in my mind. Most of the more recent champions have so far had solid careers on the European Tour, without pulling up any major trees on the global golf scene. At the moment, Sabbatini, Meronk and Lieser are outliers; pioneers in desperate need of reinforcements. The chances of seeing any of them competing to win a major in the near future would seem to be slim. Yet, the attention they have gained is a reason for encouragement, as is the fact that in KPMG’s 2018 Golf Participation Report for Europe, Lithuania, Romania and Poland were listed as the three countries with the fastest participation growth rate on the continent. Meanwhile, the Czech Republic added the highest number of registered golfers in absolute terms of any European country. These are baby steps, for sure, but there’s plenty of room for optimism.

There’s much more that could be said about parts of the world in which golf lacks a significant presence. Brazil lags well behind neighbouring Argentina in golf facilities despite having a much larger population and land area. The Middle East, though it hosts some high-profile events, has so far failed to produce any notable professionals, and the region has relatively few golf courses. China and India still lag the leading golfing nations, but we can expect that to change in the coming decades, through a combination of economic development and sheer population size.

Of course, there are several factors which will determine the fertility of the (metaphorical) soil for golf’s development in a given country or region. Climate, culture and the availability of suitable land are among them, but one other element which seems inescapable is that of economic development. Golf has, generally speaking, thrived in affluent societies, while poorer ones remain relative golfing deserts. It’s a humbling reminder that the game we love requires huge investment just to build the facility, and then robust turnover to maintain the course, all of which must ultimately be paid for either by the consumer or the taxpayer. The latter option is unlikely to be justifiable in a developing country, while the former often results in golf participation being limited to the wealthy elites.

For those of us who grew up playing the game, it’s easy to forget that the very idea of access to golf is an insuperable barrier for many people. While only a tiny percentage of those who play the game will ever make an impression on the professional stage, there could be thousands of people with the aptitude to succeed in golf who will never even swing a club.

In Africa, for example, 55 percent of the golf holes on the continent are located in South Africa, while many other African nations make do with one solitary course each, if that. Even within South Africa, though, the history of apartheid casts a long shadow over golf. I couldn’t find any statistics on the golf participation rate among South Africa’s black population, but, despite some efforts to diversify, golf still appears to be largely a white activity. In the professional ranks, there are some glimmers of hope, however, with the likes of Keenan Davidse and Toto Thimba Jr having experienced at least some degree of success on the Sunshine Tour. Thimba Jr had a win and a T2 back in 2019, while Davidse tied for second as recently as October 2020.

But it’s not just South Africa where golf is disproportionately played by white people. In the US, only around 18 percent of golfers come from ethnic minority backgrounds, despite these groups accounting for almost 40 percent of the total population. And it’s not as if there’s any greater diversity across the pond: somewhere around 90 percent of English golfers are white, and of those who play weekly, the figure rises to over 99 percent. We could make similar points about the disproportionately male nature of the golfing public, too.

And so we are left to grapple with a number of juxtaposed ideas. Golf is, on the one hand, a truly global game. Every continent has produced major winners. Yet some countries and regions have been left virtually untouched by the game. In other nations, golf is a beloved pastime enjoyed by millions – but mainly by people who share a similar background and skin color. I have little doubt that over the next few decades, we will see more professionals from atypical golfing nations break through with eye-catching performances, but perhaps our focus should be on golf’s final frontiers of wealth, race and gender within our own societies.

About the author

David Oakley

David Oakley

David Oakley first fell in love with golf in his native UK, but relocated to Dallas, Texas in 2019. This provides plenty of opportunities for Ryder Cup-based banter, as well as the ability to follow the PGA TOUR more closely. When not writing about golf, he works as an analyst in the automotive industry. Follow him on Twitter @DaveOakley89.

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