Adrian Meronk: Forging the Polish golf frontier
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Adrian Meronk: Forging the Polish golf frontier

Adrian Meronk from Poland is making a splash on the Challenge Tour

There was a time, not too long ago, when East European golf was represented by Yevgeny Kafelnikov.

Yes, that Yevgeny Kafelnikov. The former world No. 1 ranked tennis player who has made 27 starts on the European and Challenge Tours, averages 81.21 swings per lap of the course and has never made a cut.

It was somehow typical of the sport's tentative extension into what was once the Soviet Union because the second most-famous male golfer from those parts was the Ukraine's Andriy Shevchenko; a soccer player, who's played in the Sunningdale foursomes in England, a cherished tournament which kicks off the amateur season every Spring.

To complete the hat-trick of oddball golfing wannabes, Vera Shimanskaya sought invites on the Ladies European Tour, but the winner of an Olympic gold medal for Rhythmic Gymnastic in 2000 is Kafelnikov-standard (9 starts, 81.07 average).

The ladies game has witnessed victories by Slovakia's Zuzana Kamasova on the LET and Russia's Anastasia Kostina on the LET's secondary circuit. Otherwise the cupboard has been bare.

But the Challenge Tour, this week holding its NBO Golf Classic Grand Final at Al Mouj Golf in Oman, has been a force for good.

Tournaments have been held in Kazakhstan and Russia for a long time, the Czech Republic is also now a common destination, whilst Poland, Azerbaijan, Slovakia and Slovenia have all been visited.

Director Alain De Soultrait considers taking the game around the world to be a key aim of the Challenge Tour and, whilst some carp about the presence of high-scoring locals, it would be wise to peer back at the leaderboards of the European Tour in the 1970s, when it visited West European tournaments with a short history of the sport - a similar pattern emerges because progress takes time.

However in recent years there has been a notable rise in the number of Eastern European names in the entries to the continent's finest amateur events and word would come from coaches who visited the likes of the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland that new talent was waiting to blossom.

This year the Challenge Tour may have witnessed the first tangible sign of that with the emergence of 24-year-old Adrian Meronk from Poland.

It's firstly important to stress that the idea of Meronk somehow representing all of Eastern Europe is somewhat ridiculous. Any Frenchman asked if he performs on behalf of all Western Europe would be baffled (and 52% of Englishmen - the Brexit voters - would presumably be utterly appalled).

Rather it would be fairer to view him as a sign that a lot of hard work undertaken in the wider region over the last 30 years is coming to fruition and, in his individual case, most of it is, of course, self-driven.

His success in the unpaid ranks was impressive, reaching No. 8 in the world rankings, winning the strokeplay section of the 2013 Amateur Championship at Royal Cinque Ports, reaching the semi-final stage three years later at Royal Porthcawl and making two European Palmer Cup teams.

Moreover his time at East Tennessee State University was a great success.

"I was only the third Pole to ever play college golf in America," the 6'6" Wroclaw native told Golf News Net at the Grand Final. "I was the first Pole to win there though and I did so five times. It was pretty cool because I got to play pretty much when I liked."

A strong contrast with his experience at home.

"We have no golf in winter because of snow and very few courses anyway. It was three hours every week to play. We drove away from home for the weekend to golf, nothing in the week. It was too far to travel. Then we'd spend holidays in Portugal and Spain."

He opened his 2016 season with tied fifth in the Barclays Kenya Open, but was outside the top 45 in the rankings heading into last week's Ras Al Khaimah Golf Challenge. He required a big week and he came one shot from having a great one when his final round 67 set a target only Jens Dantrop could match. Alas, the Swede defeated Meronk in the play-off, denying him the first Polish win at this level.

If that was the bad news, the good was that his check earned him enough points to qualify for Grand Final and his opening rounds of 67-69 leave him in a tie for fourth heading into the final 36 holes.

He needs solo second to secure a first Polish European Tour card and should he do so the timing would be perfect.

"This year we have Polish Golf Channel for the first time ever," he said. "It includes coverage of the Challenge Tour, they even called me during the transmission last week to talk through my near miss."

Coverage in the national media is less forthcoming, but Meronk has plans.

"I am trying to change it and the possibilities are exciting," he said. "I'm very proud to be the first player form my country at this level. Hopefully I can reach the European Tour and show the young players what they can achieve."

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Matt Cooper