Ukraine’s top amateur golfer is sheltering in a Kyiv basement, praying for peace
Ukraine is not known for its golf scene, even in peaceful times. The nation of 44 million, now under siege by the Russian military, has less than 3,000 registered golfers and only four regulation courses, just two of which would be considered suitable for tournament play. But it does have a crop of talented young players, fostered by an active national golf federation that in recent years has through various grass-roots efforts made big strides in growing participation.
Among the up-and-comers is 15-year-old Mykhailo Golod, a four-time Ukranian Junior champion who now holds the top spot on the national team and who last summer become the first Ukrainian to play in a United States Golf Association event when he competed in the U.S. Junior Amateur, at the Country Club of North Carolina.
Mykhailo, who goes by Misha, is accustomed to darting around the globe to play high-level junior golf. Earlier this year, he tied for sixth at the Junior Orange Bowl, in Coral Gables, Fla., which draws serious sticks from all over the world. Just last month, Misha picked up a pair of titles on a Turkey visit. But the U.S. Junior — which has a glittering list of past champions that includes Johnny Miller, Tiger Woods and Jordan Spieth — is another level. For elite junior golfers, it’s the mountaintop.
“Best experience of my life,” Misha told me. “From tee to green, it was absolutely perfect. It was like playing a Tour event.”
Misha didn’t play his best, failing to advance through the stroke-play portion of the competition, but that hasn’t quelled his desire to try and qualify again this year when the Junior Am moves to the spectacular seaside resort of Bandon Dunes, in southern Oregon.
“I really hope I can get there,” he said.
Whether Misha can get there, of course, now depends on a lot more than just the state of his game. When we spoke by Zoom earlier this week, Misha was holed up with his parents in a dwelling — not his family’s — on the outskirts of Kyiv, where he spends much of his time bunkered in the basement. Just two days earlier, Russian missiles had taken out a TV tower in Kyiv, and, according to satellite images, a 40-mile convoy of Russian tanks and armored vehicles was ominously rumbling toward the city.
“It feels very scary, because before the Russian troops weren’t close to the house, and today we just received news that they’re getting closer,” Misha said. “The last explosion we heard was around 3 miles from here.”
The last explosion we heard was around 3 miles from here.
The last but certainly not the only. Misha said he is regularly woken by thunderous booms or the eerie whine of air-raid sirens.
When we spoke, he was seated in a dimly lighted space and propped up against a wall covered with floral wallpaper. He was in a gray hoodie. He has stylishly cut blond hair, and his English is nearly flawless. His maturity is also striking — 15 going on 35. Misha said he felt fortunate to still have Wi-Fi so he could correspond with friends and log in to his classes. (Assignments have been light, given many of the teachers at his international high school have fled the country.)
The war has been raging for 10 days. Misha has not been outside in a week. His parents — father, Oleg, a logistics manager, and mother, Vita, who works in the medical industry — are homebound with him. Mostly, anyway. “My dad is the risky one in our family, because he gets groceries every three or four days,” Misha said. On Thursday, Vita had to leave their shelter for a pressing work duty. “Very risky,” Misha said.
During our call, I asked Misha if I might speak with one of his parents. Moments later his father appeared; understandably, he wasn’t much in the mood for talking. “Every morning I wake up, I feel like I’m still sleeping,” he said. “I cannot believe this is happening to Ukraine.”
And then he was gone. Misha explained that his father gets emotional talking about the war, largely because he feels responsible for and is so deeply worried about his family’s welfare.
When Misha first started hearing explosions a few days ago, he moved all his valuables — namely his many golf trophies, plaques and medals — to a small room in the basement. He sleeps on the floor in that space next to a 12-foot putting mat that is now his lone golf outlet. He spends about an hour a day rolling putts, doing his best to block out the terrifying reality outside his front door.
More than a million Ukrainians have left the country, seeking refuge beyond its borders. I asked Misha why his family has stayed put.
“We had a lot of chances to evacuate, but we didn’t think that was a wise decision to make because we really didn’t have anywhere to go,” he said. “If we did evacuate, we would probably be stuck in another country for no one knows how long.” Also, Misha said, his father has no choice but to sit tight under the martial law enacted by Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy that prohibits men aged 18 and 60 from leaving the country. “So, we decided to stay. As long we have electricity, water, food, we’re going to be in here.”
On Friday morning Eastern Standard Time, just before this story was published, Misha sent me a message via WhatsApp. He and his parents were on the move again. “This morning we heard explosions super close to our house,” he wrote. “We are on our way to a safer [location] right now.”
Misha was first drawn to golf when he was 6 years old. His father had been out playing and when he returned home showed Misha a video of his swing. “I was instantly interested,” Misha said. He has a slender build but there is athleticism in his blood. His sister, Vitalina, attends Sacred Heart University, in Fairfield, Conn., where she plays on the tennis team.
Misha’s home club is Golfstream GC, about an hour’s drive west of downtown Kyiv. In the summer, he is there seven days a week, 10 hours a day, playing, practicing, absorbing the game in every possible way. “It’s my meditation,” he says.
He has been hearing troubling reports about the club. “The last thing I heard about it was that tanks were arriving on the property, on the golf course, and that Russian soldiers were inside the clubhouse,” he said. “They had a little camp there from what I heard, which is very scary.”
Misha said that “even if the war ended today,” it would be a long time before he’d be back on the range smoothing 7-irons. It’s a 20-mile drive from his house to the club, he said, and 10 miles of that road has been decimated.
Ukraine’s other most prominent golf course, at the Superior Golf & Spa Resort, is in Khariv, Ukraine’s second-biggest city, about 300 miles east of Kyiv. Khariv has been one of Russia’s primary targets. “I have a couple of friends living there and it’s just horrible; they’re spending every single day in basements,” Misha said. “I have no idea about the golf course there, but I would think it’s in danger of being destroyed.”
If the courses are shelled, Misha can’t envision a scenario in which they’d be rebuilt quickly. “Golf in Ukraine won’t have anything for at least 10 years,” he said.
It may seem trivial to think and talk about golf in such desperate times. But in some ways, Misha could use the game — his meditation — today more than ever, just as other Ukrainians may long to kick a ball or drop a rod or walk in the park. Anything to escape the madness.
“It’s been really tough not being on the range, not being able to hit golf balls, even for two weeks,” he said. “Then I start thinking this may continue for the next month, two months, three months…”
Misha is not yet in the U.S. Junior Amateur field at Bandon, and the tournament is a long way from the top of his mind, if it’s in there at all. But should the opportunity avail itself, he will do everything in his power to try and return to the junior game’s grandest stage. All that’s required is one thing that he can control: continuing his fine play. And another that he cannot: for Putin to stand down.
“We’re just here praying for this to end anytime soon,” Misha said, “and for us to be able to live a normal life.”