ALMATY, KAZAKHSTAN | Here in Almaty at the foot of the Tien Shan mountains in Kazakhstan, it is pleasantly hot. The September sunshine bears no resemblance to the searing heat of midsummer when it can reach 100 degrees fahrenheit but it is still a gentle 75. On these days in late summer, black, crow-like birds have arrived on the golf courses and soon their beaks are busy unearthing insects and worms.
The Kazakhstan Open conjures up images of Mongol hordes thundering down from the hills on scrawny horses, their robes flowing in the breeze, knives in their teeth and plundering travellers on the Silk Route. Not quite the Waste Management Phoenix Open, is it?
“This is Genghis Khan country” says Jamie Hodges, of Parallel Media, the event’s promoter, looking out from the marbled splendour of the terrace of the Zhailjau golf club where the Open is taking place over a golf course designed by Arnold Palmer.
Kazakhstan, one of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics until 1991 and independent since then, is the largest landlocked nation and the ninth-largest country in the world. Inhabited by only 15.5 million people, it is also one of the least populated.
But what it hasn’t got in inhabitants, it has in minerals. It is said that Kazakhstan has some of almost every mineral in the world, as well as huge resources of gas, oil and petrol, which give it huge economic clout. It is striving to become one of the world’s most developed countries in the next 20 years and expects to have a gross domestic product 30-percent higher next year than this.
As this happens, Kazakhs have abandoned their traditional sports for more contemporary ones. Its rugby team has reached the play-offs for next year’s rugby World Cup final in New Zealand, and though the Kazakhstan Open only started in 2005, the country’s wealth made it the largest purse of that year and ever since on the European Challenge Tour.
The Challenge Tour is a multi-cultural journey around Europe, mainly, but not always, by airplane. Participants speak different languages, come from varied cultural backgrounds and are united in their love of golf. In this year’s Kazakhstan Open, for example, 19 different countries were represented. Travel on a players’ coach to or from a tournament and you can hear four, five or six different languages being spoken simultaneously.
The growth of golf in a country that is five-times the size of Texas started at Nurtau golf club 16 years ago. It is now played at five 18-hole clubs and one nine-hole club. Kazakhstan expects to stage a European Tour event in 2012 on a course designed by Colin Montgomerie.
Alain de Soultrait, the boss of the Challenge Tour, remembers the first time he visited the country to discuss the possibility of staging a tournament.
“I met the president, who was playing golf with a few cronies. The shafts of his golf clubs were coated with gold and he used a driver that had a diamond in the face. Perhaps 20 people knew about golf then. I find Kazakhstan is fascinating. The environment is exceptional. The moment I stepped off the plane and saw the Tien Shan mountains, I was struck by how powerful they were. They are the foothills of the Himalayas. The culture is fascinating. The people are remarkable. They are everything but stupid. “
Konstantin Lifanov, a golf professional and general secretary of the Kazakhstan Golf Federation, occasionally has to play with the president.
“He started golf in Kazakhstan” Lifanov said. “He picked it up in Singapore where he met some Japanese and decided to bring it home. The Open is good for us. We can introduce Kazakhstan as a tourist venue through the medium of golf. If 132 players come to play in Almaty that means we have 132 ambassadors flying around the world and telling another 132 players about golf in Kazakhstan. They say that Kazakhstan is a good place, good with tourists and that the golf is good. That can’t be bad, can it?”
Nurtau, the oldest golf course in the country, was used for the Open in the early days and players and officials stayed in a large white sanatorium at the end of the course where a fierce-looking babushka guarded each floor.
Now everyone is accommodated at the Hyatt Regency in a wide street in Almaty, where the hotel bookshop stocks dozens of Penguin Popular Classics, paperback books by Dickens and Shakespeare. Now, large, racy cars roar down the streets along which Leon Trotsky walked in 1928, having been exiled from Moscow. And now the apple orchards that once made Almaty famous are disappearing.
Not that Alvaro Velasco minded particularly. The Spaniard won the 2010 Kazakhstan Open with a 72-hole total of 21-under par, one stroke better than the winning total of Edoardo Molinari last year. As well as the trophy, Velasco collected a cheque for €64,000. In Almaty, which means the “Father of the Apple,” Velasco had pulled out an enormous plum.