Russia's golf glamour girl hopes to make her mark on the Evian Championship fairway
EVIAN, France -- It's a little known fact that prior to this summer's Rio Olympics one nation already had two gold medalists in its professional golfing ranks. That country was Russia, the athletes were tennis star Yevgeny Kafelnikov and gymnast Vera Shimanskaya, and neither of them was in Rio.
But Maria Verchenova was.
The 30-year-old from Moscow may not be Russia's most famous professional golfer, but she is comfortably the nation's best player of the game and, having set the Olympic course record (and posted a hole-in-one) in the process of finishing tied for 16th, she's rubber stamped that reputation.
There was also the little matter of her hat and her dresses: They were flamboyant. They made an impression on sport's biggest stage, and these details matter.
Golfers who are not golfers? Big hats and retro dresses? It seems to be a rule in Russian golf that the curiosities are always integral, rather than incidental, to the tale.
The Evian Championship, the fifth and final major in the LPGA season, takes place this week in the French spa town of Evians-les-Bains on the waters of Lake Leman overlooked by the snow-peaked mountains of the Alps.
As a venue it reeks of old world French glamour, of the resorts which played host to Europe's aristocrats and mega-rich in the early decades of the 20th century. It was also the very destinations the Russian elite escaped to following the Revolution, where they discovered golf and created the first Russian club, in Cannes during the 1920s.
Nearly 100 years later, ahead of her fourth appearance in the event, Verchenova reflects on a month that has changed her profile around the world. And when she talks about the outfits which captured the attention of the world, she does so with a nod to the past.
"I think my dresses are very elegant," she says. "I've always liked it that in the early days of ladies golf they wore elegant dresses, but now it is more like sportswear. I wanted to return to those old styles. The hat is more sensible. I've been wearing for a few years now, to protect myself from the sun."
Through 54 holes in Rio, the outfits garnered more attention than her scores, a little like her career in microcosm. It's fair to say that she is best known for her magazine shoots. But just as her 13 top-20 finishes on the Ladies European Tour prove, she can play the game. So did her final round in Rio -- a superb 9-under 62 which drew attention to her golf after the cameras and commentators had focused on the hat most of the week.
The highlight was her 6-iron at the 155-yard par-3 fourth (her 13th hole of the day) which dropped for a hole-in-one, not that she knew it.
"It was quite funny," she laughs. "You can see on TV that I'm not quite sure. There weren't many people behind the green, but they were cheering and so I was asking my caddie 'What happened? What happened?' and he was asking me the same question. I only found out for sure when I overheard the scorer's radio say 'Verchenova 8-under.' It was an amazing moment."
On sport's greatest stage she had played the round of her life.
"It really was one of those days. I was hitting it well all week, but the tactics were wrong. The greens were hard and we were hitting the ball low into them and running through the back. So we talked about it, decided to hit higher approaches, and it worked."
That week in Rio was a long way from her introduction to the game on a vacation with her father in the Czech Republic at age 12. She had dreamed of becoming a ballerina, swayed by the beauty of the dancing, but was now taken by the beauty of golf courses and honed her game at Moscow Country Club.
The Moscow course is a Robert Trent Jones Jr. design which was first mooted in the 1970s by the American business tycoon Armand Hammer. The son of a Russian emigre, he dreamed that golf could draw Russia back into the international community. Leonid Brezhnev, then general secretary of the Soviet Union, thought otherwise. Moscow had to wait until 1993 for it to be built.
For Verchenova, the course, which trails through thick, dacha-dotted forest in the suburb of Nakhabino, was where she fostered her dreams and where more recently she plays golf with Yevgeny Kafelnikov, two-time tennis Grand Slam winner and the tennis gold medalist at the 2000 Sydney Olympics.
At the same Sydney Games, Vera Shimanskaya claimed gold in rhythmic gymnastics. Today both athletes are professional golfers, but, with a combined count of zero cuts made in 35 appearances on major tours, there is a gulf in class between themselves and Verchenova.
What they do all share is the status of Olympians, something Verchenova cherishes personally and recognizes the importance of for her sport.
"The whole week was a buzz," she says. "I stayed in the Olympic village because I wanted to feel the excitement. Seeing the other athletes going to their event in the morning was so unusual and exciting, so different from any other tournament.
"For me it was something else. I was so proud to be the only Russian representative and to know the whole country was supporting me was amazing.
It would have been nice to have support like other nations and to have a role model, but I want to do my best to be a pioneer.Russian golfer Maria Verchenova
"The Olympics is in our blood. Ever since I was little every two years, winter or summer, we all watch the Games and support our players, it is very prestigious to represent Russia."
The final round drama was picked up by Russian broadcasters and prompted a welcoming party on her return.
"It was such a long journey home, we were stuck in Madrid six hours, but when we arrived the people were still standing there at the airport. A group of junior golfers from Moscow CC had waited six hours for me. They were just young kids, but they gave me flowers as congratulations."
As a youngster herself, Verchenova had limited assistance outside her family. Not only was there little in the way of structure for the still fledgling game, but it very definitely remains a pastime for the elite in Russia. The recently opened Tseleevo Golf and Polo Club, peppered with fake Greek temples and boasting a helicopter park, is rumored to have (and need) less than 20 members. Even if that is not true, the fact many believe it could easily be is instructive in itself.
"It would have been nice to have support like other nations and to have a role model," says Verchenova, "but I want to do my best to be a pioneer. I did a lot of speaking about golf before the Games, lots of photo shoots, TV and interviews. I wanted to promote Russian golf. But who knows if they will put money in?"
Ahead of this week's challenge she is keen.
"Rio has given me confidence. It shows what I can do. I know it is only one round, but then I remember how much work I put into this. I've worked hard with my coach, my gym coach, my psychologist. The 62 was the result of that hard work. Hopefully it will push me on. I also won the European qualifying for Evian back in May, that was another boost."
At the end of the year she will head to qualifying school, hoping to write the latest chapter in the quirky story of Russian golf -- the one about the Russian girl in the big hat winning a card to play on the LPGA.