Young Ukrainian golf fan has memorable day at PLAYERS
9 Min Read
Written by Helen Ross @helen_pgatour
Ukrainian junior golfer goes inside the ropes at TPC Sawgrass
Mykhailo Golod got to be a 15-year-old kid again on Monday.
The tall, slender teenager who last week had desperately fled the war in Ukraine with his mother found himself at TPC Sawgrass and introduced to a chorus of hearty cheers as an honorary observer at THE PLAYERS Championship.
“That’s a moment I’ll remember for a long time,” says Misha, who walked the first nine holes of the final round inside the ropes with world No. 1 Jon Rahm, Justin Thomas and Doc Redman.
The four-time Ukrainian Junior champion was at the iconic 17th hole to see his favorite player, Rory McIlroy, make birdie, too. He met Joaquin Niemann, Viktor Hovland and Harold Varner III, as well.
For a few blessed hours the sound of bombs crashing into buildings and shrill air raid sirens that erupted 20 to 30 times a day to alert him and his family of more devastation on the horizon could be, well, not forgotten because that will never happen, but at least compartmentalized.
And in a 20-minute phone conversation as Misha waited for McIlroy to arrive at the 17th tee, it was clear the teen was grateful for the way the golf community came together in a matter of days to facilitate his exodus from Ukraine and help him establish a temporary home in Florida.
The saga began two weeks ago with an article by Joel Beall in Golf Digest. Among those touched by Misha’s situation was noted golf instructor David Leadbetter, who reached out to his long-time friend, Jim Nugent, who is on the board of the American Junior Golf Association.
At Nugent’s urging, the AJGA started a fund-raising effort to help Misha with his expenses. Jump-starting the campaign was a five-figure contribution from the Country Club of North Carolina, which hosted last summer’s U.S. Junior Amateur -- and Misha, the first Ukrainian to play in the national championship.
The TOUR and the other major golf organizations have also collaborated with UNICEF to raise funds to help the war-torn country through Golfers For Ukraine.
Leadbetter offered Misha a scholarship to his golf academy. A sophomore at an international high school in Kyiv, Misha – who speaks Ukrainian, Russian, English fluently, as well as Spanish -- will finish the year remotely, then enroll in a school locally. His dream is to play golf in college, and he realizes that the events of the last two weeks have enhanced that possibility.
But there is a caveat, always a caveat, when you have seen your country reduced to rubble and ruins.
“I'm very happy for the opportunity I got to come to Florida to be in an academy to still pursue my goals,” Misha says. “But at the same time, I'm very worried about my family and friends back home.
“So, I'll have to always think positive, and I'll have to always think that this is going to be over soon and I'm going to bring my family to be here with me.”
While he is in the United States, Misha will stay with Leadbetter’s assistant. His mother, Vita, returned to Ukraine on Sunday to be with her husband, Oleg, and their elderly parents.
“It was hard, but I wanted to go through it very quickly, so I don't get emotional,” Misha says. “And it wasn't good-bye, it was a ‘see you’ because I knew that I was going to see her in a short while after everything is done.
“She and my father are going to come visit me regularly, once everything opens, and I just really hope it happens as soon as possible.”
Misha says Feb. 24, the day the Russians, completely unprovoked, invaded Ukraine and set off a humanitarian and military crisis, was the “worst morning of my life.”
Oleg had gone to be with his own father, who had just been released from the hospital. He planned to stay several days to get his dad settled and help around the house.
Misha’s phone rang in the wee hours of the morning.
“His first words were: ‘The war has started. I’m coming back. I’m coming home,’” Misha recalls. “I didn’t really understand what was happening because it was 5 a.m. in the morning and then I heard the news.
“I saw that Russia had declared war and already missiles were flying over the border. They were hitting military buildings in Ukraine first, and then of course, they started hitting civilians. So, it just went downhill from there.”
Misha woke his mother up and delivered the news.
“It was just awful,” he recalls.
Like many, Misha had thought – and fervently, hoped – the Russians had just assembled at the border in a show of power. After all, it wasn’t the first time in his short lifetime the two countries had been at odds. In 2014, Misha, his mother and older sister Vitalina had fled to New York, where they stayed for a year, to escape the fighting.
“I thought they were just trying to scare everybody,” Misha says. “I didn't think they would actually attack Ukraine, but that’s what's happening in right now.
“It's unexplainable. They're attacking their neighbor. They're attacking people who share language with them. And they're killing people. They're killing little kids. So, it's awful what's happening there right now.”
After the war began, Misha essentially hunkered down at home, which is about 10 miles from Kyiv, taking on-line classes at the international school he attended. Most of the teachers were American and had been evacuated but they still posted lessons for their students.
He wasn’t able to play golf, of course, a sport that he finds almost meditative. He did have a putting simulator in the basement where the family went to escape the unnerving noises of war. He could watch tournaments on the computer. He read books and did his homework.
“I wouldn't go outside at all,” he says. “I would sleep in the basement because we were hearing air raid sirens pretty much every morning. … I would just be at home. Thankfully, we still had wi-fi, we had electricity, had water, had the supplies of food.
“So thankfully we were able to live there for as long as we weren't hearing explosions close to the house. But when we started hearing then we just left.”
Soon the bombings became relentless, missiles landing some 20 to 30 times a day. One morning, the blasts started to hit within a two-mile radius of Misha’s home, so the family headed about three hours south to where his grandparents live.
About that time, Beall’s story was published in Golf Digest.
“A lot of people were sending their support, sending their love,” Misha recalls. “And David Leadbetter was someone who reached out. He found my email and he reached out with an offer to come to Orlando to practice in his academy.
“And I never met David Leadbetter before. I’d heard of him, but he definitely hadn't heard about me. So, it was very nice for him to reach out and give me the opportunity. And I'm thankful for everything he's done and everyone for everyone's support.”
Misha and his parents finally evacuated after bombs destroyed a factory about three miles from their house.
“We could see the smoke coming out of it from our balcony,” Misha says. “So, we decided it's not a safe thing there anymore. We could hear all the explosions and we decided to leave.
“And now the thing that I'm worrying about the most is where my mom's parents are staying. Their house very close to ours. They're still in there. They're still in that area and we're trying our best to get them out, and at least get them to a safer place -- if not leave the country.”
Their journey out of Ukraine to Orlando took about four days. Two days driving from their house to the border, where Misha and his mom left Oleg, and another five hours to get to the airport in Budapest. They flew through London to Orlando and arrived Friday night.
“It was very scary because along the road, going into the opposite direction from us were all the tanks and military cars were going towards my home,” Misha says. “So, it was scary. I didn't know what's going to happen down the road, but thankfully we got through it really fast.”
Ukrainian men from the age of 18 to 60 must stay in their country in case they are called to fight. So Oleg, a logistics manager, remained at a hotel at the border, waiting for his wife, who works in the healthcare industry, to return.
“He’s not sent to a hotspot because there are already a lot of people that are willing to help,” Misha says. “… If there isn't going to be enough people, he might get called out, but he's not going to go to a hotspot, thankfully, because he doesn't have any war experience.
“And that's very good news for me because, well, I'm already nervous about him just staying in Ukraine, but if he's fighting, that would be awful.”
Oleg introduced his son to golf when he was 6 years old, and by the time Misha was 10 and living in New York, he had become serious about the game. Ukraine only has four golf courses, and Misha has heard disturbing rumors that the Russians have occupied GolfStream Golf Club where he normally plays.
Misha is a proud member of the Ukrainian National Team – a flexed muscle emoji stands next to those words on his Instagram account -- and ranks No. 446 in the most recent World Amateur Golf Ranking. In his last three events before the war began, Misha won two tournaments in Turkey and tied for sixth at the Junior Orange Bowl International.
The expert guidance of Leadbetter and his staff, coupled with Misha’s determination, is sure to help him improve. Whether he’s eventually able to compete against the TOUR stars he met on Monday remains to be seen. But that’s really not the point right now -- golf has a new ambassador in Misha.
“What I know for sure is when I grow up, I really want to work on making Ukrainian golf great,” he says. “Bringing it on a bigger stage and helping everyone over in Ukraine -- building golf courses, building academies for all the junior golfers to grow up and play good golf.
“And be out on the PGA TOUR someday.”
On Monday, while war raged in Ukraine, Misha got to live that dream.