PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – Mykhailo “Misha” Golod looked every bit the 15-year-old golfer Monday at TPC Sawgrass as Justin Thomas brushed passed him on his way to the first tee.
“Awesome,” Golod smiled. Moments later, world No. 1 Jon Rahm trailed Thomas to the tee and the wide-eyed teen excitedly followed.
Golod was along for the final-round ride with Thomas, Rahm and Doc Redman, the third member of the group, as an honorary observer. It was a perfect Monday for Golod, an accomplished amateur from Ukraine who was savoring every moment of his first PGA Tour event.
Nowhere in the youthful exuberance was there any hint of how Golod arrived on the first tee at TPC Sawgrass for the weather-delayed culmination of The Players Championship. The casual observer would never know that it was just a week ago that Golod was sheltering with his family in Kyiv as the Russian military advanced on the Ukrainian capital. There would be no way of knowing that the teen and his family fled west to Hungary to outrun the advancing army or how emotionally charged the border crossing was.
As fresh as those experiences were, they remained safely tucked away behind a wide smile and curious eyes.
“I already talked to a couple of players. It’s awesome, the course is in awesome condition and I’m very happy to be here,” Golod said.
As much as he looks the part of youthful fan, there is an appreciation that gives away Golod’s journey. It’s a journey that began two weeks ago when Golf Digest published a story about his plight. Famed swing coach David Leadbetter saw the story and with the help of Global Golf Post publisher Jim Nugent devised a plan to get Golod across the Hungarian boarder and eventually to the United States.
The journey started Tuesday as Golod and his mother and father left Kyiv and started driving west, away from the advancing Russian military.
“It was scary, for sure. We saw a lot of tanks, a lot of military cars going down the road toward my house,” Golod said. “We were trying to stay safe because the curfew started at 10 p.m. and wherever the curfew would catch you you’d have to stay there.
“It was around 20 degrees [Fahrenheit], so we were trying to get as far as possible and find a place to sleep. Thankfully we did and didn’t have to sleep in the middle of a field.”
When Golod and his parents finally reached the Hungarian boarder, there was relief along with a good amount of anxiety. His father, Oleg, wouldn’t be allowed to travel with them.
“We have martial law that men who are 18 to 60 have to stay in Ukraine,” he said. “I was really worried for my family back home.”
It was the first of many difficult farewells for Golod, who arrived late Friday in Orlando, Florida, where he will be enrolled in the David Leadbetter Golf Academy. Golod’s mother, Vita, travelled with him to the U.S., but she flew back to Ukraine on Sunday to be with her husband and her parents.
“It didn’t take too long to say, ‘goodbye,’ because I’d probably get emotional,” Golod admitted. “Yesterday at the airport I had to say, ‘See you.’ Not ‘goodbye,’ because I will see her soon.”
For now, Golod will remain in Florida and train while taking virtual classes that continue to be offered by his school in Ukraine. The plan is to develop his game and eventually play college golf in the U.S., but as he eyed Thomas and Rahm at TPC Sawgrass, it’s clear that it’s not the life of a professional golfer that drives him.
“Talking with him was amazing. He talked about someday going back to Ukraine and building an academy and working with the junior program,” Leadbetter said. “Most kids his age want to turn pro and win majors, it’s really impressive.”
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When asked his message to those in the golf world who made his odyssey possible Golod is filled with gratitude and hope. He envisions a time when the Russian invasion is over and Ukraine is rebuilt and golf can be revitalized.
“I’m thinking about Ukrainian golf and how much help it needs from outside Ukraine for it to come out on a bigger stage,” he said. “I’m very thankful for everything and my goal is progressing and helping Ukrainian golf.”
As Thomas and Rahm make their way around the Stadium Course, Golod is allowed to leave behind the weighty emotions of war and the demands of being the face of golf for an entire nation. When Thomas’ approach at the par-4 fourth hole dropped 2 feet for a tap-in birdie, Golod cheered before adding one final thought of hope.
“I knew if I was able to leave the country it would be an awesome opportunity for me to keep progressing. I really hope I can bring my family here after everything is finished in Ukraine,” he said.
And with that Golod bounded after Thomas and Rahm toward the fifth tee. There’s no way to know when the war that’s been brought to his country and his family will be over, but for now, he’ll savor a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be a fan and a teenager.