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“War! Go! Run!”

Those were the first words Veronika Rastvortseva heard when she was woken in the early hours of February 24 last year by a telephone call from her mother.

“She was screaming,” Veronika recalls, “but I could barely understand her.”

Then she heard the bombs.

With her husband’s help, within 15 minutes Veronika had put her three kids and as many clothes as she could gather into her car. With the Russian forces focusing on areas near the Ukraine border and, in particular, its two largest cities of Kyiv and Kharkiv, the Rastvortseva family drove hundreds of miles to the western territories, where they decided to stay for a while in the hope the conflict would not last long.

In their new temporary home, Veronika carried out voluntary work to help others fleeing the worst-hit areas. But as the situation worsened, she had a decision to make: go to war, or join Europe’s largest refugee crisis since World War II.

“I was prepared to stay and fight,” she says. “I was taking a course on how to shoot.”

A keen golfer, Veronika had spent four years working for the Ukrainian Golf Federation, focusing on the development of junior players and growing the sport’s appeal in her country, particularly for ladies, juniors, and those with disabilities. Her work earned Veronika a spot in the fifth cohort of the R&A’s Women in Golf Leadership Programme along with eight others in various roles across the industry.

So when war broke out, Veronika was able to give her new colleagues a first-hand account of what was going on in her country. The other eight put their heads together and Project Ukraine was born.

With the R&A’s backing, the initiative was set up to support young Ukrainian golfers affected by the ongoing conflict. “The children are all part of my family,” Veronika says, “so when we first talked about Project Ukraine, I realised this was a big chance to not only change lives but to save them.

“I was doing voluntary work somewhere in the woods in Western Ukraine when I had a call from my mentor saying, ‘Veronika, are you sure you are ready for this?’ I replied calmly, but on the inside I was screaming, ‘Yes!’ I hung up and burst into tears because I couldn’t believe, at such short notice, the whole programme was reorganised just to support my country and the children.”

Veronika and her children moved to Belgium to stay with a family she had met at a golf event in Turkey to get Project Ukraine off the ground.

Now in its second year, the scheme has enabled the affected to move around the world and meet other young golfers.

Included in that have been annual trips to the UK, and it’s sitting by the first tee watching Europe’s finest ahead of the British Masters at The Belfry where bunkered meets Veronika and her teenagers…

Project Ukraine students
Teenagers Artem (left), Anna (middle) and Oleksandr (right) chatted to bunkered about their experiences. (Credit: Project Ukraine)

The first of the youngsters we meet is Artem, a 17-year-old who has been playing golf since he was eight at Golf Stream – a modern 36-hole resort around an hour from Kyiv which has been
destroyed by bombing.

Veronika explains that Artem was in Spain, attending the Jason Floyd Academy, when war broke out, and has since changed cities and countries “around 10 times”. He is currently in Switzerland, where he is living in temporary housing for refugees under the age of 18.

When Artem first arrived in Geneva, he was staying with a host family. But while he was in the UK playing a tournament, they told him he would no longer be able to live there. Why? Artem shrugs. But the golf club manager allowed him to sleep in one of the rooms in the clubhouse until the end of the season.

Artem smiles, but his eyes widen and well up as he remembers his last few months. “It’s really hard to stay alone for so long,” he says.

Artem’s immediate family are still in Ukraine, apart from his father – a notary by trade – has stayed to fight. The pair have seen each other just once in 18 months.

“Every morning I wake up and the first thing I do is try to call him,” he explains. “But he is a specialist on the front line, so it is not often possible. It is very stressful.”

For Artem, like all the children present, golf is an escape. And the change of tone in their voices when talking about the game is immediately clear. Artem is currently the most settled he’s been since the war began, playing out of Geneva Golf Club and studying French in school.

“The one thing you don’t think about in these situations is that they are just kids, and they don’t know how to take care of themselves,” Veronika explains. “Washing, cooking, cleaning – it’s simple things that we take for granted. And now they are in foreign countries dealing with adults who speak different languages.

“Artem is one of the lucky ones, because the golf club director, Francois, took him under his wing and he has been like a father figure in recent months.”

For Artem, though, when he is not trying to contact his family, he is trying to prepare for upcoming tournaments around Europe. “I need to practise,” he says with a smile, “I’m so bad right now!”

rory mcilroy
Veronika Rastvortseva (far left) and a handful of students meet Rory McIlroy at the Dunhill Links. (Credit: Project Ukraine)

Next we meet Anna – a 14-year-old from Kharkiv who has been golfing since her mum started a summer camp for children to try new sports in the summer of 2015 – who was in Malta when those first bombs dropped. Anna, who speaks fluent English in a slight American accent thanks to a mixture of studying the language at school and “too much Nickelodeon”, watched on helplessly from the Mediterranean island.

“I was scared for my family and friends who were still there,” she recalls. “I was incredibly stressed as my parents weren’t telling me when bad things were happening – but I was seeing it all on the news. It was hard on my mental health and my education.”

Anna, though, found her best escape from the horrors of reality was golf. Specifically, the home of golf. “When we were looking at host families we decided it was a good idea for me to go to Scotland because of the golf and the schools,” she explains. “It is a lovely family, they are very welcoming and have helped me a lot – it’s just the accent can be difficult to understand!

“Golf is a safe place. I can just go to the course with my friends and forget about all my problems. It really helped me because I don’t think about any war stuff, or any problems in general.”

Next year Anna will attend a golf camp in South Carolina, an opportunity that arose thanks to the East Lothian Junior Golf League and Stephen Gallacher Foundation. “It will be the first time I’ve seen my sister in three years,” she beams.

After that, her plan is to stay and play golf in Scotland for as long as possible. “The courses are so different to the rest of Europe, it’s an incredible experience,” she says. “Then my dream is to get into St Andrews University.”

justin rose
Justin Rose joins the students for a selfie at the British Masters. (Credit: Project Ukraine)

Veronika calls over Oleksandr. The 14-year-old is one of few members of the group still living in Ukraine. “Oleks is the most stressed,” she explains. “He goes to bed each night not knowing what might happen and expecting something to happen.”

Sasha, as his friends call him, ambles over from watching Justin Rose play the opening shot of his practice round. His cap is pulled low over his face and he makes little eye contact. His right hand clutches the left, breaking momentarily during our greeting.

This is the first Project Ukraine camp Sasha has attended. “We mailed him a t-shirt last year and he sent us photos of himself wearing it in the bomb shelter,” Veronika says. “He does all his studying in the basement under poor lighting.”

Sasha, who says he wants to be “a businessman” when he’s older, tells bunkered in broken English that he was in Kharkiv when the bombs started falling.

“One night I woke up because of the loud sounds,” he says. “I went to my father to ask what happened, and he took us to the basement where we waited for a few hours.

“A week later, I went to Western Ukraine, and after that to Vienna to play golf. Now I am back in Kyiv with the sirens and the bombs. There are not many people.”

Tears begin to form in Sasha’s eyes. Veronika explains that “when he first came to the camp, he wasn’t even speaking”. She adds: “Being here has helped a lot – he is talking more and more each day.

“It’s important for us to stay in touch, because we don’t want people in Ukraine to think they are alone or not supported.”

We change the subject to golf. “My father played and when I was four he got me a set of clubs,” Sasha recalls.

Then a smile forms across his face. “My mum always tells a story of how I once hit a driver in the house and made a hole in the wall!”

Sasha’s friend Dima joins us. When his budding ice hockey career was ended by injury, he turned to golf. “I enjoy being out in nature,” he says. “And you have to enjoy life.”

Dima is also still in Ukraine. “I left the country for two months but when I returned the rockets were still flying.” He pauses for a moment then says something far beyond his years. “Ukrainians are brave and must continue fighting for their freedom.”

Project Ukraine
Celebrating Ryan Fox’s Dunhill Links title on the Swilcan Bridge. (Credit: Project Ukraine)

The pair return to their friends and for a moment there is a silent reflection. Why should anyone, let alone children, have to go through something like this?

“We are smiling on the outside, but on the inside we are crying,” Veronika says softly. “We have to cope. We have to survive. We have to be resilient. “That is why we fight. We are not fighting just for Ukraine, but for Europe and the whole world. Our children’s future must be safe.”

Veronika explains that she keeps track of the children with a text group: “At first it was stay on top of where they are and if they are safe, but it soon became clear that, for them, it was more about being part of a team, being together, and having some normality in their lives.

“It gives me energy when I hear stories about how we have changed lives, and managed to get them access to golf clubs and coaching.

“It helps them not think about the war – and that’s down to those eight incredible ladies, the R&A, and other golf organisations who stepped up.”

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How Project Ukraine was born

Project Ukraine was born from the fifth cohort of The R&A’s Women in Golf Leadership Development Programme and consists of nine women from across the golf industry: Toni Zverblis (England Golf), Lauren Witherspoon (The R&A), Zoe Thacker (Wales Golf), Emma Corless (Golfbreaks), Polly Clark (Ladies European Tour), Molly Bullard (Excel Sports Management), Joelle Efford (Golf Canada Foundation), Magdalena Villar (Peruvian Golf Federation), and Veronika Rastvortseva (formerly Ukrainian Golf Federation), as well as Rebecca Hemborough (England Golf) who graduated from the first cohort of the programme.

Project Ukraine
Toni Zverblis (far left) was one of the founding members of the programme. (Credit: Project Ukraine)

“When the war broke out, we had a conversation about what we could do to help,” Toni tells bunkered. “We spoke to the R&A about whether they would be willing to support. We knew from  Veronika’s role that those young people that were part of the national team were very much on the cusp of their talent being nurtured and growing and that was completely taken away from them.

“We had to figure out how we were going to help, and at first it was just with visa requests, accommodation, and access to golf clubs. Then after a few months we brought them together for the first coaching camp. We got some funding from the R&A and some other key sponsors, including Ping who provided the clothing and equipment.

“We are hoping it can be an annual event, because we don’t know when it’s going to end. It’s really hard because we spend a lot of time with the mums at the camps and just hearing stories of how they’re coping. One mum described how when her daughter plays golf it is as important as breathing air.

“It’s a ripple effect, and it’s incredibly emotional. Veronika’s end goal is she would really like to host us in Ukraine once they are able to go back and rebuild  their lives there. That will be great, because it will mean the war is over.”

Project Ukraine
LET star Sophie Walker was on hand to give the students some tips. (Credit: Project Ukraine)

LET player and Sky Sports analyst Sophie Walker was also invited to take part in the Project Ukraine camps in Scotland and Cheshire.

“When they told me what it was, it made me want to do it even more.

“Going up to Scotland last year with those kids was one of the most inspiring two days of my golfing life.

“They just love golf, and their stories of the friendships that have come out of this are incredible. To be spread out across the world, then have a week where they come together – how amazing is that?”

“I ended up thanking Polly Clark at the LET, who was the person that invited me to get involved, for not asking anyone else.

“When you see it on the news, it all feels
so far away, but then you sit down with them and speak to them and you realise it could happen to anyone. Can you imagine getting that call to say you’ve got to leave your home right now, with nothing but a bag, and you don’t really know where you’re going, or when you can return? To do that with children, too, must have been awful.

“Listening to their stories is harrowing, but it’s inspiring. As much as they love the weeks where they get to come on the camp, they just want to go home, they just want life to go back to normal, but they don’t know if it ever will be. Their homes, their cities, have been destroyed. I can’t imagine having to ever think like that.

“But that’s the big thing about these camps – they felt safe. They could play golf and just be ‘normal’ for a few days. And it’s funny to watch, because the boys all go off and have putting  competitions and the girls head to the spa.

“It makes you realise they’re just kids, and I thank God I didn’t have my childhood snatched away from me like that.”

• You can find out more about Project Ukraine on The R&A website.

author headshot

Alex Perry is the Associate Editor of bunkered. A journalist for more than 20 years, he has been a golf industry stalwart for the majority of his career and, in a five-year spell at ESPN, covered every sporting event you can think of. He completed his own Grand Slam at the 2023 Masters, having fallen in love with the sport at his hometown club of Okehampton and on the links of nearby Bude & North Cornwall.

Associate Editor

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