Even someone with keen eyesight – or a powerful magnifying glass – might have difficulty locating the Republic of Moldova on a map.
The tiny land-locked Eastern European nation, which is slightly larger than Maryland, is a former Soviet state bordered by Romania to the west and Ukraine to the north, south and east. It gained its independence from communist rule in 1991.
The national sport is a form of wrestling called tranta, but soccer remains No. 1 among most of the 3.7 million inhabitants. Other popular sports include weightlifting – Cristina Iovu earned a bronze medal at the 2012 Olympics in London in the female 53 kg division – and swimming, which is exactly what Aleksei Koika did for 16 years.
That was before the now 36-year-old resident of Burlingame, Calif., discovered golf after moving to the United States 15 years ago.
Koika made golf history on July 16 by becoming the first individual from Moldova to qualify for a USGA championship, when he earned medalist honors at a U.S. Amateur sectional at Marin Country Club in Novato, Calif.
Koika, who has been playing the game since 1999, shot even-par 144 in earning his place in the 312-player field that will begin play Aug. 6 at Cherry Hills Country Club and CommonGround Golf Course in suburban Denver.
“It’s kind of cool to be first,” said Koika. “That’s nice.”
Born in the capital city of Kishiniv (also called Chisinau), Koika never dreamed of playing golf as a child. The country had no golf courses, and still doesn’t. In 1995, the Golf Federation of Moldova was formed, and it has joined the International Golf Federation (IGF). Two years ago, an Internet report detailed an Italian real estate company’s plans to build a resort that would include a championship course, but Koika said he’s unsure whether the facility has been constructed.
Such is the nature of a country trying to develop a game that for many years was considered a pastime strictly for the wealthy.
Koika spent much of his youth as a competitive swimmer, where his talent eventually landed him on the eight-person national team. His specialties were the 100-meter butterfly, and 200- and 400-meter individual medley. In 1996, he came very close to qualifying for the Olympics. “Close, but no cigar,” he said.
His younger sister, Nikoletta, did qualify for the 2004 Athens Games in the 100 freestyle, and his younger brother, Vasiliy, was a five-time national judo champion, whose career and Olympic aspirations were hampered by back injuries. According to Aleksei, his father, Anton, was a “big-time athlete” in Moldova, competing in wrestling, weightlifting and marathons.
Aleksei discovered golf shortly after moving to the U.S., by watching Tiger Woods’ record-setting performance at the 1997 Masters. Koika noted that Woods was roughly the same age and his achievement made an impression on Koika, who had come to Santa Clara, Calif., that year for a swim competition.
Koika spent one year competing at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, but he yearned to be in California and moved back in 1999. He retired from swimming, and a friend got him started in the flooring business. Now he only watches swimming on television.
“I am tired of the water,” he said. “I like golfing now.”
Koika purchased a $100 set of clubs at a local sporting goods store. Without any formal instruction or practice at a driving range, Koika shot a respectable 96 at Lincoln Park in San Francisco.
“I was ready to rock and roll and hit the ball,” said Koika of his first outing. “After that, I kept trying to beat my score all the time.”
Six months later, he entered the San Francisco County Championship at Sharp Park, where his main goal was not to finish last. Rounds of 86-82 accomplished that; he even beat a competitor who had been playing for 20 years.
Koika became obsessed by the game. To stay sharp, he hit plastic balls in his apartment, often tearing up the rug. A friend landed him a job at Harding Park in 2000 as a volunteer on the driving range one day a week, which gave Koika access to free range balls and more time to hone his burgeoning skills.
By then, Koika had earned his contractor’s license and started his own flooring company. He met a Ukrainian woman named Alyona Yevtushenko in 2003, and they were married two years later. Koika took a hiatus from golf during those years, but after his son, Andrew, was born in 2006, he started getting serious about the game again.
He joined Gleneagles, a nine-hole public course in San Francisco, and twice won the club championship. He also caddies part-time at San Francisco Golf Club, which gets him Monday playing privileges at one of the country’s finest venues. His best score on the classic A.W. Tillinghast layout is a 67. Koika said he once shot a 73 from the championship tees at The Olympic Club, site of this year’s U.S. Open.
Recently, Koika has taken his game to new levels with the help of formal instruction. He met Millbrae, Calif., native Matt Kilgariff, who had just relocated to the Bay Area after spending 12 years at the Butch Harmon Academy in Las Vegas. The 41-year-old Kilgariff, who now works out of Mariners Point in Foster City, saw a naturally gifted athlete who had potential.
“He’s pretty green, but it’s impressive that he has this much talent,” said Kilgariff, who was around PGA Tour stars Woods and Dustin Johnson when he worked at the Harmon Academy and now teaches Stanford University players Shane Lebow and Patrick Grimes. “He’s the type of guy who, if he puts his mind to it, he’s going to do it.
“Everything he does is natural or what he thinks is natural. We’ve made a few setup adjustments and adjustments to get his swing a little bit tighter. Other than that, we’re not trying to change anything else.”
Koika’s eagerness to improve led him to lower his Handicap Index enough to allow him to file entries for USGA championships.
Two years ago, Koika lost in a playoff for the final berth in a U.S. Mid-Amateur sectional qualifier and settled for first alternate. Last year at U.S. Amateur qualifying – also at Marin C.C. – he played his final four holes in three over par to miss by “two or three [shots].”
That same scenario appeared to be playing out at this year’s U.S. Amateur qualifier. He shot a 2-over 74 in the morning round and in the second 18, he double-bogeyed his 31st hole, and appeared out of the running. Koika could feel the bad vibes returning.
“I started thinking, this is enough,” he said. “I have been choking so many tournaments. I better do something.”
Koika rallied to birdie three of his final five holes and shoot a 2-under 70. His 144 total was the best of the day in a field that included 2011 Pacific-10 Conference champion Martin Trainer of the University of Southern California, veteran amateur Randy Haag, UCLA standout Travis Taylor, Ben Geyer of St. Mary’s, who advanced to the round of 16 at last year’s Amateur, and University of California standout Shotaro Ban.
“I talked to my buddy a couple of times and asked him what he thought my chances are to qualify for U.S. Amateur,” said Koika. “He said, ‘Nah … Mid-Amateur is a lot better for you.’ I’m like, ‘OK.’ I didn’t say anything and just played.”
Added Kilgariff: “He thrives on competition. That’s why it will be interesting to see what he does in a big arena.”
Koika said he isn’t sure what kind of impact qualifying for the Amateur will have back in Moldova. He told his family, but he hasn’t heard from the Golf Federation of Moldova.
The federation, according to IGF Joint Deputy Secretary Stephanie Parel, has filed an entry for the World Amateur Team Championship this October in Turkey, and is currently on the waiting list.
Even Koika’s wife was unaware of the magnitude of playing in the U.S. Amateur.
“I told her it’s like the U.S. Open, but between amateurs,” said Koika, who was unaware that Golf Channel and NBC will broadcast the championship.
Koika is flying to Denver with his friend Jeff Janakes, 45, an electrician who will caddie for Koika. Koika said Janakes keeps him loose on the course, but he doesn’t rely on Janakes to assist with green reading or course management.
Koika said he has learned the past few years to play his own game. He knows he won’t wow anyone with his distance – he averages 270 to 280 yards with the driver – but he possesses a deft short game. “I’m a feel player,” he said. “I’m good around the greens.”
But no matter what happens in Colorado, Koika will be making history. Time will tell if his accomplishment has a long-standing impact on golf in Moldova. He certainly doesn’t envision himself as a trailblazer, yet he loves to be in a competitive setting.
“All my life I have been competitive,” said Koika. “I like that feel of tournaments, to feel that little pressure. Probably I was born with it. I always try to be on top.
“I’m really happy to make it [to the Amateur]. I will go there and try to play my best.”