Maria Balikoeva was on the path to becoming a world-class ballerina until nature took its course. Simply put, Balikoeva grew too much.
“From age 7 to 10, I was pretty good, but I knew they wouldn’t take me because I was too tall,” said the 5-foot-8 Balikoeva, who this week becomes the second Russian to compete in the U.S. Women’s Open, following Maria Kostina in 2007. “I was taller than anyone in my class. I remember the guys were shorter than me, so that wouldn’t look good.”
Balikoeva transitioned from one of the most popular sports in Russia to one with little pedigree. During a family vacation in the Czech Republic, Balikoeva (née Verenchova) discovered golf. Her parents didn’t play, but some friends introduced her. With dance slipping from the picture and her summertime free, Balikoeva fell in love with golf, even though opportunities were limited in the Moscow area.
Golf wasn’t even televised in Russia until recently, and Balikoeva, 29, never had the opportunity to emulate anyone.
Her father, Vitaly, encouraged her, and the discipline from years of dance laid the foundation for Balikoeva to quickly improve and get selected to the national team. Because of her burgeoning talent, the Russian Federation provided funding that enabled Balikoeva and others to play events in the Czech Republic, Turkey, Spain and Italy. She won two Russian Amateurs (2004 and 2006), the Austrian Amateur (2006) and Latvian Amateur (2005), and she also helped the Russian Federation to a tie for 11th in the 2004 Women’s World Amateur in Puerto Rico, the best finish for the country in seven appearances.
She turned professional in 2006 and became the first Russian to earn full status on the Ladies European Tour. Balikoeva is still seeking her first victory, although she posted a pair of top-10 finishes in 2014, including a tie for fourth at the Turkish Airlines Open. She gave birth to a daughter, also named Maria, in 2012. Her husband works full-time in the U.S. as an engineer in the oil and gas industry, so Balikoeva does a lot of shuttling between Moscow and the Houston area, with her parents in Russia helping with child care.
Because of the short golf season in Russia, Balikoeva lives part-time in The Woodlands, Texas, a Houston suburb, and recently started working with Kevin Kirk, the same instructor who tutors PGA Tour winners Jhonattan Vegas and Patrick Reed. It’s her goal to obtain an LPGA Tour card for the 2016 season. Balikoeva has played in a handful of LPGA Tour events, mostly in Asia. Representing Russia in the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro is also a possibility. She is 330th in the Rolex World Women’s Golf Rankings.
Qualifying for her first U.S. Women’s Open – she earned one of five spots in the England sectional on May 25 – is a good start. This will be her third major-championship start following a pair of missed cuts at the Ricoh Women’s British Open in 2008 and 2014, and just her second start in the U.S., following a missed cut in the 2009 Wal-Mart Northwest Arkansas Championship.
“It’s great that I have an opportunity to go and play here,” said Balikoeva of the Women’s Open. “Of course, this is news in Russia. They write about it. [Reporters] send me questions, which is good.”
Lee Returns to Scene of Memorable Win
From the moment she arrived at Lancaster Country Club, memories came flooding back for Alison Lee. Two years ago this week, Lee won the AJGA’s Rolex Tournament of Champions here by six strokes over fellow Southern Californian Andrea Lee (no relation). Lee also stayed with a host family who are Lancaster members: Scott and Malina Kramer.
Lee has reunited with the Kramer family this week and hopes the good vibes will continue.
“It’s really cool and really nice,” said Lee, a 20-year-old LPGA Tour rookie who helped the USA reclaim the Curtis Cup last year. “And that’s always good when you are playing in a major.”
This is Lee’s fourth U.S. Women’s Open start, dating to 2009 when she tied for 26th at Saucon Valley Country Club in Bethlehem, Pa., about 75 minutes northeast of Lancaster. But this is her first as a professional, and it comes on a course where she posted a 72-hole total of 4-under 276 in 2013. The course measured 400 yards less than it will for the Women’s Open, so Lee is adjusting to hitting different clubs into the greens.
“It’s definitely longer, [but] my game is a little different,” said Lee, who spent one year at UCLA before deciding to turn pro last fall. “I have more distance. I’m striking the ball OK. I’m not hitting it super crisp or anything right now, so hopefully I can tune that the next few days before Thursday.”
Off the course, Lee, who is here with her mother, Sung Kim, has enjoyed relaxing with her host family, including the Kramers’ two children, Nick and Nina. On Monday, she got her nails done with Nina and on Tuesday she fulfilled a promise made to Nick two years ago. If she qualified for the Women’s Open, Lee said she would let him caddie, so Nick, 17, carried her bag for one hole during Tuesday’s nine-hole practice round.
“Nick is my brother [Ryan’s] age and Nina is a little bit younger,” said Lee. “They are both athletes. Nina swims and Nick plays baseball. It’s nice to catch up and see what they are doing.”
Wie Relishes Her 2014 Triumph
Defending champion Michelle Wie recalled her victory at Pinehurst Resort & Country Club in 2014 on Tuesday, particularly the final three holes, when she overcame a double bogey to defeat Stacy Lewis by two strokes for her first major championship.
“A lot happened – a roller coaster of emotions,” said Wie. “I think the proudest I’ve ever felt of myself about controlling my emotions and just staying positive was hole No. 16. I know that a lot of people talk about hole No. 17 when I birdied, but I think the moment I was most proud of was when I made that double-bogey putt on 16. That for me was the moment that I felt like I was the most in control that I’ve ever been.”
As Wie’s time as reigning Women’s Open champion winds down, she talked about the experience.
“I think the first couple of months it really didn’t sink in – it didn’t feel like reality,” said Wie, whose first USGA championship came at the 2003 U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links when she was 13. “It’s definitely been a huge motivation for me moving forward. It’s been a fun journey.”
Having struggled with a hip ailment, Wie thinks that her health and her game are on the upswing this week.
“It’s definitely not been as good as I want to be, but at the same time, every day feels better than the day before,” said Wie. “I’m staying positive and just trying to improve a little bit here and there every day.”
The Lancaster area has embraced this championship from the start, and Wie is among the players who have noticed the support.
“Yesterday, playing a practice round, I was amazed by how many people came out to watch,” said Wie, who noted the possibility of record crowds for the week. “It’s the most people I’ve ever seen on a golf course on a Monday of a tournament. It feels really great to be welcomed here. I hope we can provide great entertainment for the crowd.”
David Shefter is a senior staff writer for the USGA. Email him at email@example.com. Ron Driscoll of the USGA contributed.