Estonian a long way from snowy home

MATT RICHENS
Last updated 05:00 09/02/2013
Mari Suursalu
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ALL-ROUNDER: Mari Suursalu covers many bases for golf in Estonia.

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Mari Suursalu can be excused for a lack of competition before arriving in Christchurch for this week's New Zealand Women's Golf Open.

Her home course in Tallinn, Estonia is under snow and is used as a cross-country skiing course in the northern winter.

Suursalu, 26, was the first playing professional from Estonia. There are still only two - although there are coaching professionals - and her younger brother Mark is the other.

Golf is still a minority sport in the northern European country, which has a population of just 1.3 million. Because of the weather, golf is normally only played between April and October.

There are only 2000 players and just seven courses in the country which borders the Gulf of Finland between Latvia and Russia.

Suursalu is the country's top player but wears plenty of golfing hats. She's also the national coach, runs a golfing academy and a golfing retail business.

It was as the national coach that Suursalu randomly picked up her sponsor's invite to the Open at Clearwater this week.

While coaching the national women's team at the world amateur teams event in Turkey last year, luck was on her side.

"When the ladies' tournament ends and the men's begins there's a gala dinner for both. Our boys weren't able to finish practice so they didn't come to the dinner so we ended up sitting at a table with a bunch of New Zealand Golf people."

She sat next to New Zealand Golf director Philip Hassall and the rest sorted itself out.

"I'm very lucky," she said of her first visit to the Southern Hemisphere.

"It's really nice down here but I don't think I could have got further away from home. I like the course and the people and I'm really looking forward to playing," she said before her opening round yesterday.

After setting herself up at a hotel by the airport on arrival 13 days ago, Suursalu ended up playing with the Clearwater ladies in their midweek hit-out.

And when the Estonian told one member, Gay Cox, about the early morning construction outside her room, an offer of a spare bed was instantly offered and accepted. Her new digs border the lake alongside the 18th at Clearwater.

Her long term goals are to pick up a regular card on a major tour and to spend more time focusing on golf - injury and business interests have got in the way in the last couple of years.

"I had this idea of building up the business then concentrating on my golf again, but there was so much more work than I thought."

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This week her goals are a bit simpler, just to have fun and learn as much as she can, but her opening round 95 can't have been fun in the Clearwater wind. But she still had a smile on her face and a spring in her step.

It was the highest score by five strokes.

- The Press

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