WINTER HAVEN, FLORIDA | The tears had nothing to do with golf. Klara Spilkova did not play well in the opening round of the Florida’s Natural Charity Classic. If you look for her on the leaderboard, start at the bottom and work your way up. But that wasn't the reason for Spilkova’s emotions after her round – gasping sobs as the wells in her eyes spilled over and poured down both sides of her cheeks.
Golf is just a game, a genteel one played outdoors in pretty places. And while it can be maddening - anyone who has ever put a ball on a tee knows the fickle ways our game can bring you to your knees one minute and hoist you onto its shoulders the next - disappointment fades quickly. Tomorrow is another day. But Klara’s emotional message, the one that caused her face to tighten and the words to catch in her throat, was far more important than numbers on a card.
“Freedom,” she said, pointing her finger and leaning in to make sure you didn’t miss it. “They want freedom, nothing more – freedom to live their lives, to chase their dreams. It’s what we all want. It’s what we all deserve. Not just Ukrainians. Everyone.”
Spilkova hails from Prague in the Czech Republic but played on Friday in the blue and gold of the Ukrainian flag, a purposeful wardrobe choice to start her season.
“It’s so hard to talk about it,” she said as the tears flowed again. “The Czech Republic has a lot of Ukrainian people who live there. What is happening is not far from where I live and the people who are coming out of Ukraine at the moment are coming into Poland and Slovakia and the Czech Republic. We support them. We want to support them any way we can.”
The 27-year-old is not political. She became the first Czech winner on the LET back in 2017 when she captured the Lalla Meryem Cup. She then played three years on the LPGA Tour, the middle one abbreviated because of the pandemic. Now, she will spend most of 2022 on the Epson Tour working to regain her card.
None of that mattered on Friday.
“We, as a country, were occupied by Russians from 1968 to 1989,” she said. “The fact that they are doing this again to another country is heartbreaking. The fact that they are doing the same thing again, right next to Slovakia…” her voice trailed off again. “People are dying. People are struggling. The fact that it is happening again, right on our doorstep, makes it very emotional.
“My parents were there (during the Russian occupation), and my grandparents,” she said, regaining her verbal footing and righteous indignation. “The problem is that Russia acts like they are your friends and that they are coming into these countries to save people, to help people, to be the liberators and give people what they want. That’s propaganda. This is not what people want, not in Ukraine, not in the Czech Republic. Our country experienced some very, very dark times when the Russians were there.
“The Czech Republic is now in NATO and the European Union because, right after 1989 (when then Czechoslovakia gained independence), we had a really great president who saw that (Russian aggression) might come again, so he went for it. He knew that we needed protection.
“Unfortunately, Ukraine couldn’t get in. They’ve been trying but they are right there (on the Russian border) and they aren’t as strong economically. But they are much stronger in here,” she tapped her fist against her heart as her voice got higher and stronger.
“We never had to fight,” she said, referring to the bloodless independence most of Eastern Europe experienced in the late 1980s. “The Ukrainians are fighting. They are fighting for their country. They are fighting for their homeland.”
Then she looked away, to the calm waters of Lake Hamilton and the yawning oaks on its shores, Spanish moss waving like banners in an afternoon breeze, a world away from the turmoil and strife in Eastern Europe.
“People want to be independent,” she said slowly, calmly. “People want to be free; to have rights – normal, human rights – and now that’s tough.
“I’ve been checking the news every day. I speak to people in the Czech Republic. The last several days the mood has been heavy. But we are having huge protests. People are coming out to show their support (for Ukraine) and demonstrating against what is happening.
“Thousands and thousands of people are protesting throughout Europe. But people are doing more. They are doing everything they can to help. They are providing food and a place to sleep. That part has been incredible.
“There are a lot of people in the Czech Republic trying to give (the Ukrainians) support, giving them rooms in their flats,” she said, turning her attention back to the present. “Everything is heavy now. But that part…that part is very beautiful.”