Last June, I mentioned to a Polish friend that her nation’s finest golfer, Adrian Meronk, was beginning to make a name for himself on the world stage.
“A Polish golfer? Really?” she gasped, shaking her head as if to dismiss an idea that made about as much sense to her as me insisting that Disney is opening its next theme park in Gdańsk.
Golf was first played in Poland more than 100 years ago, but the Communist regime took a dim view of such a bourgeois pastime and the sport withered across the Soviet bloc. Even today there are only 34 full courses in Poland, and severe weather conditions make them unplayable for much of the year.
My friend’s bewilderment, therefore, made plenty of sense.
And yet within days I’d updated her with news that Meronk (already his nation’s first winner in U.S. college golf while at East Tennessee State) had added to his list of honours by becoming the first Pole to lift a trophy on any main tour with victory in the Irish Open.
Over the next 12 months, my ad hoc Polish golf news service was as furious as a Wall Street ticker during a bull run: Meronk became the first Pole to compete in the Open Championship in July 2022, ended the year with an emphatic victory in the Australian Open (fuelled by the Polish cooking of his girlfriend’s ex-pat extended family), started 2023 by draining the winning putt for Continental Europe in the Hero Cup, made a Masters debut in April, and triumphed in the Italian Open on the Ryder Cup-hosting course in May.
“I’m very proud to be the first player from my country to play at this level. I’m trying to change golf back home and show young people what they can achieve.”
An appearance in European colours appeared inevitable, and yet he narrowly missed out on both automatic qualification and a captain’s wild card. Within minutes of the decision being made public, however, he had earned the respect of Europe’s golf community by wishing the team good luck on social media.
Nonetheless, he later explained the immediate aftermath had “been an emotional time for me,” with feelings racing “from shock to sadness to anger.”
Clearly, the snub hurt, but he responded in style, carding a pair of weekend 66s to win the Andalucía Masters two weeks ago. It was a fourth triumph in 16 months, one vaulting him to third place in the Race to Dubai and securing his PGA Tour card for 2024.
Guess what? My friend now understands what I’ve been banging on about – and slowly the Polish public is getting the message, too.
Jacek Person, an announcer on Poland’s Golf Channel, explained to GGP that Meronk’s achievements are now being reported on national television news, and that last year he finished seventh in a public poll for the nation’s Sports Star of the Year. “The tennis player Iga Świątek and footballer Robert Lewandowski finished well clear, as you’d expect,” he said. “But Adrian’s position was a genuine breakthrough, and he wasn’t far off third place.” Person then added, proudly and a little sheepishly, that a concerted effort by the Polish golf community might have had something to do with the count.
Standing at a towering 6 feet, 6 inches, the 30-year-old Meronk was born to stand out, yet he also has thrived on overcoming obstacles and leading the way, qualities perhaps explaining his swift return to the winner’s circle after the Ryder Cup disappointment.
His parents, Andrzej and Joanna, moved to Hamburg, Germany, in the 1990s. Andrzej started playing golf in the city, and their son was born there before they returned to Poland when the boy was 2. But, as Meronk told GGP: “Because there are so few courses back home, it was a three-hour drive in each direction every weekend.”
Dominika Antoniszczak, a past vice president of the Polish Ladies Golf Association and member of the first wave of the R&A’s Women in Golf Leadership Programme in 2018, was a contemporary of Meronk’s and recalls those challenges.
“Our courses are a long way from the towns and cities,” she said. “So, we were very reliant on parents and carers. Eventually they organised buses for us, but the time commitment was significant, and you can appreciate that there was, and still is, an economic wall for less fortunate kids. Eventually Adrian’s parents moved from Poznań to Wrocław so he was near a course.”
Antoniszczak played in the very first Polish girls’ team, which shared camps with the boys’ team, so she witnessed Meronk’s early progress first-hand.
“He was always extraordinary to us,” she said. “I’ll never forget that we’d end a day of practise exhausted and head to the clubhouse. We’d be eating and chilling out, then we’d notice Adrian outside still hitting balls. He really has invested so much and made so many sacrifices to get where he is.”
When it became apparent Meronk was talented as well as devoted, a further hurdle emerged because Polish amateur golfers had almost no history of competing on the world stage. Moreover, even at a national level, he was a (positive) disruptor.
“Because of him, young golfers can aspire to play on the DP World or PGA Tour. In the past, golfers on television felt like characters in a sci-fi or a Marvel movie because the difference between the screen and our reality was massive. Adrian has changed that because he’s one of us."
Jacek Person, Poland’s Golf Channel announcer
Person was also a contemporary of Meronk’s and recalled: “He was already 6-feet tall as a young teenager and pretty much prompted rule changes in junior golf, because before him no one even needed to consider the back tees.
“I remember that it was a huge deal when someone broke par, a really big deal, and yet it was common for him. We’d all sit ’round him in awe, asking what it was like to be shooting in the 60s.
“Then we’d start going to international events. Every tournament, we’d start looking at leaderboards from the bottom because that’s where most of us would be. Apart from Adrian. He’d be involved at the top end, inspiring us to get better.”
Person added that Meronk is a motivator to this day.
“Because of him, young golfers can aspire to play on the DP World or PGA Tour,” he said. “In the past, golfers on television felt like characters in a sci-fi or a Marvel movie because the difference between the screen and our reality was massive. Adrian has changed that because he’s one of us.
“Also – and this is vital because developed golf countries don’t appreciate it – the Olympic Games, and Adrian competing in them, has unlocked funding and changed attitudes. Our country is now beginning to view golf as a sport, not a hobby.”
Antoniszczak concurs on that latter point.
“The Olympics has helped with the old perception that golf isn’t a sport. I recall asking to set up a golf team at university, and the organiser laughed at me and said, ‘What next? Chess as a sport?’
“There are still barriers to break down. It will take many generations before golf is entirely accepted as a sport rather than something just for rich people. But Adrian is fighting that perception. A month ago, he hosted his 5 Stars Junior Cup, which is a scheme for young golfers across Poland, and he played the 14th hole with every group.”
Meronk is aware of the impact he is having.
“I’m very proud to be the first player from my country to play at this level,” he said. “I’m trying to change golf back home and show young people what they can achieve.”
Antoniszczak made the journey to Augusta National for Meronk’s debut.
“It was very funny,” she said. “I overheard patrons talking about how amazed they were that someone from Poland was playing. Then Adrian shouted to me in Polish, and they were even more astounded there was a Pole watching. It was like we were from another world.
“I think we’re a lucky generation because communism and other things meant that our parents did not have these opportunities.
“It makes me very proud to see Adrian now. We’re very blessed to have him as an ambassador. He always mentions his roots, and he hasn’t changed. He’s still the Adrian we all know.”
Top: Poland's Adrian Meronk has won four times on the DP World Tour in the past 16 months.
ross kinnaird, getty images