SAN FRANCISCO -- Mikhail Gorbachev doesn't play golf -- chess is his game -- but he knows that in America many a business deal is struck on the fairways and greens.

So it wasn't surprising that when the Soviet president came here recently to woo 150 captains of industry at a lavish luncheon after his summit talks, one of those invited was golf course designer Robert Trent Jones Jr.

Jones is creating a championship course in a beautiful forest on the outskirts of Moscow that is expected to open for play in the fall of 1991 or the spring of 1992.

The sprawling 7,015-yard Nahabino layout, the first 18-hole course in the Soviet Union, will feature golf in the bright nights of summer and cross-country skiing in the long winter. Someday, perhaps, it will be the home of a world class tournament.

"It'll be the Russian Closed and the U.S. Open," Jones jokes. "Jack Nicklaus will play there against his son in the year 2000."

More important than a pro tournament, as far as Gorbachev and other Soviet officials are concerned, is the role the course could play in attracting foreign investors and cultivating better relations with golf-crazy Western and Pacific Rim diplomats.

Ping-Pong diplomacy broke the ice in U.S.-China relations nearly 20 years ago, and now glasnost and golf could make a nice atmosphere for doing business in the Soviet Union.

"The Soviet government is very serious about this. It's important to them economically and politically," Jones said. "They want to open up to a sport that's played by business people and diplomats around the world. The Soviet Union is the last major nation that does not play golf."

As the cultural barriers and propaganda separating the Soviet Union and the West fade, Jones said, "golf is no longer an ideological symbol. It's just a sport."

The roots of Soviet golf were planted in the days of detente by Armand Hammer, the chairman of Occidental Petroleum who has had a long, friendly relationship with Soviet leaders.

"Hammer introduced me to the project in 1974," Jones said. "It took them five years to find a property that was suitable and that they wanted to give us an accurate map on. We had to be patient."

Jones didn't give up despite all the years of waiting and negotiating, stalled talks, bureaucratic hassles and changes in the Soviet leadership.

In the meantime, golf gradually became a game whose time was coming. A nine-hole course and driving range, built on a dump 20 minutes from the Kremlin, was opened in October by Sweden's Sven Tumba, a former hockey star turned golf pro.

Spalding, based in Chicopee, Mass., donated golf equipment to the course and a school, including 100,000 golf balls that quickly vanished as exotic souvenirs.

In January, 10 Soviet teenagers went on a tour of the United States that included two weeks at the PGA School in Florida, where they took lessons from Doug Sanders and other pros.

During the summit talks between Gorbachev and president Reagan in 1988, Jones finally signed a deal with a branch of the Soviet Foreign Ministry.

"One of the biggest difficulties was they we're slow in making decisions," Jones said. "But they want it, or they wouldn't have committed to it. They're paying me. I've gotten my payments right on schedule. In dollars, of course. I'm not McDonald's.

"I believed the only way the Soviets could do this project is to make a serious commitment. If they didn't want to commit to hard currency, they weren't serious."

Jones said the Soviet government is paying him nearly $400,000 to design and oversee the building of the course. The Soviets also bought mowers, sprinklers and other special golf course equipment from a company in Minnesota.

The total hard currency cost is under $1 million, he said, and the remainder -- "probably three-quarters of it" -- is in rubles to pay for the grass, landscaping and building of the course, clubhouse and sports complex. A hotel also is being built adjacent to the course for business travelers and tourists.

"It'll be a little monopoly," Jones said. "It's going to be very crowded. They can charge whatever they want."

The golf season will run only five months -- May through September. "But it's very intense because they can play all night that far north -- at least from 4 a.m. to 11 p.m. in Moscow," Jones said. "It's the same latitude as St. Andrews, Scotland. Golf is a very northern sport. Most people don't realize that. But it hasn't been in Russia because it was considered an English sport and then a symbol of bourgeois capitalism."

Jones, who has built 150 courses, including 20 in Japan, describes the Nahabino setting as flat and woodsy, similar to courses he's designed in Wisconsin, Maine and Minnesota.

"I had a delegation of Russians who came to Wisconsin and Minneapolis and saw these courses, then came to Stanford University and saw its course," he said. "The Soviets want a world-class tournament, and with the course we're building they'll have one someday."