Sand Traps and Snipers, the Kabul Golf Club
(The Cut, Spring 2009. Australian Golf Digest, Spring 2009)
As we putt on the fifth ‘green’ a soldier in full combat gear from an Afghan National Army checkpoint on the road past the course wanders over to watch, baffled by the odd game, his Kalashnikov hangs from his shoulder and he stands shaking his head until the crackle of his radio sends him running back to his post, the new governor is apparently about to pass. The previous governor was killed by a roadside bomb on the same road just two weeks before. On a ridge overlooking the course is a stationary tank and two American Humvees from the neighbouring and heavily defended military base; welcome to the Kabul Golf Club, the only course operating in the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan!
A few kilometres outside the tense and dusty chaotic sprawl that is post-Taliban Kabul lies the Kabul Golf Club. If it wasn’t for the sign it would be easy to mistake it for just another empty brown Afghan valley. Even the greens here are brown, grass refuses to grow in the near-desert conditions and the irrigation pipes which once watered the course have long ago been ripped from the ground by destitute villagers and sold for scrap. The putting surfaces are now a mixture of sand and used engine oil, raked and rolled to make a smooth-ish surface. My fellow player is Nico, a Belgian freelance journalist in Afghanistan to cover the ongoing conflicts, he’s never held a golf club in his life and I’ve only played once, with my father as a teen.
“The course first opened in 1967,” Muhammad Afzal Abdul, the course manager and Afghanistan’s only pro-golfer tells me, “golf was a very popular sport back in those days but then the Russians came, they beat me and closed the course down.” It seems the communists were not big fans of the bourgeoisie capitalist’s game. “Before that the course would be full of foreigners playing here, but they put me in jail, and they killed one of my sons too.”
After the Soviets went back to their crumbling Union the course reopened only to be shut down again years later by the Taliban, “‘Why do you want to play this foolish game of the infidel?’ they asked me, they beat me too and put me in jail for two months, but I told them ‘even if you say you will kill me I will not give up golf!’”
I guess there are plenty of golfers who get an ear-bashing from their partners for spending too much of their weekends on the course, but could there be anyone who has suffered more for the sport than Muhammad?
The origins of the game in Islamic Republic date back to 1919 when it was first introduced by the then king Habibullah, the golfer-king met his end in typical Afghan fashion when he was assassinated. Habibullah loved the game so much he is buried on what was the country’s only other course in Jalalabad, the construction of his mausoleum saw the end of golf for the Jalalabad course and now Kabul is the only place for ex-pats to get their golfing fix.
“We still have the ‘Dessert Classic’ tournament every year,” Muhammad tells me, “last time we had 46 entrants, they all paid a hundred dollars to enter and we gave all the money to local charities.”
Being a professional golfer himself, who once had a zero handicap, Muhammad coaches on the course as well, “About half the people I teach are local Afghans, some are women too!”
“Has Tiger Woods ever played here?” Nico jokes.
“I wrote to him once and asked him to come,” Muhammad replies not realising the Belgian is having him on, “but he never wrote back.”
In the ‘clubhouse’, a whitewashed mud-brick building at one end of the course Nico and I rent a set of clubs and hire the services of a young lad, one of Muhammad’s nephews, as a caddy. The caddies are compulsory as they double as security guards. Rather unsettlingly Muhammad constantly tells us how safe the course is which makes me think it’s possibly not. Does he fear the Taliban kidnapping golfers off his course and spiriting them away into the hills? I try to picture our caddy, a seventeen year old boy called Mansoor, trying to fend off a gang of armed insurgents with a nine iron.
On the first tee Mansoor tries to give us some instruction, “Stand like this, feet apart, knees bent, now swing with your whole body, not just with your arms.”
Nico swings the wood as hard as he can and misses the ball completely.
“Okay, that was just a practice!” he says and swings again, “Okay, that was another practice, now this is the real one!” And the ball rockets off into space and neither of us have a clue where it has gone. Walking across the fairway which is as rough as the roughest of roughs I remember hearing about how the course was rumoured to have once been dotted with anti-personal land mines, a myth land to rest, hopefully, when a mob of sheep were left to graze on the course for several weeks, they all reportedly survived with their cloven hooves intact.
Muhammad’s tips for the course include advice like; ‘Attack the course!’, ‘Play aggressively!’ and ‘This is golf with attitude!’ and as for the stroke index; ‘Don’t even ask because this is Afghanistan and they are all tough!’ We pass the water hazard which is a dry as a bone but rules state we must use our imaginations and treat it as if it’s full, at least stray shots can be retrieved without getting your feet wet!
Young Mansoor gives us plenty of positive reinforcement with exclamations of “Fine shot sir!” and “Well played!” even though neither Nico nor I have shots that could be describe as ‘fine’ or ‘well played’. Mansoor also gives us plenty of flexibility with the rules; stopping balls from rolling down slopes or moving those embedded in long grass or depressions in the ground to allow us a better shot. And in fact, despite our lack of skill, we even make par on the couple of the holes.
Locals passing on the road slow as they see us and drive by open-mouthed probably wondering what the two fool foreigners are doing out in the scorching heat of the midday Afghan sun whacking a little white ball around. As we leave the sixth ‘brown’ a family pulls up and set up their picnic on the surface. At the seventh Nico looks across at the distant eighth, “Oh, that’s a bloody long way! How many shots do you think it would take you Ian?”
“I dunno, six or seven?”
“Okay, let’s just call it six each and we’ll walk it, yes?”
The heat is stifling, even out in the hills, “Sounds good to me!” I fill in the score card and we stroll on.
By the time we make it to the ninth we’ve both had enough, the back nine are played on the same ‘browns’ but with different tees anyway. We retire to the clubhouse where, despite Islamic rules forbidding the sale and consumption of alcohol, one of Muhammad’s associates arrives with a chilly-bin full of Heineken cans, $US5 a pop!