These days, Rodriguez still picks up the odd bag at the only course besides Varadero still open in Cuba, the Club de Golf Havana, a.k.a. the Diplo Club, a nine-hole track lovingly—although poorly—maintained for foreign embassy personnel. Precious few knowledgeable golfers are left from prerevolutionary Cuba. Back then the country had eight courses, the most elegant being the Havana Country Club, where Rodriguez caddied from 1944 until it shut down for good in 1967 Today the country club houses the nation's premier art and music school, although it's still possible to make out where the palm-ringed greens and raised tee boxes stood. The pool where Hollywood starlets cavorted is empty now, and a jazz combo practices alongside it. On the wide terrace where Sinatra crooned, a student violinist plays Mozart. If a golf course absolutely has to be used for other purposes, this is as good as it gets, but none of the other old courses met such a kindly fate. Today they are either military camps, security installations or massive, Soviet-style housing projects.
Last week, the honor of being the first pro in Cuba in 41 years to make a swing that counted went to Simon Hurley of England—although no one other than Hurley seemed to be aware of the shot's significance. "I was actually rather nervous about it the night before," he said. To commemorate the moment, he lavished 16 U.S. dollars on a fine Trinidadian cigar, smoked it down to about four inches ("Any longer than that and you can't bloody well see the ball," he explained) and blistered a drive 310 yards down the middle of the 1st fairway. "I wanted it to be a good one," he said. Unfortunately, he hit his next shot into the water and went on to finish 30th in the tournament, 17 strokes behind winner Stephen Scahill of New Zealand, who came in at 11-under-par 277 and moved all the way from 16th to fifth on the final money list.
Hurley was one of the few competitors to show any historical curiosity about the event. Seventeen of the 41 players (only the tour's top money-winners were eligible) were Swedes, who all seemed to adopt the attitude of Patrik Gottfridson. "The golf, the beach, the hotel—that's good enough for me at the end of a long season," he said. Indolio Mendez, one of the four Cuban instructors at Varadero, said the Challenge tour pro in his pro-am group did not say a single word to him. Such disrespect may not last long. Mendez, who took up the game only four years ago, during the construction of the course, shot even-par 72 in the pro-am and may be Cuba's best player. He has a natural swing and a handicap of about one, even though he doesn't own a set of clubs. "I could easily see Cuba, which is a sports-mad nation, producing a couple of Seve Ballesteroses or Sergio Garcias in a few years time," says Burns.
Altogether, more than 40 Cubans played in the pro-am, and any Cuban can play the Varadero course for free—whenever there are no paying guests waiting. "The spirit of golf anywhere is maintained by the locals," says Jorge Duque Garcia, the profesor de golf at the Diplo Club, "and the Cuban spirit, I believe, is perfect for golf."
If so, the rest of the world should be warned. "Before I put my hand on a golf club," says Mendez, "I played baseball, swam, ran the marathon. Now I do nothing but play golf. Somehow the game got hold of my emotions and won't let go."