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Passing Mark
John Paul Newport
November 08, 1999
As the country's first pro tournament in 41 years made clear, golf in Cuba has come a long way, and has a long way to go
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November 08, 1999

Passing Mark

As the country's first pro tournament in 41 years made clear, golf in Cuba has come a long way, and has a long way to go

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Even the most geopolitically naive American could come up with three good reasons why the European Challenge tour (the overseas equivalent of the Nike tour) should not have held its season-ending tournament in Cuba last week. First, Cuba is not a part of Europe. Second, Cuba is a Communist dictatorship under Fidel Castro, and Castro would never allow such a thing. Third, Cuba doesn't have any golf courses, does it?

Nevertheless, the Challenge tour's so-called Grand Final, with 15 spots on the European tour at stake, went forward, and on a real course, too. The Varadero Golf Club, built above the white sand beaches of a tourist enclave 80 miles east of Havana, was designed by Canada's Les Furber and is a peach of a layout, 6,856 yards long. The planned gala inauguration of the course, on Oct. 26, two days before play began, was cut short by a sudden rainstorm just as a uniformed youth brigade was about to present a choreographed putting and chipping demonstration for the high-level Communist officials on the reviewing stand. But the course received its official party sanction anyway, and, as a kind of legitimizing gesture, the cadre of workers at Varadero presented the officials with photographs of Fidel playing golf with his famous comrade in arms, the Marxist martyr Che Guevara.

Apparently Castro (who had been expected to attend last week's ceremony, but did not) has nothing against the game itself, only its bourgeois associations. In the heady days after the 1959 revolution, he and Che spent an afternoon goofing around at the newly liberated—and soon to be plowed under—Colina Villa Real Golf Club, near Havana. In the pictures they seem to be having a wonderful time. "Now I'm ready for Eisenhower," Castro is said to have told Che after popping a particularly powerful drive. They look just like a couple of guys in their 30s unwinding after three busy years waging a guerrilla war against a corrupt, U.S.-backed regime.

If the notion of booted, bearded revolutionaries beating around the old bola seems anomalous, welcome to golf in Cuba. Among the prizes awarded to the Cuban winners of last week's pretournament pro-am were a small refrigerator and, for the second-place team, house paint. Looming over the 1st tee were a giant balloon shaped like the Pillsbury Doughboy, advertising a Cuban beer, and a 30-foot-tall statue of a worker with a golf club raised as if it were a sickle. With a little imagination, one could hear Karl Marx goading golfers on to maximum birdie production.

From the Challenge tour's point of view, the reason for coming to Cuba is mundane. "During the cold-weather months the sites available in Europe are limited," says tour director Alain de Soultrait. Not many facilities in Spain and Portugal are willing to give up their courses during their prime season, and the European tour usually snatches up those that do. As a result the Challenge tour, which this year has staged tournaments in such unlikely spots as Kenya, Poland, Russia and Slovenia, by late spring had still not found a home for its so-called Grand Final.

Enter Cuba in the person of Varadero's director of golf, Jimmy Burns, who was imported from Great Britain earlier this year to enhance Cuban golf's credibility. (For some reason the tourism ministry's regular staff had been unable to drum up much business touting what it called Varadero's magnificent new "field of golf.") Burns saw the Challenge tour's plight as a golden marketing opportunity and convinced his masters that laying out vast sums of money (by Cuban standards) to attract a pro tournament would do wonders for tourism.

These days, tourism is job one in Cuba. Eight years ago, when the Soviet Union collapsed, Cubans discovered that life was difficult without their $8 million-a-day transfusion from Moscow. Castro reorganized the country's desperate economy to attract foreigners to Havana and to safe new tourist enclaves like Varadero. Only Americans were left out—under an embargo enacted by the U.S. government in 1960, they are prohibited from spending money in Cuba, except under special circumstances. In 1994 the tourism ministry gave the green light to build the course at Varadero, and now at least 12 other golf projects are in various stages of development.

By the time the deal with the Challenge tour was struck, Burns and the 10-agency Cuban organizing committee he worked with had less than three months to prepare for the tournament. "The first thing we did was show people here videotapes of PGA Tour events so they'd know what a proper tournament is supposed to look like," Burns says. "It was all a mystery to most of them." Amazingly, after a massive, state-directed mobilization, everything came together. Workers built signs, boatloads of equipment were imported, and a dozen Cuban companies (mostly beer and rum distributors) were enlisted as sponsors. By tournament time Varadero looked like any mini-tour site.

The only mishap, admittedly a serious one, came three weeks before the tournament, when the greenkeeping crew killed the grass on all the greens by accidentally watering them with toxic human sewage. The European tour immediately sent its top agronomist, who revived the grass enough so that during the tournament it looked more or less green and carried putts in the general direction of the hole, but at a snail's pace of about six on the Stimpmeter. "Nobody over here had ever done anything like putting on a tournament before," Burns says, "and we're planting new grass by next year, did I mention that?"

While it's true that no one living in Cuba had ever put on a tournament before, it's not as if Cuba lacks a golf tradition. Ask Angel (Ampi�o) Rodriguez, 76. He was Sam Snead's caddie in the Havana International Invitational in November 1958, less than two months before Castro seized control. (The '58 Invitational was the last pro tournament held on the island.) Snead lost in a playoff to long-hitting George Bayer, but only because, according to Rodriguez, Snead failed to heed his advice on the break of a five-foot putt for par on the 17th hole of regulation. Last week, bouncing in his chair and wearing five rings, a silver necklace, several bracelets and a watch, Rodriguez related this story as if he had just walked off the course. "Sa-snee, Sa-snee one up," he said with a Cuba-shaped grin, meaning that Sam Snead would have remained a shot ahead of Bayer with one hole to play had he trusted Rodriguez's read. After losing, Snead acknowledged to the press that he should have listened to his caddie—a moment Rodriguez ranks as the highlight of his caddying career.

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