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Golf During Wartime

Have you ever looked inside your bag and found there wasn't a tool there to do justice to the situation you faced?You didn't just need a wedge to get out of the bunker, you needed a rope to abseil into it, that kind of thing?Thirteen years ago I found myself in such a predicament: In the middle of a fairway belonging to the Golf Club of Lebanon in war-ravaged Beirut were both my golf ball and a pack of wild dogs that were scratching and salivating and preparing (I was convinced) for their midday meal—namely, me.

These dogs of war were just one of the hazardous by-products of fifteen-plus years of civil strife that had ripped Lebanon apart from 1975 on. Christian Maronites, Lebanese Muslims, Palestinian refugees, Israeli and Syrian forces, and eventually the U.S., French and Italian militaries had all delivered hope or despair (or both at the same time) to Beirut's troubled life. As for the troublesome canines?Well, the par-five fourteenth at this seventy-five-year-old golf club had come to look like the Serengeti, and I now know that you should not lay up in front of wild dogs. I came to learn other things in Beirut too, many still difficult to forget.

The daily killing, bombing and shelling that had turned Beirut into an urban moonscape had almost subsided when I arrived in 1992—flying into Beirut airport with trepidation, a hard-won visa and a set of golf clubs. Just as I was informing a stern and heavily armed soldier inside the terminal that "No, Wilson isn't my name; its just the make of . . ." my bag was turned upside down, its contents dumped out. An hour later, having established that my clubs were not accompanied by an assault rifle (banned by the R&A in any case, though the soldier couldn't possibly have been expected to know that particular rule) and that my Titleists were not cleverly disguised grenades, I was in a taxi heading toward West Beirut.

The Mayflower Hotel in Hamra now bills itself as "ideal for holiday­makers and business travelers." That wasn't always its reputation. In the late eighties and early nineties, regular electricity was still a forgotten luxury. "Ah, Mr. Cusick, here are some candles for you; the lights, you know. . . . And I've put you in Mr. Keenan's old room." This was, I would later discover, cutting-edge Lebanese humor, "Mr. Keenan" being Brian Keenan, the Irish university lecturer kidnapped in 1986 and held hostage by Shiite fundamentalists for four and a half years. I kept my candle lit and held tight to my blanket for much of that first night.

The primary reason for my stay in Beirut was the wedding of a friend, a journalist with The Times of London. On assignment, he'd fallen in love with a beautiful Palestinian woman. But before the wedding, key Western customs had to be observed: There would be skiing on Mount Lebanon and fine dining on the Corniche (a legacy of the days when the French ran Lebanon and the city was the "Paris of the Middle East"). There would also, of course, be golf.

Throughout the civil war years, the Golf Club of Lebanon remained open for play. (In fifteen years of conflict it had shut its gates for only a few weeks.) During that time, I was told by an old club member, the royal and ancient game was played in the daylight hours; golf combatants would then return home to their families for their evening meals, replace their irons and woods with rifles and mortars, and head to the "Green Line" battle zone that divided East and West Beirut to shoot the hell out of one another all night long. There were no scorecards, no handicaps. Sudden death wasn't a playoff, it was an occupational hazard.

By the time of my visit, there were other sorts of nightlife in Beirut. The war had eased somewhat, discotheques had reopened, and thus, despite an early tee time, I danced into the morning with dark-eyed women who seemed to know Western pop songs as well as they knew traditional Arabic hits. The Lebanese DJ was in full flow (according to my suspect Arabic, anyway) in either culture: "Shukrun . . . mnih . . . bahed biddle . . . shoo fi . . . behddi . . . Achy, breaky heart . . . heeeeey!" Strange that the opening notes of that Billy Ray Cyrus song still take me straight back to a line dance not in Nashville but in Beirut.

To prepare for the round the following day, I of course needed a nightcap. Something Scottish was called for. I "borrowed" a bottle of Johnnie Walker Black Label and five glasses for my friends from the disco and headed back to the hotel. Once there, I discovered that the bottle-top gizmo needed to be plugged into a special pouring device. I went to the desk and asked, "Can you do something with this?" The night clerk was helpful: "Of course, Mr. Cusick, of course." He bent down behind the desk only to reappear holding the distinctive metal magazine from a Kalashnikov rifle. He smashed off the top of the bottle with the curved magazine, smiled and handed it back to me.

In the morning my cabdriver drove me to the golf club, repeatedly reminding me along the way that this was no ordinary taxi journey: "We don't go down that road, it's mined. That road too mined. And that. That not good road either."

At the gates of the Golf Club of Lebanon sat two huge Syrian tanks. In 1976 the Syrians had crossed into Lebanon at the "invitation" of the Lebanese president. The reasons?How long have you got?They are still there in 2005, and still under international pressure to leave.

One hopes they've at least left the rough at the golf club. Indeed, during our pre-wedding golf game Syrian soldiers were to be found, some in full camouflage, patrolling the rough, hiding behind trees, peering out as I tried to nail a drive. What were they doing there?Was it some gross misinterpretation of R&A rules?Would they open fire if I accidentally moved the ball and didn't call a penalty shot on myself?


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