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Golf on the Forbidden Island

"May I ask the nature of your visit to Cuba?"

The man studying my American passport was heavyset and unsmiling, with a broad, pockmarked face and eyes like a sleepy iguana's, wearing the fatigues-green uniform of Cuba's internal police. Something about him made me think of Captain Segura, the shadowy head police officer from Graham Greene's classic spy farce Our Man in Havana, a man rumored to carry a cigarette case made from human flesh.

"Golf," I said. "I've come to play a golf match." He looked at me as if I were joking. "Golf is not easy to play here," he said, handing back my passport. "I wish you a most pleasant time." I thanked him, pocketed my passport andresisted the temptation to say that golf is not an easy game to play anywhere on the planet. He was certainly right about Cuba, though, where golf was essentially banished forty years ago. That, of course, was precisely why I'd wanted to go: I had arranged to play the one golf course that survived the Cuban Revolution, the old Rover's Athletic Club--a once-beautiful nine-hole layout that reportedly now had woefully neglected fairways, and greens furry enough to chip on--and to play with the island's only golf professional, a thirty-five-year-old five-handicap player named Jorge Duque, a man trapped on a forgotten golf course for the whole of his playing life.

Built sometime in the forties (after a move from an earlier location) and administered by the British until 1980, the Rover's Athletic Club is now called the Havana Diplomats Golf and Tennis Club (a.k.a. the Diplo Club) and was first described to me several years ago by a friend. He made the course and the club sound like an oasis of tropical civility, complete with diplomats and other fringe characters dozing over their G and Ts, a living curio from the palmy, prerevolutionary days when Havana was considered the "Pearl of the Caribbean"--a port of sun, sin and golf that was good enough to attract well-heeled travelers and some of the game's biggest names. Henry Cotton, Tommy Armour, Bobby Jones and Gene Sarazen were just a few of the men who did regular winter exhibitions on the island, and a Who's Who of the PGA Tour--including Bob Rosburg, Dave Marr and the young Arnold Palmer--made the Havana Open a major event. Sam Snead once told me fondly about playing a pair of exhibition matches in the early fifties against Cuba's top golf professional at the time, a man named Rufino Gonzalez, and having, as he put it, "just about the best damn time of my life."

Jim Ferree fell in love with the place when he went down to play the Havana Open that was won by Billy Casper in late 1958--just weeks, as it turned out, before the fall of the Batista regime and Fidel's overthrow of the government. "I'd never seen a place quite like Cuba," Ferree told me. "The parties, the exotic music, the food, such warm, welcoming people. There were great nightclubs and surprisingly good golf. I remember a bunch of us went to the Floridita Bar in Old Havana and sat where Ernest Hemingway sat and drank rum and ate stone crabs. The women were the most beautiful I'd ever seen, especially the showgirls." He paused and laughed. "To some of us, it was a little like going to heaven."

A heaven that just about then turned very quickly to hell, on the golf courses of Cuba as everywhere else. It wasn't that Castro had anything against the game; in fact, he and Che Guevara, the Argentine doctor who became his most trusted field lieutenant and the revolution's most famous hero, played golf shortly after taking over the government. Guevara was mad about the game, according to his CIA file, which also reported that his only word of English was the word "golf." Despite that, the new revolutionary government began systematically plowing up the island's fairways and greens, banishing golf clubs as warrens of social exclusion and symbols of capitalist decadence. Villa Real, a course Ferree especially admired on Havana's dramatic eastern headlands, was turned into a military school, and the lush Country Club of Havana, home of the Havana Open, was transformed into public housing. The Havana Biltmore course, which hosted numerous exhibition matches and which Donald Ross may have had a hand in designing, was appropriated for public housing and agricultural projects. Only my destination--the modest Rover's Athletic Club--had somehow survived Castro's bulldozers.


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