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Golf on the Forbidden Island

My match there had been arranged by an American sports promoter and developer named Bob Walz. A burly, bearded fifty-year-old who looks like a cross between Raymond Burr and Ernest Hemingway, Walz operates an Aruba-based adventure-travel firm called Last Frontier Expeditions and, when we went to Cuba together earlier this year, was making his 125th visit to the island since 1992. Quietly but legally maneuvering around the thirty-five-year-old U.S. embargo and the Helms-Burton law of 1996 (which, among other things, prohibits any American corporation from making money in Cuba), Walz has shuttled a stream of Americans into the country, including scores of businessmen, cigar lovers, scholars and celebrities. A few came for the kind of macho adventure Papa Hemingway enjoyed, but most came to try to assess firsthand the investment potential of an island just shaking off forty years of isolation from Western influences.

Entered From Any Direction, Havana Impresses you as a beautiful city still, with its wide boulevards,lovely old buildings, abundant parks and plazas. It is a decidedly aging beauty, wracked by poverty, and the sight of so many fifties-model American cars on the roads, kept running by owners who have become adept at salvage and repair, conveys a surreal feeling of time warp. But the city still has a potent sense of romance and adventure about it. As I checked in at the Hotel Nacional, the recently refurbished grand dowager of Cuba's hotels, the lobby was buzzing with international dialects--a swarm of arriving French and Italian guests. A few minutes later, just about the most infectious guitar music I'd ever heard wafted through the open windows of my room. I grabbed my golf bag and headed back downstairs and found my photographer and friend Macduff Everton snapping pictures while his wife, Mary, whirled elegantly across the terrace with a thin man wearing a fluttering blue shirt. The next thing I knew, an attractive dark-haired woman grabbed my hand and insisted I ditch the golf bag. I did as I was told and immediately understood why Sam Snead, Jim Ferree and others found Cuba so alluring--and why others envision it as the once-and-future capital of golf in the Caribbean. My match with Jorge Duque was forty-five minutes away, but dancing with a gorgeous stranger beat warming up with sand wedges any day.

All too soon, Jorge Duque and I were standing together on the first tee at the Diplo Club, establishing the terms of our scaled-down version of the legendary Sam Snead-Rufino Gonzalez match: We would play three nine-hole matches, with the winner of each nine buying the mojitos between rounds. Duque set up and striped a beautiful drive about 240 yards down the fairway, a lovely par four just over four hundred yards in length. As we started down the fairway, I asked Duque how on earth he'd become such a golf nut in a place where the game vanished five years before he was born and is scarcely remembered today.

"As a boy," Duque explained, "I never heard about golf, it is true. I was very much interested in sports of the sea--swimming and scuba diving, and particularly skiing on the water." He explained that he was studying water sports at the University of Havana when he and two other candidates were selected to try for a spot as apprentice to Cuba's only remaining profesor de golf, the legendary José Pepe Fernandez, winner of Cuba's first professional tournament and a great teacher who served a s head professional at the Biltmore course until the hotel closed, at which point he moved to the Rover's Athletic Club.

"The club was looking for a new professional," Duque continued, "because Pepe was old by then. They wished for someone to carry on the game and teach it to others and keep it alive, you might say. I play for the first time at age twenty, in 1983. I had only seen golf on TV before then. I told myself, Well, if I do this I may be able to spend more time in the water. So I start to play golf, and Pepe Fernandez teaches and then selects me."

When Duque became profesor de golf in 1988, he began training caddies, kids who otherwise would have been somewhere in a weedy lot trying to hit a homemade baseball with a homemade bat, a ubiquitous scene in this baseball-mad nation. "Fortunately, Angel Rodriguez was still here. He helped me because he knew so much about the game."

I asked who Angel Rodriguez was.

"He caddied for Sam Snead. He is our greatest caddie."

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