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Golf on the Forbidden Island

"Is he still alive?"

"Oh, yes." Duque laughed and pointed to a tee through the trees where a skinny black man stood with his hand on a pullcart while a portly Diplo member in white prepared to swing at the ball. "That is Angel," Duque said. "You can have him caddie for you later."

Duque won the first hole with a sensational approach shot that permitted him to tap in for birdie. My own putt for birdie wobbled and came up woefully short of the hole. The condition of the green was, as advertised, appalling. Sensing my dismay, Duque apologized for the condition of the greens and explained that the club had no greens mower and had to rely on an ordinary fairway mower to get the job done.

He won the second hole as well, a sweeping par five that doglegged downhill before rearing up again to an elevated green, where I was surprised to see a simple wood stick serving as the flagpin. I proceeded to fire my approach twenty yards over the green because the short stick made the green look farther away than it was.

The third hole was a beautiful downhill par four framed by frothy pine and aged hardwoods, a short but testing two-shotter that would be admired on any golf course in the world. As I prepared to hit a layup five-iron, I heard the faint metallic clank of a bell and turned around to see a peasant farmer holding a small rope at the end of which stood a large bull calmly munching greens a few yards behind the tee. I waved and the bull's minder waved back; he watched me hit and then called out, "Good shoot" I thanked him and proceeded to par the hole. Duque birdied. I was three down after three.

It was the fifth hole, a par three, before I began to get into my game. "Perhaps you make a holy one here," Duque said, smiling encouragingly. I didn't make a hole in one but did make par, and my host stumbled, taking bogey. The sixth was a lovely par four that rose through trees and made me realize what a stunner this course could be--and probably someday soon will be--in the hands of a Rees Jones or another sensitive American architect who knows how to leave well enough alone. I won the sixth--and somehow the seventh hole, too.

As a thunderstorm suddenly started rumbling overhead, I won the short par-three eighth, and we arrived at the ninth tee all square and facing a tough choice: to drive straight ahead safely or take a crack at flying a ball over the tall pine trees, leaving a short approach to the green. Duque played smart; I foolishly tried to cut the corner but failed to carry the timber. My host won the hole and thus our first match, by one hole. We retired to the bar at the club, where, as the heavens let loose, we ordered mojitos and Duque showed me Pepe Fernandez's Bulls Eye putter on the wall.

Several Members From The Canadian Embassy Were In The Bar, talking about their approaching Canada Cup scramble tournament that weekend. I asked one of them what it was like to live and play golf in Cuba these days.

"Burma, 1939," a large florid-faced diplomat said, pointing at the tropical downpour. His colleagues laughed.


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