And all along I thought golf was a cause of anxiety.
"No, just the opposite; golf relieves stress," Eisa Eshaghi, president of the Iranian Golf Federation, told me. "And that's what we need, since we're a nation that has suffered wars and hardships."
To say the least. Hundreds of thousands of Iranians lost their lives—the exact death toll no one knows—during Iran's war with Iraq in the 1980s. And in 2003 an earthquake killed at least 25,000 in the ancient city of Bam.
These days, Iranians have other reasons to feel defensive. President Bush famously damned the country as being part of an "axis of evil," together with Iraq and North Korea, and U.S. officials recently accused Iran of meddling in current Iraqi politics. (Fledgling efforts at reform in Iran were dealt what could be a severe blow with the recent election to president of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a staunch conservative and opponent of America.)
So as an American I went to Tehran, the Iranian capital, with a measure of apprehension.
But, as it turned out, everywhere I visited in this polluted city of eleven million people—where drivers seem to be practicing for bumper-car tournaments and upper-class head-scarved women push the envelope to see how much fashion style they can get away with within the bounds of Muslim morality—I was met with courtesy. Many Iranians have family and friends in the States, and once again I was reminded that it's essential to separate the posturing of governments from the attitudes of ordinary people.
I was traveling in Iran as part of my job with the International Osteoporosis Foundation. Blessed with a free afternoon after meeting with Ayatollah Rafsanjani, a former Iranian president, I drove north to the country's only grass golf course, a twelve-hole layout called Enghelab. Iran's four other courses consist mainly of desert sand and oil-slicked "greens."
The idea of playing what is arguably the ultimate Western sport in a country effectively run by conservative mullahs intrigued me. And I had never seen a twelve-hole course. Enghelab, originally Imperial Country Club, is located within the national sports complex and lost six of its holes in the 1990s when military guards abruptly confiscated the land.
I had read a story from 1999 that described Enghelab as a course "inexorably being reclaimed by desert weeds," with bushes ten feet high in front of tees and fuel tanks, freshly dug ditches and "a pile of construction rubble" in the fairways.
What a difference several years makes. On my visit, the course was in surprisingly good shape. Sure, the tee boxes were an uneven combination of heavy grass and bare earth, the fairways overgrown and the greens either rock hard or swamplike from overzealous hand watering. But it was a functioning golf course with plenty of challenge. And, as the New York Times recently reported, the course is thriving, thanks in large measure to its popularity among women—who for years after the 1979 Islamic Revolution were banned from playing golf and other sports. On any given Friday, up to 250 people, a majority of them women, now show up for free weekly clinics.
Part of the reason Iranian women are taking to golf stems from a practical matter of dress. After the revolution, women were required to wear chadors—long, concealing black robes that would have prevented them from swinging a golf club even if they'd been allowed to play. The wardrobe restrictions have since been eased; now women must wear tunics and head scarves but not full robes.
But even with Iran's more open policies, certain rules remain firmly in place. For instance, while women are now allowed on the course at any time—instead of just three mornings a week, as was the case two years ago—they can play with men only if they're related.
On top of that, Iranians don't exactly court publicity when it comes to golf. As I approached the course with my chauffeur, I asked him to stop so I could take a photo of the buildings that were constructed on previous golf course land.
"No, no, you can't take pictures here," I was told. "Military."
So I put my camera away and headed to the new offices of the Golf Federation, where Eshaghi told me of his goal to popularize the sport in Iran, with plans to build driving ranges, enter players in the 2006 Asian Games in Qatar, establish a web site and invite the public to "golf introduction days."