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Kabul Country Club

Our intrepid equipment guru is on assignment in Afghanistan — that’s right — and filed this intriguing story to the Canadian Press last week. Quite a tale…

By James McCarten

THE CANADIAN PRESS

KABUL _ The weedy desert fairways and oil-and-sand “browns” of Kabul Golf Club are a long way from the emerald hues of the Masters and Augusta National, but thanks in part to a Canadian benefactor, the game’s irrepressible spirit is very much alive in Afghanistan.

It resides in Muhammad Azfal Abdul, quite probably Afghanistan’s only golf professional _ a man whose unwavering tenacity, patience and passion for the game despite impossible odds mirrors the interminable struggles of his birthplace.

“Everyone knows my name as a player in Afghanistan,” Abdul, 46, says matter-of-factly, his pro shop a battle-scarred shack that has served as both a Soviet military outpost and a Taliban barracks.

“Most of the foreigners and local Afghans, they are just waiting for this ground to be cleaned and (completely) green, then they will definitely come. I am very hopeful for the future.”

Abdul was but a boy when Kabul Golf Club opened its doors in 1967, catering to moneyed western diplomats, ambassadors and scions of the country’s royal family.

Back then, there was grass on the fairways and greens and a fully furnished clubhouse. But Abdul, who took up the game at 10 and eventually became Kabul’s golf pro, was forced to shutter the course in 1978 on the eve of the Soviet invasion.

Decades of military and civil conflict, culminating in the fall of the Taliban in 2001, conspired against Abdul’s boyhood playground, which lay along a tactically vital route into Kabul.

Over the years, tanks and armoured vehicles ripped up the grass; rocket and mortar fire pitted the fairways, levelled trees and littered the course with unexploded shells.

It wasn’t until 2003 that security in Kabul had improved to the point where Abdul and his partners could breathe new life into the course, dragging off the rusting relics of the Soviet occupation and calling in crews to clear the grounds of anti-personnel mines.

A year later, Kabul Golf Club was still a shadow of its former self. But Abdul and his partners threw open the doors anyway, attracting international attention and foreign benefactors, including at least one from Canada, in the process.

“It was my childhood game, and I like it very much, and I made it my profession _ I spend as much money as I have on this game,” says Abdul _ a confession familiar to many western golf fanatics.

“I would keep this mission as long as I have the energy. I would face any problem to keep this game, because it’s my profession, my aim, my goal.”

Sticklers for the rules of golf might find the Kabul course hard to take. Rutted, rock-strewn fairways of hardpan and thistle demand a tee or a mat of artificial turf for every shot.

The cups and pins are made of old car parts and rusty steel rebar. Caddies smooth the putting surfaces, made of compacted oiled sand, with a rug.

The glory days of the early 1970s far behind him, Abdul today relies on the charity of foreigners who send him used balls and clubs.

Of the battered, age-old sets in the caddy shack, 24 of them are from Canada, by Abdul’s count.

Kabul Golf Club is not without its charms. Players are accompanied not only by a caddie who carries the bag, tees the ball and selects clubs, but also a forecaddie who sprints ahead to show golfers the line of play.

It costs US$15 to pay the nine-hole course, or $30 to go around twice. The club also raises funds by selling sells hats and shirts for $20 and $30 respectively.

With barely a handful of players each day, pace of play is not an issue. Curious Afghan onlookers travelling to the nearby Qargha picnic area stop their cars to watch.

“Just enjoy being a celebrity and wave politely as if this happens every time you play,” the club’s website advises. “Then try not to flub your next shot.”

Even the legacies of golf greats like Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus have made their way to Afghanistan, where fledgling players like Hasmatullah _ an 18-year-old with a natural, graceful swing that belies the fact he’s been playing for less than a year _ have their own dreams of greatness.

“They are the winners, they are the champions _ and I would like to show them that I have the talent, that I can play as well,” Hasmatullah says.

“I would love to play with them, and I am very hopeful and I want them to come here, see our golf course and give us some advice, and help us if possible.”

When asked what Kabul Golf Club needs the most, Hasmatullah is blunt. “Gloves, balls, all the kit _ tees, we need these things,” he says.

“And plus, grass.”

On this day, Hasmatullah is playing with Jorg Herrera, a 43-year-old German expat stationed in Kabul who visits the course at least once every two weeks.

“You can tell they practice every day,” Herrera says with a rueful smile as Hasmatullah gracefully lashes a powerful drive down the middle.

For Herrera, however, golf in Afghanistan has little to do with well-struck drives or birdies and bogeys.

For him, like so many other things in Afghanistan, it’s about the spirit of the game, about the tenacity of believers like Abdul, about the place’s potential for future growth and success given a chance at peace, stability and prosperity.

“Here, for me, golf is a different concept,” he says.

“I come here to meet people, to play with the people. Being here with the kids, for them I think it’s a great opportunity. The more people come here and just behave naturally and play, the better it is for the development of the people who are here.”

If nothing else, the course is providing a living of sorts to the young boys who work as caddies, scrounging for tips from the wealthy diplomats and embassy officials who are satisfied even with the chance to swing the club and hit a few balls.

“For them, it’s work and fun, and this can develop into something really nice,” Herrera says.

“If 10 of these kids can become really good caddies, or really good golf players, hey, this is fantastic, this is something the place has never seen.”

“There’s a lot of potential for this game here that people are not aware of.”

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Robert Thompson

A bestselling author and award-winning columnist, Robert Thompson has been writing about business and sports, and particularly golf, for almost two decades. His reporting and commentary on golf has appeared in Golf Magazine, the Globe and Mail, T&L Golf and many other media outlets. Currently Robert is a columnist with Global Golf Post, golf analyst for Global News and Shaw Communications, and Senior Writer to ScoreGolf. The Going for the Green blog was launched in 2004.

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