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Letter From Kabul: Beware of Land Mines On the First Fairway

4 minute read
Tim Mcgirk/Kabul

Like most obsessive golfers, Paul McNeill occasionally ponders the game’s standard frustrations–the blown putts, the sliced drives into the rough–and questions his devotion to such a maddening pursuit. But as a regular at Kabul’s only golf course, McNeill puts up with some extra hazards that would test the mettle of Tiger Woods. The grassless fairways of rock and stubble are cratered by rocket shells. The greens are in fact brown, a mix of oil and dirt with the consistency of quicksand. Approach shots are complicated by the possibility that insurgents have planted land mines on the course. And your swing may be off-kilter because you probably have a pistol strapped to your thigh, just in case kidnappers are lurking nearby. “Sometimes you look over,” says McNeill, an aid worker from North Carolina, “and your partner is carrying a rifle in his golf bag.”

Despite these inconveniences, golf Afghan-style is witnessing a boomlet. The nine-hole Kabul Golf Club boasts some 60 members, drawn mostly from the armies of aid workers and expatriate businessmen who have flooded the capital since the fall of the Taliban. The club’s revival reflects Kabul’s transformation, from a dusty no-man’s-land to a bustling hub of commerce. Earlier this month the city opened its first five-star hotel; rooms start at $250 a night.

That said, vacationing golfers shouldn’t expect Pebble Beach. The Kabul club was built in 1967, when Afghanistan was a relaxed kingdom with movie theaters, women wearing short skirts and plenty of Western tourists. After the U.S.S.R. invaded, its army dug in near the seventh hole, and the course became a battlefield, with mujahedin fighters attacking from the hills above. The Soviets arrested the local pro, Mohammed Afzal Abdul, for being a U.S. spy; his interrogators said it was because golf was such a capitalist, bourgeois sport. After fleeing to Pakistan, Afzal returned to Kabul shortly before the Taliban seized power. He tried to interest a few turbaned Taliban in the game, but he says, “They were only interested in shooting and whipping people.”

After U.S. and Afghan troops toppled the Taliban in 2001, Afzal teamed up with McNeill, who, as a hobby from his relief work, helped restore golf courses in war-ravaged Rwanda and Georgia. “I thought we should leave a few of the rusted tanks and missile launchers out there on the fairways as a testament to history,” McNeill says, “but Afzal said, ‘No, it’s time for a new chapter.'” Afzal cleared away land mines by borrowing a flock of sheep from a nomad and setting them loose on the course. A few were blown up, but Afzal’s philosophy is, Better dead sheep than dead golfers. (He paid the nomad for the lost sheep.) The United Nations later turned the course into a training area for mine-sniffing dogs. “Our club is now perfectly safe,” he says.

But running a golf club in Kabul is not easy. The club advises golfers to bring their own plastic mats and play shots off them. Artificial turf is something of a rarity in Afghanistan. So are tees and golf balls. The pro shop has a few sets of rental clubs that look as if they were donated by Fred Flintstone.

Then there’s the course itself. Stepping up to the first tee, I could hear my father’s voice: Keep your eyes on the ball, slow down your upswing, swivel your hips. I could almost hear his sigh of exasperation. Instead I swung hard, too hard, and completely missed. I tried again, and this time skulled it, sending the ball ricocheting off a few boulders before it disappeared. With admirable stoicism, Afzal dispatched two caddies to find his precious ball in the dry scrub. “Maybe you try putting,” he said.

Although he once entertained dreams of becoming a pro golfer, Afzal is set on teaching a young generation of Afghans to swing a club. But in a country just emerging from two decades of war and tyranny, the game is still a tough sell. “Many Afghans think that golf is the devil’s game,” says McNeill. “Of course, many golfers would probably agree with that.”

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