Golf tourism in Cuba? Someday maybe
Posted: 25 February 2008 09:29 AM   [ Ignore ]
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By Jose de Cordoba | Wall Street Journal

NOW that Cuban President Fidel Castro has retired, perhaps he can find the time to work on his golf game.

In 1962, Castro lost a round of golf to Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara, who had been a caddie in his Argentine home-town before he became a guerrilla icon.

Castro’s defeat may have had disastrous consequences for the sport. He had one Havana golf course turned into a military school, another into an art school. A journalist who wrote about the defeat of Castro, who was a notoriously bad loser, was fired the next day.

Now, top officials on the island want to turn Castro’s Communist paradise into a hot spot for this decidedly capitalist sport, to generate hard cash for its cash-strapped economy. Last year, Tourism Minister Manuel Marrero announced plans to build as many as 10 golf courses to lure upscale tourists to Cuba.

“The message from Cuba is: bring on golf projects,” former Canadian ambassador to Cuba Mark Entwistle said.

Entwistle hopes to develop Cuba’s first golf community on the island’s eastern end, with hundreds of villas and apartments centered on a 36-hole course.

Entwistle knows of at least 11 other projects involving Canadian, British and Spanish developers. The man driving Cuba’s golf effort is Raul Castro, the long-serving defense minister who became acting president when his older brother Fidel took ill in July, 2006. Raul, who is more a fan of cockfighting than golf, was named president on Sunday.

Alarmed at the decline in the number of tourists to Cuba, Raul has urged senior officials to make golf happen. The government is setting up an inter-agency golf task force but officials involved say they are not authorized to comment on it.

To make golf tourism work, Cuba, which does not recognize the right to buy and sell property, will have to permit leases of as long as 75 years for foreigners, to entice them to invest. Some believe those leases are the tip of the spear that will, over time, reinstate full property rights.

If history is any guide, bringing back golf won’t be easy. “Cuba is the sand trap from hell,” said John Kavulich, policy adviser at the US-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, who has followed the travails of entrepreneurs trying to develop golf in Cuba.

One problem is the lack of golf culture in Cuba. Castro built a state-sponsored sports machine that produced world-famous boxers, baseball players, killer volleyball spikers and fleet-footed runners. But Castro was never keen on golfers, whose sport reeked of Yankee imperialism.

“These guys don’t even think in Cuban,” Castro said in a 1960 speech, mocking members of the Havana Biltmore Yacht & Country Club. He confiscated the manicured grounds and turned them into a workers’ resort.

Golf had been played on the island since the 1920s. At the time of the 1959 revolution, Havana boasted two award-winning courses, at the Havana Country Club and the Biltmore, which hosted such greats as Sam Snead and the rookie Arnold Palmer. A third course, where Castro would lose to Che Guevara, had just opened. US tycoon Irenee du Pont had a private nine-hole course in Xanadu, his fabled Varadero beach estate.

The famous game between Castro and Guevara took place shortly after the Cuban missile crisis, according to Jose Lorenzo-Fuentes, Castro’s former personal scribe, who covered the game.

Lorenzo-Fuentes said the match was supposed to send a friendly signal to president John Kennedy. “Castro told me that the headline of the story the next day would be ‘President Castro challenges President Kennedy to a friendly game of golf’,” he said.

But the game became a competitive affair between two men who did not like to lose, said Lorenzo-Fuentes, who recalled that Guevara “played with a lot of passion”.

Lorenzo-Fuentes wrote a newspaper story saying Fidel had lost. He lost his job the next day, eventually fell foul of the regime and now lives in Miami.

Nowadays, there is only one nine-hole course left in the capital, the Havana Golf Club. Until he left Cuba in 2005, the former golf pro there, Jorge Duque, now 44, had the distinction of being Havana’s only certified pro. Duque, who now teaches golf in Malaga, Spain, is pessimistic about its future in Cuba.

“Golf opens up society because people learn a lot from foreigners,” Duque said. “We need an economic opening - and an opening in thinking - before golf can develop in Cuba and the people realize the benefits that golf can bring.”

The Havana Golf Club, a turquoise-and-white relic of 1940s and 1950s resort architecture, has a pool, a bar and a small bowling alley. Last week, in a small room serving as the caddie shack, employees swapped stories about golf in Cuba. Castro came to the course in the 1960s to meet a visiting dignitary, they recalled, and the two men putted and chatted on the fourth green.

The club’s fee of 20 Cuban convertible pesos, or about $19.50, per nine holes is too high for locals, so the course is used mostly by tourists and diplomats. Diego Maradona, the former Argentine football star and a Fidel admirer, plays there.

“Some people don’t let you teach them much, and he is one of those guys,” one of the caddies said about the football great. “He got a few pointers, and then did the rest himself.”

Duque has been replaced by an easy-going local who grew up across the street and played the course as a kid. The new pro dispenses golf tips that are decidedly Cuban. “Learning the balance of golf is like learning to dance,” he said. “The rhythm of salsa is 1-2-3. A golf swing is 1-2-3.”

- The Wall Street Journal

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Posted: 27 February 2008 08:50 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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The natural terrain and pristine beauty of Cuba’s countryside could be home to some of the most beautiful golf courses in the tropics. It would be a golfers paradise !  cool smile

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Posted: 12 November 2008 10:12 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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A couple of clarifications in the venerable WSJ article:

1) Diego Maradona was a member but has not been seen at the club since he left Cuba in 2005, Duque was instramental in Maradona learning to play golf. Maradona held a 14 handicap when he left Cuba.

2) Knowing Duque well as I do, I have the feeling that he was a victim of spin, furthermore when was the interview conducted? Duque is a sharp man who has seen half hearted efforts to bend the Cuban system ( often for the sake of property rights) countless times. The government was never behind these fully is the reality, sure some efforts looked better than others particularly when Immobiliari had its ill fated condo experiment on 5th ave. But as we know this failed and soured the government even more. Now however, with Raul active there is a chance for real development, yet it is unclear how that will manifest.

3) Duque will be the first to tell you that the Cubans are extraordinary athletes and there are some fine Cuban players. This seems to be omitted from the article. Delmis is a 3 handicap, Hector my partner in the 9-11 tournament is a solid 5, Rolando Kang is a dangerous 7 and it goes on and on. No there is not a wave of Cuban golfers yet there has been Cuban golfers playing all through the entire revolution take Marcus Lopez or Cristobal.

4) While the article mentions the Biltmore it does not mention Donald Ross’s Havana Golf Club that was an icon with noted players like Snead, Casper or Middlecoff ( to name a few) regularly showing up on the tour stop.

5) Johan ( The pro) does not have the qualifications of Duque yet he was trained by Duque and they are friends. For the non golfer reading the article 123 swing and comparisons to Salsa seem absurd yet to the golfer who understands how important rhythm is to a golf swing it not only makes sense it is a tried and true method. Johan has a 9 handicap.

6) The article barely mentions the condition the fine condition of the Veradero course or the exquisite design of the Havana course, The Havana course is in poor condition due to the difficulties of obtaining equipment presented by the embargo. The greens suffer the worst there and I assure you no one foot putt is assured. Therefore a decent handicap at Havana is something to be proud of indeed or as we golfers say ” His or her handicap travels well”

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My Cuba books are found here Havana: My Kind of Town and Nature’s Ancient Religion

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