Tee Time: Club de Golf Habana
From the Print Edition:
The Cuba Issue, May/Jun 99
Havana, 1948. It is easy to imagine the Brits sitting on the veranda above the green, sipping their gin and tonics while waiting for the next group to putt out. They have been stationed in Cuba, far away from their homes in London and Manchester and Glasgow, a long way from the exalted fairways of Turnberry and St. Andrews. So they do what comes naturally, what they have done in other hot weather climates from India to Africa to Hong Kong: they play a round of golf on a course they themselves have built.
"They started building it in steps, first with three holes, I think," says Jorge Duque, head golf professional, or profesor de golf, at the Club de Golf Habana, a position he has held for 16 years. Duque plays to a five handicap, and his status as one of Cuba's few golf professionals has allowed him the rare opportunity to travel from his homeland to explore foreign links. But the Havana course is still home. "Then they built a couple more [holes], bit by bit, until 1948 when all nine were open." In 1948, the course, then called Rover's Athletic Club, was but one of four golf courses operating within the Cuban capital. Today, there are just two courses in the entire country, and the second, the Varadero Golf Club, sits 125 miles from the city. When visitors to Havana want a game, this is where they come.
Like everywhere else in the world, golf is hot in Cuba, which relies heavily on tourist dollars, and at least four additional courses are scheduled to be built by Spanish developers in the next few years. Competition between the members of the Havana and Varadero clubs has heated up, and the two clubs are taking turns hosting the new Challenge Cup, which Duque describes as "a Ryder Cup-like tournament" between the clubs.
According to Duque, his home course was once reserved for diplomats, but today is open to the public. The membership comprises diplomats and local businesspeople, but anyone with the $20 greens fee is welcome. Tourists from Europe and Canada make up the bulk of the daily-fee rounds, but the number of players from the States is increasing, and Duque recalls a couple from Alaska playing a few weeks earlier. With more rounds and a renewed emphasis on tourism, especially in light of the recent opening of the modern international airport only three miles away, the club will soon be building a second set of nine holes.
At present, two distinct sets of tee boxes on each hole are positioned to make the holes play quite differently when teed up from either one. This creates a virtual front and back nine for those wishing to play 18 holes. For instance, the ninth hole is a sharp dogleg par 4 of 376 yards, requiring precise placement off the tee to negotiate the angle to the green. The second time around, the same hole becomes the 18th, a long, straight par 4 of 412 yards, calling for the grip-it-and-rip-it school of play. While the length of each nine-hole layout is almost the same, a couple of holes, such as the ninth and 18th, vary by nearly 50 yards depending on the placement of the tees, which are also positioned to make the holes play from different sides of the fairway.
When the expansion is complete, which Duque hopes will be by July of next year, the course will offer a 6,257-yard challenge. In addition to the new holes, the existing nine will be renovated and integrated into the new layout so that the sequence of holes will change. The bulk of the new holes will be placed on the hilly wooded region that lies to the right of the current fifth hole. The rolling terrain will allow the Cuban designers to incorporate significant elevation changes into the new layout. The bold plans also include an on-site hotel, a modern driving range and 200 homes on and around the course.
The club was originally laid out on open parkland on the outskirts of the city, but time and development have pushed Havana's boundaries outwards, and the course now sits in the midst of an industrial neighborhood filled with warehouses. The entrance is difficult to find and the approach to the club unimpressive. Misgivings continue on the first tee, as slices intended for the fairway land in the backyards of abandoned storage facilities and run-down homes. Fortunately, the course takes a dramatic turn for the better after you putt out on the first green, and by the third hole, golfers have climbed away from all evidence of roads and warehouses, into the hilly heart of the course. Number three is a short, 316-yard par 4 that slopes steeply downhill, begging big hitters to go for the pin. Number four climbs back up the same hill on a parallel fairway, 350 yards that play like 400.
The fifth and sixth holes are the crème de la crème of Cuban golf, well-designed holes that could hold their own on almost any course in the world. Along with the preceding two holes, they anchor a four-hole stretch of fine golf. The fifth hole sits on the back corner of the course, farthest from the clubhouse, along the forested area awaiting development into new holes. The prettiest hole on the course, the 145-yard par-3 fifth plays across a deep valley from a highly elevated tee box to a slightly lower green, with an almost constant tailwind. The hard-to-hold green slopes slightly back to front, with a sharp drop-off at the lip, so errant shots left, right or short end up in the bottom of the grassy ravine, leaving a difficult pitch that, if not hit perfectly, will wind up in the same place, another stroke lost to par.
The sixth hole is the toughest, a par 4 that doglegs right, with a creek cutting across the fairway in the landing area, which slopes down to the right. "You have to hit a good shot to carry the creek," Duque says. "The wind is always blowing left to right, but you have to favor the left side of the fairway. Then you have a side-hill lie for your shot to the green. It's very difficult." Short hitters who choose to lay up before the creek will find their approach angle cut off by the tall trees guarding the corner of the dogleg.
The course is book-ended with strong par 4s. The first hole is the longest four at the club, 421 yards from the men's tees. Eighteen is the second longest at 412, but plays longer to a green at the top of the rising fairway. Each nine has one par 5, over 500 yards, and two medium-length but tricky par 3s. It is a solid test of golf that won't break a player's spirit, but often requires length off the tee to capture pars or putt for birdies. Like the older courses of the British Isles, the layout is surprisingly strong, with a few great holes shaped by nature. Better maintenance and some minor renovations, like new bunkers and yardage markers, would take the rust off and allow the course to shine.
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email@example.com — September 30, 2010 3:43pm ET
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