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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.
While Cuba is blessed with thousands of miles of beautiful coastline and sandy beaches, this inland course is more reminiscent of the mountains of North Carolina than the tropical Caribbean. Like the courses at Pinehurst, the holes are separated by stands of pines, and the fairway and rough grass is dark, thick and green, not the spongy Bermuda normally found in the islands. Only the azure-blue skies, warm sunny weather and the occasional palm and ficus tree give away the course's location. It is a wooded parkland-style layout, with parallel fairways, constant breezes and sudden elevation changes.
Throughout the course, the tee boxes are built up. The fairways are in decent shape and the rough is left to grow in the English manner, necessitating explosive wedge shots. The driving areas are wide and forgiving, however, and most of the bunkers are around the greens, so that the course, par 35, or 70 for 18 holes, plays well for all handicaps. The open pine stands make it difficult to lose balls, and in most cases invite daring recovery shots. The weakest parts of the course are the greens, which suffer from lack of modern agronomical techniques and a good mower. Having been invaded by several different grasses, they can be patchy and uneven, with occasional bare spots. Happily, when the renovation is complete, the greens will be replaced, providing more consistency.
Ironically, the asset most worthy of boasting is a feature found only at the very best courses in the States: caddies. The local labor situation makes hiring a caddy an attractive proposition, and some of the caddies are old enough to have worked their trade before the revolution, when Cuba was a popular golf destination and a stop on the professional tour. At just $6 for 18 holes, less than a pull cart rental at most courses, caddies are a luxury that is hard to pass up.
While the club's buildings are spartan, constructed of the whitewashed concrete typical to Cuba, and the pro shop offers little merchandise, the Club de Golf Habana is a complete country club, and guests are well advised to make a day of their visits. Five tennis courts, a swimming pool, squash, billiards and pool, and even a two-lane bowling alley round out the facilities. Professional instruction is available for golf and tennis, and food and drink are available throughout the club.
A cocktail and a cigar in the Hoyo 19 bar is a must before, after or during a round. The Brits did a good job with location, as the front door of the bar sits just four or five strides from the final green. The building is dark, with wood trim and ornate doors, distinct from the rest of the club's architecture. Hoyo 19 is reserved exclusively for golfers and members, who may sip a mojito or enjoy a cold Cristal, considered the best Cuban beer, and enjoy one of the bar's smokes while looking over the site plans for the new construction. The architects' renderings are proudly displayed on the wall alongside the obligatory list of members' handicaps, club tournament sign-up sheets and a handful of trophies. Substitute Scotch for rum, and ESPN for salsa music on the radio, and it would seem like a 19th hole anywhere in the world.
Larry Olmsted is a freelance writer living in Hartland Four Corners, Vermont.
GOLFING IN HAVANA
The Club de Golf Habana, at Carretera de Vento, Km.8, Capdevila, Boyeros, Havana, is just 10 minutes from downtown, and even closer to the airport. You should arrive by cab, since the club is very difficult to find and the fare is only about $10. Telephone: (53-7) 33 89 19.
Greens fees are $20 for nine holes, $30 for 18. Caddies charge $3 and $6, respectively. Pull carts are available, motorized carts aren't. The pro shop offers high-quality club rentals; a set of Wilson Staff clubs with graphite shafts rents for $10. If you visit Cuba frequently, consider a club membership. After an initiation fee of $70, monthly dues of just $45 include unlimited golf. The course is par 70 for men and par 72 for women with a slope rating of 125. Until the expansion is complete, there is no driving range, but a practice green is available. Head pro Jorge Duque says you don't need to book times, but on weekends it's better to call in case a tournament is being held.