2006: The First Tee of Iraq

In the middle of a war zone, Maj. John McBrearty of the California Army National Guard carried out an odd and dangerous mission: building the first golf course in Iraq. • It was not always a popular mission. Told by some of his superiors that his plan was preposterous, even impossible, he mused silently, “I think I’ll put a green over there behind that date palm.”

Before long, McBrearty found himself armed with weapons, battle gear and golf clubs. It was the clubs that allowed him to win the trust and friendship of the Iraqi people.

Miraculously, McBrearty built a golf course, range and practice putting green in Iraq. Call him the Donald Ross of what had been a golfless country.

“It was Major McBrearty’s project all the way,” said Capt. Tom Hernandez, now back in the United States and working for a trucking firm in Puyallup, Wash. “He designed it. He even spent some of his own money getting it done.

“We helped him, and I’m sure everyone else is just as proud as I am. It was a really good thing to do. You should have seen the Iraqis hit golf balls. You know that look on somebody’s face when they first make contact, like ‘Hey, man, I really clobbered that ball.’ We saw that all the time.”

Spc. Daniel Paul Unger Memorial Golf Complex, located in the town of Ash-Shumali in south-central Iraq,

is named for a fallen comrade. The course has just three greens, but, with the use of different tees, a nine-hole round consists of eight par 3s and one par 4.

Weaving among machine-gun towers, the course has a unique dress code: in a word, bulletproof. Golf in Iraq can be a battle, literally.

To be truthful, the only golf course in the war-ravaged country is a mess. The fairways, a mixture of weeds, ruts and mud, are unplayable. The greens, made of artificial turf, are unreadable.

No matter. The golfers, mostly American soldiers hungry for sport and starved for anything that feels like home, are in goat ranch heaven, beating balls in bulletproof vests. Though the golfers might be viewed as prominent targets, nobody has been hurt on the course. Although McBrearty has returned home to Riverside, Calif., he said the course, range and putting green still are flourishing.

The range quickly became a magnet for locals on their way to a nearby market. They would stop and watch, McBrearty recalls, and before long they had clubs in hand, taking their first swings.

“When I would go out to play, they would flock around me,” McBrearty recalled. “All the local kids would show up. It was like Tiger Woods arriving at your local golf course.”

Hernandez said the soldiers would give the children $1 to shag balls. “That was like giving a kid here $10,” he said. Soon McBrearty, a 15-handicapper who has broken 80 only a handful of times, was playing Butch Harmon to these curious junior golfers.

“I never said I was a great player,” McBrearty said with a laugh, “but you won’t find anybody who is more enthusiastic. I love golf because it teaches you self-reliance. It demands that you think clearly and control your emotions.”

Hernandez, looking back on his year in Iraq, called McBrearty “the kind of guy who inspires you to get something done.”

McBrearty grew up across the street from Merion Golf & Cricket Club in Ardmore, Pa.

His father, Dr. John F. McBrearty, was a clinical psychologist.

McBrearty, 45, remembers the 1971 U.S. Open playoff at Merion between Lee Trevino and Jack Nicklaus. After playfully pulling a rubber snake out of his golf bag on the first tee, Trevino shot 68 to beat Nicklaus by three strokes.

“I caddied a little, but not much,” McBrearty said, “but that got me interested in golf. That kind of sowed the seed, although I really wouldn’t play until later. I was a weightlifter, a football guy. I was into martial arts and boxing. I played baseball and ice hockey. So golf had to wait.”

McBrearty toiled for a while in Hollywood. He landed a role in “Taps,” the 1981 movie best remembered as a launching pad for Tom Cruise’s career. In 1992, he wrote and directed a film that he described as a spoof on slasher films, “Sorority Girls and the Creature from Hell,” in which his wife, Lynette, had a role.

When his screenwriting ambitions stalled, McBrearty said, “I decided to go from part time to full time with the National Guard.”

Golf became part of McBrearty’s life at the U.S. Navy golf course in Seal Beach, Calif. He was in his 30s, and when he broke 100 the first time he played, he was hooked.

Building a makeshift golf course in a war zone might sound like something out of an unlikely war movie. Think of it as “M*ASH” meets “Where Eagles Dare,” with a dash of “Stripes” mixed in.

McBrearty began by scouring the Internet for instructions on building the course, then hired an Iraqi contractor to help in the construction phase.

“I just told people it was private investors,” he said, though, in fact, McBrearty said he spent about $2,000 of his own money on the project.

McBrearty often met resistance from superiors, who were focused on fighting a war.

“I understand their reluctance, and I know it was a risky thing on my behalf,” he said. “I had a lot of resistance from higher channels in the military, but I saw it as a tactical operation – a mission. Finally I decided to get the resources in place, so that officials couldn’t say no.”

He received old golf clubs and balls from the Sunrise Kiwanis chapter and a group of Disabled American Veterans, both located in Burbank, Calif. Eventually he got a huge boost from Callaway Golf, which supplied new clubs, balls and bags.

“Callaway was great,” McBrearty said. “I couldn’t have done it without them. I tried to get help from several other golf companies, but they turned me down. Maybe I didn’t express myself the right way.”

He equipped each bag with a piece of artificial turf for “fairway” shots to spare players from hitting off the rugged terrain. His practice range just outside the U.S. camp was “very crude.” He constructed a tee from cement and plywood, covering it with carpet and Astroturf. He used mounds of gravel to secure distance signs at 50, 75, 100, 150 and 200 yards.

“It kind of looked like a firing range,” McBrearty admitted.

McBrearty then built a practice putting green that was about 30 feet by 30 feet. Finally came three greens for the course, located inside the boundaries of the camp. He constructed one green behind a large date palm. Another was toughened by a ring of rough around the putting surface – the Iraqi version of the U.S. Open. These greens had a concrete base, covered by a layer of sand and then Astroturf.

Each green featured its own bunker, plus a perimeter of soft sand to cover the unplayable turf.

With his background in composition, McBrearty kept a daily journal of his experiences in Iraq and hopes to publish it. During his year there, five members of his battalion were killed.

“It was scary,” he said. “Golf really helped a lot of people get through this.

“More important, though, we truly bridged the cultural gap. This brought us much closer to the Iraqis. Except for watching Tiger Woods on satellite TV, they didn’t know anything about golf. The power of this game is really amazing.”

No sooner had McBrearty arrived home from Iraq in late August than his phone rang in the middle of the night.

“You don’t have to go,” the voice said, “but . . . ”

Lynette said to him quietly but firmly, “You’re going, John.”

The next day McBrearty was on a C-130 headed for New Orleans, where he would be operations officer for the California Air/Ground National Guard troops in the Hurricane Katrina cleanup. While he was gone, Lynette moved the family into a new house they had purchased.

“I equated New Orleans to Iraq,” he said. “Hygienically it was worse. The filth was everywhere. All that water was mixed with sewage. Every day we had to be decontaminated just from walking around town.

“I had bronchitis when I was there. Then I picked up full-blown pneumonia. But it was worth it. I figure we saved roughly 100 human lives, plus many, many pets. It was as close to combat as you’re going to find. I was right back in a comfortable environment that I was used to.”

Except there was no golf course.

“You know,” he reminisced, “that course in Iraq is something I will always remember with great fondness. We did something very special. We helped spread democracy, goodwill and golf.”

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