Organizers working to promote golf in Cuba
VARADERO, Cuba – The two revolutionary icons were playing the gentlemen’s game in fatigues and combat boots. And they weren’t playing well.
Che Guevara shot a 127, besting Fidel Castro’s 150 on a par-70 golf course.
Their 1961 round a month before the Bay of Pigs invasion was the beginning of the end for golf in Cuba – soon the communist government had eliminated the sport from the island almost entirely.
Only one 18-hole course remains, the Varadero Golf Club in this beach resort 85 miles east of Havana. On Friday and Saturday it hosted two one-day pro-am tournaments featuring half a dozen Cuban golfers paired with wealthy foreigners.
Organizers say the events are small steps in a campaign to bring golf back to Cuba, a country that is both the best and worst imaginable place to play.
The Tourism Ministry says it would like to build 10 new courses around the country and attract high-rollers from Europe, Canada and even the United States should Washington ease its 48-year trade embargo. Investors in Europe and Canada have long clamored to build courses, presenting plans that include luxury hotels, apartments and health spas.
But those proposals have remained stalled for years, with not even one foreign-financed project having broken ground.
Cuba is “the sand trap from hell,” said John Kavulich, senior policy analyst at the U.S. Economic Trade Council in New York.
“The conflict is imagery versus profit,” said Kavulich, whose group advises U.S. businesses on trade with Cuba. “Concerns about the image of golfers in the worker’s paradise. And, if accepted, how does Granma (the Communist Party newspaper) explain the obese U.S. golfer with poor clothing color coordination, running about in their ‘Caddyshack’ like golf cart, betting one each hole?”
It does indeed seem hard for Granma to stomach golf, with its refined decadence. But Antonio Zamora, a Miami attorney and expert on Cuban real estate, said the government has overcome old ideological concerns and sees the sport as a way to get foreigners to visit the countryside, rather than simply staying in Havana and other cities.
The state-run tourism concern Palmares is developing golf, but Zamora said it has moved slowly because it plans to build courses in clusters of three or more, enticing players to stay in particular areas long enough to try all courses.
“There’s been a lot of work done. This is not just ‘blah, blah, blah,’” Zamora said.
Among those playing in Saturday’s tournament was Canadian Graham Cooke, a top golf course architect. At a similar event last year, three-time major winner Ernie Els made an appearance to represent his development company.
In June 2008, Britain’s Esencia Hotels and Resorts announced the Tourism Ministry had approved construction of the Carbonera Country Club for around $300 million on a stretch of beach not far from Varadero. In addition to an 18-hole golf course, the development calls for 800 luxury apartments and 100 villas.
Cuba does not recognize the right to buy or sell property and prohibits foreign ownership, but Esencia said it was hammering out a 75-year lease on the property. Construction was slated to begin in 2009, but has now been postponed indefinitely.
On Friday, Esencia CEO Andrew Macdonald took a group of investors to the site where the Carbonera project would be built, offering a tour of a windy beach amid high reeds that faced a rocky and narrow blue lagoon.
“It’s spade ready,” he told The Associated Press, offering a map showing that where he stood could one day be a small wooden pier in front of a luxury hotel. “We could go tomorrow.”
Macdonald said the proposal has been endorsed by Cuba’s Tourism and Foreign Investment Ministries, but that more than 20 other government ministries have to approve the plan before it can go ahead.
“If you haven’t done anything for 50 years, you want to do it right,” he said. “They’re totally committed to this. It’s just a timing issue.”
Macdonald said the golf course and some of the homes could be built in two years once the project is approved, but he is through speculating on when exactly that might come.
Gilberto Avila, a Tourism Ministry promotional communications officer, said Cuba solicited foreign companies for proposals to build 10 golf courses across the island, and had received at least 11 such proposals since 2007 – though he offered no explanation on why none has moved forward.
Cuba’s vacation industry set records for foreign visitors each of the last two years, despite the deep recession. In 2009, over 2.4 million tourists came, mostly from Europe and Canada. But many stayed fewer days than usual, and tour operators offered deep discounts to keep them coming, meaning revenues slumped nearly 12 percent.
Golf could bring tourists ready to spend regardless of how dire the world economy looks.
“You’ve got a cigar and you are playing golf with the beach right there,” said Jose Tovar, general manager of the Varadero Golf Club. “It’s perfect.”
There were about a dozen topflight Cuban courses before Castro came to power on New Year’s Day 1959. The PGA Tour hosted an annual Havana tournament in the 1950s that attracted Arnold Palmer, among others.
Castro and Che’s round at Havana’s Colinas de Villareal course was meant to thumb their noses at the Kennedy administration. Many claim Castro wanted to eradicate the game because he wasn’t good at it, something his son Antonio has denied, saying his father liked trying all sports.
The grounds of the Havana Country Club were converted into a music and dance academy, and another course, the Havana Biltmore Club, became a military zone where Castro now is believed to keep one of his many homes. Colinas de Villareal also became a military camp.
Just one golf course survived in the capital, the nine-hole Havana Golf Club, located off the road to the airport. The course was originally the British-owned Rovers Athletic Club and was spared mostly so foreign diplomats could play, said Johan Vega, the local pro. Sticks and tree branches are used as flag poles on some holes and an antiquated irrigation system makes it difficult to keep the grass from turning brown.
Vega was not invited to the Varadero tournaments. He doesn’t believe golf is too capitalist for his country, but said he’s not hopeful it will take off in Cuba because “there’s no national golf culture.”
Things are far less bleak at Varadero, the only golf course built since Castro’s revolution. It opened in 1999, after more than five years of construction and with the Cuban government financing all of its $20 million budget, said Tovar, the general manager.
The course’s clubhouse, high on a bluff, used to be “Xanadu,” an 11-bedroom mansion built by U.S. chemical tycoon Irenee DuPont.
There was a seven-hole golf course on the grounds – two holes were destroyed by a hurricane – until the Soviet Union disbanded, ending its billions of dollars in annual subsidies to Cuba and bringing the island’s economy to its knees. Officials then embraced foreign tourism and built the full-size course to attract golf-hungry visitors.
Varadero hosted qualifying tournaments for the European Tour in 1999 and 2000, but since has been unable to afford to stage more, and efforts to promote golf languished until pro-am tournaments this year and last.
But Tovar said Cuba can no longer afford to not build more golf courses, given the sport’s global popularity.
“From a golf course, it’s a different view of our country, maybe it’s not so cultural,” he said. “But it’s still Cuba.”