A trip to Israel: Golf is limited, but there is plenty of passion

Itai Cohen, 7, swings for the fences at Caesarea Golf Club.

CAESAREA, Israel – Can golf’s return to the Olympics, a new Pete Dye golf course here and the potential for the first Israeli golfer on the LPGA Tour grow golf in the Holy Land? It’s a question I explored when I visited Israel’s only 18-hole golf course, Caesarea Golf Club, located on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean. On Thursday, I was paired with four-time NBA world champion Will Perdue, a participant in the Arn & Nancy Tellem Mission to Israel, and club members Shmulik Zisman and Jules Polak.

It is so comforting to know that wherever you go in the world you can find hardcore lovers of the game. Both Polak and Zisman are members in the Blue Birdie Nomad Golf Club, a group of Caesarea golfers that have standing tee times most every day of the week. As many as a dozen golfers gather at the first tee, throw their balls in the air to make teams and duke it out. In July and August when the humidity rises, they take golf trips together. This year included stops in Bulgaria, Cyprus and Italy. They are my type of people. (Brief aside, American Peter Mathes, who participated in the trip, convinced his wife that a golf trip to Japan was on the way to Jerusalem. He too is my type of people.)

According to the Caesarea club’s history, James de Rothschild, whose family owned the land upon which the course is located, was a passionate golfer. When he visited Caesarea’s dunes, he was reminded of Scotland’s sandy links and dreamed of building a golf course there one day. Lord Rothschild christened Caesarea in 1961, hitting the opening shot before Hall of Famer Sam Snead and Harry Whitman squared off in an exhibition.

Ever since, Caesarea has hosted the golf competition at the Maccabiah Games, a Jewish version of the Olympics, every four years. Bruce Fleisher (1969) and Corey Pavin (1981) are past champions. The idea of renovating the course was not a new one. In March 1967, British Hall of Fame golfer Henry Cotton developed a plan to re-design the golf course, but the plan never came to fruition. With renewed interest in sprucing up Caesarea, Dye was approached to do the job by the Rothschild family. Initially, he said he declined, unwilling to travel to the Middle East.

“They finally conned me to fly over there,” he said with more than a hint of Dye sarcasm.

Dye accepted the assignment and raved about the natural resources – “first time I ever had pure sand. It made it simple” – and the responsibility thrust upon him -- “Here I was designing for a whole country,” he said.

The renovation began in August 2007, and totally re-routed the course while stretching it to 7,185 yards. It opened in time for the 18th Maccabiah Games in July 2009. Based on numerous conversations with members, the jury is still out whether they prefer the new course to the original version. Laetitia Beck, the women’s golf champion at the last Games, grew up walking distance from the sixth hole. She called the new Caesarea radically different from its predecessor.

“It’s more of an American golf course now,” she said. “I can’t even compare it. There used to be a lot of trees. You couldn’t see from one hole to the next. Now it is very open.”

Oren Geri, who learned the game at Caesarea and won the Israeli Open there earlier this year, didn’t mince words: “At first I hated it,” Geri said. “I’m learning to like it.”

Then Geri explained what he missed. “The old course had these gorgeous doglegs and you had to shape shots,” he said. “You didn’t have to hit driver on every hole. It was a shotmaker’s course. Now it doesn’t have the character it used to have.”

A recurring theme emerged. Time and again, the original course was described as having “character.” This sentiment reminded me of how many New York Yankee fans – myself included – still feel attached to the old Yankee Stadium compared to the modern, glitzier version. I found Dye’s course to my liking and met an active membership. Which begged the question: Why does Israel have just one 18-hole course?

There are several reasons beginning with the high cost of real estate in a country the size of New Jersey. Water is also a scarce commodity here. Add to that the fact that constant political unrest has scared away some investors, and that golf is very much considered an elitist sport.

“A lot of Israelis don’t have a good image of the sport,” Beck said.

Only 1,000 of the nearly 8 million people that call Israel home are golfers. There is a ministry of tourism and sport but Polak said golf is way down the totem pole. There are more pressing needs. He noted that Gaash Golf Club, the country’s only nine-hole facility, was denied its request to expand to 18 holes. How can Israel possibly expect to grow the game with limited affordable options to play? It’s a shame because in the last year Morgan Pressel, Tom Lehman, Hunter Mahan, Amy Alcott, and Michael Thompson have all visited and instructed a potential new generation of golfers here. As Sean Foley told teenagers at a golf clinic he helped conduct at Caesarea, “Golf is like Facebook. It’s addictive.”

For proof, look no further than Thompson, who participated in the Israeli goodwill tour. He recounted his story at the clinic of how watching Davis Love III on television ignited his interest in golf. Thompson was six years old when he asked his parents for a set of clubs. Soon, they were dropping him after school at Randolph Park Golf Club, a public facility in Tucson, at 3 p.m. and picking him up at sunset. He had a place to play. Caesarea is trying to fuel the same desire. The club’s head professional Andy Santos, an American, said 280 young people are active in its development program and have access to three full-time teachers and two part-timers. But for all the reasons previously cited for golf’s low profile in Israel, Beck is her country’s outlier.

“When I was younger –10- to 12-years-old – I was the only girl playing,” she said. “It was a few boys and me.” In pursuit of stiffer competition, she left home at 14 and trained in the United States at the IMG Academy. Currently, she’s a junior on the Duke University women’s golf team.

Geri is based in the U.S. and makes an annual trip to Israel. He’s watched Beck improve and said she has a legitimate shot of making the LPGA Tour.

“She’s a winner,” Geri said. “When I go back she’ll see me and say, ‘Let’s go play.’ When we get to the tee she’ll say, ‘What are we playing for?’ She’ll want to play for $100. I ask, ‘What tees?’ She’s not afraid to play me from the tips. She’ll play me even up from the back tees and there’s no fear.”

Beck has become a source of civic pride. She hopes that golf’s return to the Olympics in 2016 and perhaps representing Israel in the Games could spark new interest in building another course.

“You always hear stories about plans for the future, but I think it’s hard,” Beck said. “I’m hoping to have maybe one more course.”

Polak may have put it best: “Come back in 10 years and then maybe,” he said.

Until then Polak and other members of the Blue Birdie Nomad Golf Club must be content to toss the balls in the air at Caesarea. Their regular game awaits and that’s not such a bad thing.

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