Monday, February 25, 2008

Hooking Left: Cuba Tees Up Golf's Revival

Hooking Left: Cuba Tees Up Golf's Revival

After Che Beat Fidel,
A Course Was Lost;
'Sand Trap from Hell'

February 23, 2008; Page A1

Now that Fidel Castro has retired, perhaps he can find the time to work on his golf game.

In 1962, Mr. Castro lost a round of golf to Ernesto "Che" Guevara, who had been a caddy in his Argentine hometown before he became a guerrilla icon. Mr. Castro's defeat may have had disastrous consequences for the sport. He had one Havana golf course turned into a military school, another into an art school. A journalist who wrote about the defeat of Cuba's Maximum Leader, who was a notoriously bad loser, was fired the next day.
[Fidel Castro]

Now, top officials on the island want to turn Mr. Castro's Communist paradise into a hotspot for this decidedly capitalist sport, to generate hard cash for its cash-strapped economy. Last year, Cuba's minister of tourism, Manuel Marrero, announced plans to build as many as 10 golf courses to lure upscale tourists.

"The message from Cuba is: bring on golf projects," says Mark Entwistle, a former Canadian ambassador to the island.

Mr. Entwistle hopes to develop Cuba's first golf community on the island's eastern end, with hundreds of villas and apartments centered on a 36-hole course. Mr. Entwistle says he knows of at least 11 other projects, in various stages of development, involving Canadian, British and Spanish developers.

The man driving Cuba's golf effort is Raúl Castro, the long-serving defense minister who became acting president when his older brother Fidel took ill in July 2006. Raúl, who is more a fan of cockfighting than golf, is the odds-on favorite to be named president tomorrow. Alarmed at the decline in the number of tourists to Cuba, Raúl has urged senior officials to make golf happen. The government is setting up an interagency golf task force. Cuban officials involved in the program say they are not authorized to comment on it.

To make golf tourism work, Cuba, which does not recognize the right to buy and sell property, will have to permit leases of as long as 75 years for foreigners, to entice them to invest in the villas and condos on which modern golf development depends. Some believe those leases are the tip of the spear that will, over time, reinstate full property rights.

Some of the world's leading construction and architecture firms have become involved. Foster + Partners, a top London architectural firm, developed plans for a marina-and-golf resort on Cuba's north coast featuring three 18-hole golf courses and 1,500 apartments. A construction unit of French firm Bouygues SA has drawn up plans to build a marina-and-golf community, Marina Gaviota, on the point of Cuba's famed Varadero beach. There is already one 18-hole course in Varadero.

If history is any guide, bringing back golf won't be easy. "Cuba is the sand trap from hell," says John Kavulich, senior policy adviser at the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, who has followed the travails of entrepreneurs trying to develop golf projects in Cuba.

Just ask Walter Berukoff, the mining tycoon behind Vancouver-based Leisure Canada. For more than a decade, Mr. Berukoff has been nurturing a project, approved by the Cuban government, to build some 600 condos and villas for foreigners around three golf courses and a marina on Cuba's north shore, close to Havana. But for a variety of reasons, including Cuba's search for oil right next to his property, the project has gone nowhere.

"We had to stop the project because no one will build a multimillion-dollar project if there are oil wells in front," says Guy Chartier, Leisure Canada's man in Havana. Mr. Chartier says the Cuban government told him it has given up its search for oil. "We plan to move the ball forward in 2008," he says.

One problem is the lack of golf culture in Cuba. Mr. Castro built a state-sponsored sports machine that produced world-famous boxers and baseball players, killer volleyball spikers and fleet-footed runners. But Mr. Castro was never keen on golfers, whose sport reeked of money and Yankee imperialism.

"These guys don't even think in Cuban," Mr. Castro said in a 1960 speech, mocking members of the Havana Biltmore Yacht & Country Club. He confiscated the manicured grounds and turned them into a workers' resort.

Golf had been played on the island since the 1920s. At the time of the 1959 revolution, Havana boasted two award-winning courses, at the Havana Country Club and the Biltmore, which hosted such greats as Sam Snead and the rookie Arnold Palmer. A third course, where Mr. Castro would lose to Che Guevara, had just opened. U.S. tycoon Irénée du Pont had a private nine-hole course in Xanadu, his fabled Varadero beach estate.

The famous game between Messrs. Castro and Guevara took place shortly after the Cuban Missile Crisis, according to José Lorenzo Fuentes, Mr. Castro's former personal scribe, who covered the game. Mr. Lorenzo Fuentes says the match was supposed to send a friendly signal to President Kennedy. "Castro told me that the headline of the story the next day would be 'President Castro challenges President Kennedy to a friendly game of golf,'" he says.

But the game became a competitive affair between two men who did not like to lose, says Mr. Lorenzo Fuentes, who recalls that Mr. Guevara "played with a lot of passion." Mr. Lorenzo Fuentes says he felt he couldn't lie about the game's outcome, so he wrote a newspaper story saying Fidel had lost. Mr. Lorenzo Fuentes says he lost his job the next day, eventually fell afoul of the regime and now lives in Miami.

Nowadays, there is only one nine-hole course left in the capital, the Havana Golf Club. Until he left Cuba in 2005, the former golf pro there, Jorge Duque, now 44 years old, had the distinction of being Havana's only certified pro. Mr. Duque, who now teaches golf in Malaga, Spain, believes the sport needs an open society to thrive, and is pessimistic about its future in Cuba.

"Golf opens up society because people learn a lot from foreigners," says Mr. Duque. "We need an economic opening -- and an opening in thinking -- before golf can develop in Cuba and the people realize the benefits that golf can bring."

The Havana Golf Club, a turquoise-and-white relic of 1940s and 1950s resort architecture, has a pool, a bar and a small bowling alley. On Thursday, in a small room serving as the caddy shack, employees swapped stories about golf in Cuba. Mr. Castro came to the course in the 1960s to meet a visiting dignitary, they recalled, and the two men putted and chatted on the fourth green.

The club's fee of 20 Cuban convertible pesos, or about $18, per nine holes is too high for locals, so the course is used mostly by tourists and diplomats. Fugitive financier Robert Vesco has been spotted on the course. Diego Maradona, the former Argentine soccer star and a Fidel admirer, plays there. "Some people don't let you teach them much, and he is one of those guys," one of the caddies says about Mr. Maradona. "He got a few pointers, and then did the rest himself."

The club's former pro, Mr. Duque, has been replaced by an easy going local who grew up across the street and played the course as a kid. The new pro dispenses golf tips that are decidedly Cuban. "Learning the balance of golf is like learning to dance," he says. "The rhythm of salsa is 1-2-3. A golf swing is 1-2-3."

Write to José de Córdoba at

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