Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Golf in Cuba

Cuba: Is it the 'sand trap from hell'?


In Varadero, Cuba, two revolutionary icons were playing golf 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

Their round in 1961, a month before the Bay of Pigs invasion in
April, was the beginning of the end for golf in Cuba — soon, the
communist government had eliminated the sport from the island almost

Only one 18-hole course remains, the Varadero Golf Club in this beach
resort 85 miles east of Havana. On a Friday and Saturday in late
April 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 decades-long 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.

American nationals are currently not allowed to spend money in Cuba
without securing a special license. However, many U.S. citizens
travel without a license, doing so by way of other countries that
have routine flights to and from Cuba, such as the Bahamas, Canada
and Mexico.

In an open letter earlier this month, a group of 74 Cuban dissidents
urged the U.S. Congress to pass legislation which would allow
American citizens to travel to Cuba freely.

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 golf
cart, betting on 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 the one of the April Advertisement tournaments
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 the 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 said, 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

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 top-flight 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 Advertisement
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

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."

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