No Country Club in Kabul

The only golf course in Kabul, Afghanistan, is certainly far from country-club quality. The greens are black, and the fairways are garbage-infested sand littered with bits of glass, thorn bushes and empty boxes of Pleasant Light cigarettes. The holes are formed out of old engine parts, and the “clubhouse” is a former Taliban outpost.

But, despite the conditions and danger, golfers play Afghanistan’s only course undaunted, enjoying the sport’s myriad charms. “Afghans are poor, and golf is known as a rich person’s game in Europe and the United States,” said Muhammad Afzai Abdul, Afghanistan’s answer to a golf pro and the course’s manager. “But we have heart, too. We want to play. We want the Kabul golf course to be well known in the world.”

In an August 2004 article in the Chicago Tribune, reporter Kim Barker described the playing conditions at Kabul Golf Club. “When the wind blows,” Barker writes, “which is often, the dust is everywhere. It’s almost impossible to see the next hole, let alone where any golf ball is going. The first tee shot is just off the side of a busy road, over a cliff, a former toboggan run and the remains of a storage shed hit years ago by rockets. It’s common for passing motorists to pull over to watch the balls fly.”

Despite the turmoil in Afghanistan, a country struggling with insurgents and sectarian infighting, the citizens still seek some semblance of recreation and fun. New businesses in Kabul continue to open, attracting foreigners and Afghans with spare money and time.

The course at Kabul Golf Club has endured a rocky history, to say the least. The layout has been open for several decades, but during the war with the Soviets the course was often hit by rockets. When the Taliban later infested the country, the extremist Islamic group frowned on golf as a Western vice, closed the course and took over the clubhouse. “It was not a safe place to play golf,” said regular player, Mohamad Bashir Popal.

But, a few months ago, Abdul decided to reopen the course. Workers filled holes left by mortars and rockets, and the “browns” received fresh black oil and sand. Thorn bushes were ripped out, the bigger rocks picked, and the fairways combed for hidden landmines.

The facility is still far from perfect, surviving on two donated sets of clubs, three pairs of shoes and 100 balls. Abdul continues the transformation, seeking clothing for the Afghan players, more landscaping and water, and other enhancements.

Green fees for Kabul Golf Club are $10 for 18 holes. If the fees aren’t prohibitive, the basic skills to play the game often are. Most Afghans have no clue how to play golf, often holding the club like a hatchet. “The first time I saw golf, I was in Pakistan, and I was watching TV and I didn’t understand it,” recalled 21-year-old Nangialai Arabzada to Barker. “I was like, ‘What are they doing?’ “

Arabzada is now one of about 20 young Afghans taking lessons at the course. They’re all eager to improve, and each feels that golf is the best sport on Earth. Yet, when pressed, the Afghan adherents are just like the rest of us: They, too, believe the game is frustrating. But they say it feels so good to hit the ball hard.

“I hope I will be able to be a famous player someday,” said Ahmadshah Shahzada, 27. “It is difficult. The first shot is a bit scary. You become nervous. You want to defeat your partner. You don’t know how to hit it, how to get it close to the hole. But after that shot, it always gets easier. Then it’s fun.”

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