June 18, 2007 / 12:23 AM / 12 years ago

War and golf: A view of Afghanistan from the first tee

KABUL (Reuters) - Golfers who tee-off at the Kabul Golf Course don’t have to worry about their balls landing in the traditional golf hazards of sand bunkers and ponds.

A sign marks the entrance of the Kabul Golf Club while a man levels the green in this November 26, 2004 file photo. Golfers who tee-off at the Kabul Golf Course don't have to worry about their balls landing in the traditional golf hazards of sand bunkers and ponds. They don't need to -- the Afghan capital's only golf course is one giant hazard. REUTERS/Ahmad Masood/Files

The Afghan capital’s only golf course is one giant hazard.

From tee to green, there is not a patch of grass; only weeds, rocks, baked-hard mud and the odd strand of barbed wire.

Even the “greens” are treacherous and wrongly named: made from compacted pools of black, oily sand, they swarm with nests of angry ants.

But Kabul Golf Club has become more than a unique test of golfing skill and nerve since it re-opened three years ago, after U.S.-led forces swept the Taliban militia from power in 2001.

In Afghanistan’s sad world of war, kidnappings, beheadings and extreme poverty, the 40-year-old course on the edge of Kabul also offers a glimmer of the past and a distant view of better times.

In the late 1960s and 1970s, when Afghanistan was a peaceful kingdom and a romantic destination for Western travelers, the club was a playground for Afghan royalty — and an instant obsession for a young Afghan boy called Muhammad Afzal Abdul.

“I came here one day from school and people play golf, two or three American people,” recalled Afzal, 48, who is now the club’s golf pro’ and manager.

“I watch (one of them) and he said, you like to hit the ball? And he gave me one ball and I shoot it over the road, first time. He gave me one club and one ball and he said, you practice.”

Back then, the fairways were grassed and held trees, Afzal said through broken teeth as he squinted at the barren course, his bearded face creased from decades of war and hardship.

Nestled beside an alpine lake and overlooked by snowy peaks, the nine-hole course can still conjure up an image of its original charm, the fields of Afzal’s youth. But not for long.

Reminders of war are everywhere: an old Soviet tank stands on a nearby hill, still pointed at Kabul, and the sixth hole, a long par 5, is flanked by the ruins of a Soviet army outpost. A string of barbed wire trails across the first fairway.

And until U.S. troops invaded in 2001, the stout little pro’ shop was home to fighters from the Taliban, who Afzal said jailed him for three months because he had worked with foreigners.

FIELD OF DREAMS

Afzal, who plays off no handicap and won several tournaments in Kabul in the 1970s, said the course had largely closed after the Soviets invaded in 1979, though some intrepid players still ventured out at times.

After the Soviets left in 1989, it became a battle field. Shells screamed overhead as the anti-communist mujahideen closed in on the capital, Afzal explained as he dangled a bag of irons from his shoulder and pointed to the surrounding mountains.

“Hekmatyar was shooting the big gun here. We closed,” Afzal said, referring to Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a mujahideen commander who fought a vicious war with rival Ahmad Shah Masoud until the Taliban finally drove them both out of Kabul in 1996.

In 2004, the club finally reopened and is now controlled by a former mujahideen fighter who is also trying to turn the adjacent lake, an old picnic spot, once more into a family retreat — away from the suicide bombings and NATO patrols of the city.

Like the golf course, it is a hopeful scene: Afghan families walk the foreshore or meander in swan-shaped paddle boats across the lake. There are freshly painted picnic shelters, a swing for children and small restaurants serving fresh bread and green tea.

The golf course remains a novelty for mostly foreigners, but Afzal says wealthy Afghans also play. He and his younger brother, Khan Muhammad, have also started a golf school for dozens of Afghan boys and hold an annual caddies’ tournament in autumn.

There is even a Web site www.kabulgolfclub.com/, which explains the course's idiosyncrasies, such as the need to tee up the ball or sit it on a dinner-plate-sized mat for every shot.

A spotter is also stationed ahead on the fairway to watch the tee shots, standing in harm’s way in order to keep an eye on the balls as they ricochet wildly off the rocky terrain.

Slideshow (4 Images)

Despite all the hazards, both on and off the course, Afzal dreams of returning Kabul Golf Club to the fairways of his youth.

He can even imagine grass.

“I ask other countries. I want them to help me. I can make it a good golf course for Afghanistan.”

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