Golfing Baghdad's Green Zone: a course with real bunkers

BAGHDAD (AP) — The weight of the 9-iron felt just right. My first swing off the first tee was smooth and the ball sailed straight and true.

\nFor a brief moment I forgot where I was. Then I gazed down the fairway— actually just a few clumps of grass, scrub brush and plenty of rocks.

\nThis is golf, Green Zone style.

\nOne recent afternoon—squeezed in between sandstorms and incoming mortar rounds—a colleague and I hit the links. We dubbed it the Baghdad Open.

\nBut there's nothing really open about it. The nine-hole Crossed Swords Golf Course is closed in by 15-foot concrete blast walls and watched over by humorless Gurkha guards from Nepal.

\nBlack Hawk helicopters buzzed overhead. Bursts of gunfire interrupted backswings. The threat of incoming rockets and mortars was ever present.

\nThe course—a total of 479 rugged, dusty and nerve-fraying yards—was created a year ago by a British military officer who was part of a NATO training mission. Its name comes from one of Saddam Hussein's eccentric architectural legacies that's now a Green Zone landmark: two giant hands holding curved sabers that served as an archway for the late dictator's parade grounds.

\nThe course "is the sole entertainment that we have here in Iraq," said Air Force Maj. Al Geralt of San Diego as he finished a round. He reported his score was somewhere between "abysmal and miserable."

\n"But it's loads of fun," he said. "The NATO boys that came up with it— it is one of the best things they could have done for morale out here."

\nSo long as you don't expect anything resembling the country club back home.

\nThe greens would more aptly be called "browns" as they are made of dirt. The cups are fashioned out of baked bean cans sunk into the ground with large, creepy beetles crawling in the bottom.

\nThere was, of course, a sand bunker. But oddly, for a desert country, just one.

\nArguably the most hallowed spot of American golf—Augusta National, home of the Masters—bills its Amen Corner, holes No. 11, 12 and 13, as among the toughest tests in the golfing world. But I would challenge Tiger Woods to a round at the Green Zone course any day—just to see how his steely concentration would hold up when the mortar alarm blares: "Incoming! Incoming! Take cover!" and shells land nearby.

Players are allowed only two clubs—a short iron or a pitching wedge, along with a putter. I chose a 9-iron, the club my father taught me to use for my short game since my first feeble swings in preschool. My competitor, Associated Press photographer Petr David Josek, went with a pitching wedge.

The short irons and sand wedges—along with woods used at a mini driving "range" consisting of a small tee box and net—were donated by Nicklaus Golf Equipment. Putters were donated by the Yes! company.

\nThe fee is a small donation (most people give $2 for a round) and about $800 has been raised so far. Once they hit the $1,000 mark, all future proceeds will go to the National Fallen Heroes Foundation, a charity that helps the families of American soldiers killed in Iraq.

\nOur tee time was 5 p.m. The day had cooled to about 109 degrees.

The first challenge was getting by the Gurkha guards. Despite gaining access a few times before, on this particular day our security badges were deemed insufficient. After 45 minutes of explaining, pleading and miming a golf swing— the guards had little command of English—a British officer took pity and got us to the first tee at what must be one of the quirkiest courses in the world.

\nIt has competition, though. Several years after the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001, the Kabul Golf Club was cleared of landmines and reopened. Near the DMZ separating the Korean peninsula, the single, 192-yard hole at U.S. Camp Bonifas playfully billed itself as "the world's most dangerous golf course."

\nIn the Green Zone, there is so little grass on the course golfers must carry their own: swatches of artificial turf for all shots except putts.

\n"I guess we'll always hit the fairway, right?" Petr quipped as we made our way to the first tee, fake grass in hand.

\nThere are a few unusual club rules:

A ball can always be repositioned one club length, as long as it isn't nearer the hole. When putting, a player is allowed to remove large rocks from the path to the hole, but cannot use the putter to groove a trail in the hard soil to the cup.

Any ball hit over one of the concrete blast walls is considered lost—the player must replay the last shot and take a penalty stroke.

\nAt least the layout is simple. The shortest hole is a 15-yarder, with the tee box being a sand bunker. The longest hole is 90 yards, a straight shot to the green.

\nDuring our swings on the second hole, prolonged bursts of gunfire could be heard—perhaps from a practice range private security guards use, maybe from fighting. Either way, there is nothing like the sound of a .50 caliber machine gun to disrupt a swing.

\nI've played golf all my life but rarely in the past decade. Petr claims he has not swung a club in the past six years, but he is also a tremendous poker player and his graceful tee shot on the first hole indicated I might have been taken in by a ringer.

\nThere was no money on the line in this year's Open—gambling is forbidden in Iraq under military rules. We don't fall under those guidelines, but we respected them out of sheer cheapness. Bragging rights back in the office would be payment enough.

\nOn the third hole, I let out an anguished yell as my putt bounced off the exposed top of the baked bean can hole, robbing me of par.

\n"This is Baghdad golf," Petr reminded me. "You just got to deal with the consequences. It is what it is."

\nPetr was forced to take his own advice when his putt lipped out on the sixth hole, costing him a birdie.

\nAs we closed out our nine-hole round, both Petr and I were certain he was a stroke ahead. Yet, when scores were tallied, we ended in a tie: a humbling 12-over-par 39.

\nWe agreed the only proper thing is to meet back in Baghdad in a year's time for a second edition of the Open.

\nAnother golfer on the course, Clifford McDaid, a security consultant from Northern Ireland, smacked his tee shot 30 yards beyond the pin on the third hole. The ball hit one of the concrete blast walls and bounced back to within only a few feet of the cup.

\n"It's Baghdad rules, mate," he said to his golfing partner. "This is some crazy golf."

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