Adios Fidel, Hello Tiger: The Future of Golf in Cuba

September 4, 2009

In the tiny, tattered pro shop
where he presides, Johan Vega hangs a black-and-
white photo of a famous twosome. It shows
the pair in action on a shaggy green. One man
wields a putter, the other watches, a mundane
golf scene marked by a dress-code violation. Instead of
collared shirts and spikes, Fidel Castro and Che Guevara
wear boots and drab fatigues. Both could also use
a shave, but Vega has no interest in their fashion sense.
He prefers to focus on Che’s poor form.

“Look at his hands,” he says, pointing to the image of
the guerrilla icon. “He holds them too far forward. You
can tell that he doesn’t really know how to play.”

Vega earns a living dispensing swing tips, but he has
few outlets for his expertise. As the sole instructor
at Havana Golf Club, a lonely nine-hole track in the
Cuban capital, the 38-year-old watches over a course
that averages no more than a dozen rounds a day.

That the club operates at all
makes it an exception. Built in
1953, it is one of just two golf
courses in Cuba, and the only
one that predates the revolution that swept
Castro to power 50 years ago and purged the
island of its capitalist playthings. Casinos
were closed, country clubs shuttered. The
Havana Golf Club, formerly known as the
Rovers Athletic Club, was permitted to
stay open as a small concession to British
diplomats, who cared for the greens and
accounted for the bulk of play.

Half a century later, the club is both a
time capsule and a paradox — a scruffy,
forlorn layout from another era that caters
exclusively to elites. The odd expat or tourist
who ambles to the first tee encounters a
course that is only a course in the loosest
sense. Flagsticks are fashioned from bamboo
poles and red rags. Tee boxes are hardpan,
and the greens are as rough as the fairways
at most munis. There is no driving range. On
the rare occasion that Vega gives a lesson, he
drops some battered balls along the tree line
of the first hole, and shags them himself after
the session.

“It’s a humble facility,” Vega says. “But in
Cuba, golf culture simply doesn’t exist. If you
talk to people here about birdies and bogeys,
they have no idea what you mean.”

Yet if golf is a game of infinite hope, Cuba
is a country of perpetual promise. And the
latest assurances from overseas are that golf’s
fortunes on the island are about to change.
For more than a decade, foreign outfits have
been cutting through red tape and courting
government officials in a push to create
courses along the island’s largely untouched
coast. Nearly a dozen projects are in the
pipeline, and though they still face hurdles —
not the least of which is Cuban law, which
forbids land ownership and complicates
plans for real estate leasing — their architects
insist that the finish line is in sight. They
point not only to symbolic gestures, like
the headline-making visit of Fidel’s brother
and successor, Raul, to an Italian golf
course in 2007, but also to Cuba’s increased
openness to outside investment and tourist
infrastructure, prompted by its ever-growing
need for funds.

“Look at the Berlin Wall,” says Wally
Berukoff, CEO of Leisure Canada, a
Vancouver-based development company
with plans to build three courses an hour east
of Havana. “It took a while, but it fell.”

Ask him for a timeline, and Berukoff
predicts a golf course ribbon-cutting “within
three to five years.” But he is not the first to
offer upbeat forecasts, and some observers
refuse to hold their breath. Put the golf course
question to Johan Vega, and he smiles wanly.
“When the new ones open, show them to
me,” he says. “Then I’ll know it’s true.”

Any talk of golf in Cuba’s future
invariably reverts to talk of golf in
Cuba’s past. In the 1950s, Havana
alone had two quality courses in
addition to the Havana Golf Club, and the
city hosted a stop on the PGA Tour. The
island’s reputation as a hedonist’s delight
was reflected in the spirit of the Havana
Invitational, which was held at the posh
Havana Country Club and infused with a
strong scent of rum.

“That’s where we learned to drink them
mojitos,” says Bob Toski, the 82-year-old
former Tour star who won the event in 1953.
“Some of us found out that we played better
drunk than sober.”

The year he claimed the crown, Toski
shaped a 4-iron to two feet on the closing
hole to avoid a four-way playoff, a shot he
calls “the greatest of my career.” He was
swarmed on the fairway by a crowd of
buoyant Cubans that included the club’s
head pro, Rufino Gonzalez, a scrappy,
homemade player who later fled the island.
“The Cubans were real down-to-earth
people and they appreciated a guy like me
who had come up from nothing,” Toski
says. “In all my years of playing, I don’t
think I had a reception quite like that.”

Though the tournament attracted a host
of marquee names, from Jimmy Demaret
to Arnold Palmer, its days were numbered.
By 1958, Castro’s forces had descended
from encampments in the mountains and
the island echoed with unrest. Billy Casper,
who won the Havana Invitational that year,
recalls that in the run-up to the event, fellow
Tour standout Frank Stranahan was warned
by playing partners to steer clear of Cuba;
they worried that Stranahan, whose multimillionaire
father founded Champion Spark
Plug, ran the risk of being kidnapped and
held for ransom.

“We all knew about Castro and what was
going on,” Casper says. “When you drove
around the island, there was tight security
and armed checkpoints. But you didn’t sense
it on the golf course. You got to the first tee
and you just played.”

Within a year of Casper’s triumph, Castro
assumed power. The Havana Country Club
was bulldozed, replaced by an art school.
Later, in an act of historical revisionism,
the PGA Tour erased the Invitational
from its records, along with recognition of
Casper’s win.

In the 50-plus years since Casper struck
his final putt in Cuba, the most noteworthy
match to unfold on the island featured two
outsize figures who could barely play. The
pairing of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara
took place in the spring of 1961, at Colinas
de Villareal golf club in Havana, a month
before the failed American-sponsored
invasion at the Bay of Pigs. Portrayed by the
Cuban regime as a sporting event, the match
was actually political theater, a thumb-nosing
exercise intended as a mockery of the U.S.

Among the few spectators on that warm
March day was Jose Lorenzo Fuentes, a prizewinning
novelist and short-story writer who
served as Castro’s personal correspondent.
Early that morning, Fuentes was ordered to
a scenic promontory in the capital, where
a black sedan awaited. In the back seat sat
Castro and Guevara, dressed in military garb.
“Fidel looked at me and said, ‘Today we’re
playing golf, and I’m going to give you the
headline for your story,'” says Fuentes, who
is 81 years old and lives in Miami, having
sought asylum there in 1992. “It will say, ‘I
could easily beat Kennedy at this game.'”

As it happened, Castro couldn’t even beat
his comrade. Guevara, who had caddied as
a boy in his native Argentina, wasn’t a threat
to any course records but at least possessed
the rudiments of a swing. According to
Fuentes’ written account, Castro scratched
out a win on the first hole and was exultant.
He repeated his boast about besting JFK
as the pair moved to the second tee. But
it wasn’t long before the tables turned on
Castro, and the match devolved into a
lopsided hack-fest between two men who
couldn’t stand to lose.

“They both tried hard, but Che played
with a great passion,” Fuentes says. “In the
end, it wasn’t very close.”

The results of the match had far worse
repercussions for Fuentes. After the round,
Castro asked the correspondent what he
planned to write. “The truth,” Fuentes said.
Castro nodded and said nothing. But two
days later, after his article had run in the
national paper, Fuentes was demoted to a
lower government post. In 1969, on the outs
with the regime, he was imprisoned and
served a three-year sentence, falsely accused,
he says, of working as a CIA liaison.

“The day I was sent to prison was the day
I lost faith in the revolution,” Fuentes says.
“But looking back, the golf game was an early
indication of the government’s relationship
to the truth.”

Pictures of the Castro-Guevara
match are commonplace in Cuba,
sold as postcards in souvenir shops
and displayed in the lobby of the
Hotel Nacional, Havana’s most luxurious
hotel. But other evidence of golf has been
erased. The Villareal course long ago gave
way to a military camp. And what was once
a practice range on the west side of the city
is now a beach club, enjoyed mostly by
foreigners and government brass.

In Old Havana, the historic city center,
where tail-fin sedans and worn colonial
facades stand like stage props in a period
piece, children play soccer in vacant lots
and toss baseballs on cobblestone streets.
They recognize names like A-Rod and Jeter
but stare blankly at the mention of Woods
and Mickelson. America’s pastime is Cuba’s
national sport.

Golf’s firmest foothold on the island, the
Varadero Golf Club, is a two-hour drive from
the capital, on a peninsula in a resort town
of the same name. Designed by Les Furber,
a Canadian architect and former protege of
Robert Trent Jones Sr., Varadero opened
in 1998 and twice played host to final
qualifying for the European Tour. But the site
is perhaps best known as the one-time home
of Irenee du Pont, the chemical company
mogul, who, in 1927, built a mansion on
the bluffs that he christened “Xanadu.” The
four-story, 11-bedroom former residence,
adorned with precious hardwoods and laden
with floors of Italian marble, is today the
Varadero clubhouse, with a lavish top-floor
bar overlooking the sea.

On a recent afternoon, with the wind
whipping fiercely off the water, Pedro Klein
breezed past the clubhouse on his way
toward the first tee. A cheerful 50-year-old
with close-cropped hair who looks like a
burly version of Ben Kingsley, Klein came
on board as Varadero’s director of golf back
when the Cuban government pumped
$27 million into building the course. His
single-digit handicap makes him one of
the country’s most accomplished golfers,
a qualified honor, given that of Cuba’s 11
million citizens, only 120 or so play the
game. Klein would like to boost that number.
A national golf association would be nice, he
says. So would a junior golf program, and a
year-round golf academy.

It’s a wish list encumbered by catch-
22’s. As it stands, Varadero has a driving
range and two Cuban instructors. They
offer clinics but without the benefit of
video equipment or enough local interest
to occupy them full time. “It’s challenging,”
Klein said. “You want to develop the game
by creating the infrastructure for it. But to
create the infrastructure, you need to have
the demand.”

He had reached the third hole, a long
par-5, where the skeleton of an abandoned
tee box stood to the right of the green.
“See that?” Klein said. “That’s a tee from
the old course.”

In the 1930s, Irenee du Pont built a modest
nine-hole track on his property and allowed
locals to play it on weekends for one peso.
Its footprint is now covered by the Varadero
club, which receives around 35,000 rounds a
year, mostly from Canadian tourists. Greens
fees in peak season are 70 pesos, or roughly
$75, nearly half of the average Cuban’s
monthly wage.

Just as simple economics keeps most
Cubans from the golf course, politics restricts
Klein’s options at the club. Varadero’s
irrigation system could use an upgrade,
but the California company that Klein says
could do the best job at the best price is
off-limits due to the U.S. embargo of Cuba.
Almost any equipment Klein gets his hands
on, from golf carts to pro shop merchandise,
comes through a costly, circuitous route.
Klein would like to sell Titleist golf balls
with “Varadero Golf Club” imprinted on
them, but under U.S. law, Cuban logos are
forbidden to appear on American products.

“There are a number of things we wish
were different,” Klein says. “But we have sit
back and hope they change.”

“Down there is where the links
course will begin.”

Noel Fuentes (no relation
to Jose Lorenzo) was standing
on a bluff, halfway between Havana and
Varadero, overlooking a pristine stretch of
shoreline, where the Jibacoa River spills
from the mountains of the Sierra Maestra
into the turquoise sea. Before the revolution,
the mobster Meyer Lansky dreamed of
constructing casinos here. But foreign interests
now envision different uses for the land.
Under plans drawn up by Leisure Canada,
which hired Fuentes as a design consultant, a
golf resort is destined for Jibacoa, with three
18-hole courses, private villas and a hotel. The
project is one of a number of golf ventures at
various stages of development on the island.
Another project, the Carbonera Club, driven
by British-based Esencia Hotel & Resorts,
calls for apartments, villas and a championship
golf course just west of Varadero. Brochures
for Carbonera announce the club’s intentions
to hold its first golf tournaments in 2012.

Such confident predictions have been
made before in Cuba, only to bog down in
bureaucracy or founder in the face of anti-freemarket-
think. As early as 1995, the Castro
regime reviewed plans for a course in Jibacoa,
but passed on the project. Leisure Canada’s
current proposal is farther along in a torturous
approval process. But skeptics say that when
it comes to golf, Cuba is the country of the
future: always has been, always will be.

“For anyone who has an interest in the
Cuban marketplace, the base strategy is all
about optimism and never about reality,” says
John Kavulich of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and
Economic Council, a nonprofit group that
analyzes economic and political relations
between the two countries. “Over the years,
there have been numerous occasions when
Cuba’s interest in golf has risen to a peak, then
dropped suddenly into a valley.”

Still, those bullish on the island insist
that times have changed. Ideology, they
say, has given way to pragmatism, as Cuba
looks to stimulate a $2 billion-a-year tourist
industry that has shown signs of stagnation.
Leisure Canada CEO Wally Berukoff says
his company is all but ready to turn dirt
in Jibacoa; it holds a 50-year lease on the
property, with an option to renew, but it has
petitioned the Cuban government to extend
those terms to 75 years, the better to ensure a
healthy return on investment. Berukoff says
he has no doubt that this will happen.

Adding to his optimism is a trip he made
to Cuba three years ago. Hearing that
Berukoff was in Havana, Fidel Castro invited
the developer to a private party that kicked
off late at night and dragged on until dawn.
In the midst of the festivities, Berukoff says,
he and Castro had a three-hour conversation
about golf. Gone, Berukoff says, was the
Castro of 15 years ago, the hardliner who
railed against the game as a capitalist pursuit.
“His stance had mellowed,” Berukoff says.
“He was now justifying golf in terms of what
it does to preserve green space and provide
people with exercise.”

As the sun rose on the capital, and
Berukoff prepared to leave, Castro handed
him a parting gift: an autographed poster of
his golf match with Guevara.

Even as Cuba’s climate slowly
shifts, Havana Golf Club remains
largely unchanged, trapped in a
state of suspended animation on the
downtrodden outskirts of the capital. Once
operated by the British embassy, the club
was nationalized in 1980. It is kept afloat by
the government, which also keeps it removed
from the currents of contemporary sport. On
one wall of the clubhouse hangs an ancient set
of lefty Dunlop irons. Listed for $166, they
have gone unsold for nearly 20 years.

On a recent late spring morning, a
television in the corner was tuned to a
government-sponsored newscast. Even in a
golf shop, golf rarely airs in Cuba; Cubans
are forbidden access to satellite TV. One
of the club’s three caddies, a silver-haired
man named Leo, sat on a leather couch,
half-watching the newscast but eager to talk
shop. Though the Masters had ended nearly
a month before, Leo hadn’t heard who had
won the year’s first major.

“Cabrera?” he said, smiling at the news.
“The Argentine, right?”

The clubhouse door swung open, and in
stepped Johan Vega. Short and stocky, with a
placid demeanor that suits his favorite sport,
Vega enjoys a leisurely commute. He lives
across the street and walks to the course from
the pink stucco house where he was born.
When Vega was a boy, his father worked as
the club’s greenskeeper, but Vega didn’t take
up the game until he was 23. An 8-handicap,
he keeps up with swing theory by skimming
any magazines that filter down to his shop.
He plays with a set of battered Snake Eye
irons, hand-me-downs from a visiting Dutch
teaching pro who vacationed in Cuba several
years back.

“In Cuba,” Vega says of his equipment,
“you don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.”

The day was warm and windless, and
Vega had no pressing obligations, so he’d
opted to squeeze in a quick nine holes.
He strolled to the first tee, which stands
below the club’s abandoned tennis courts,
their cracked, concrete surfaces overgrown
with weeds. Vega waggled and hit a lazy
draw down the left side of the fairway.
The ball landed on the rock-hard turf and
caromed wildly into the trees. Vega shook
his head and chuckled. Before he was the
pro, Vega was the caddie master at the
club, and he has looped the course more
times than he can count. But the funhouse
bounces still often surprise him. Now and
then, he dreams of playing elsewhere,
though he’s not convinced he’d find the
grass much greener.

His predecessor, he says, fell prey to that
illusion. Jorge Duque was a gentlemanly pro
and longtime lead instructor at the Havana
Golf Club until five years ago, when he took
a trip to Spain and chose not to return. The
last Vega heard, Duque had found work at a
pitch-and-putt. “In Cuba, El Duque was the
king, but he goes to Spain and he struggles,”
Vega said.

He had found his ball and was surveying
his next shot, an improbable approach
around a tree. “People think if they leave the
island, everything is glory,” he said. “But life
is not so simple. I have my house. I have my
family. I have my job. Better to be happy with
what matters most.”