KABUL – “Welcome to the most extreme golf in the world,” says the European Union ambassador to Afghanistan, as half-a-dozen heavily armed bodyguards fan out around him and scan the Kabul Golf Club course.
But Vygaudas Usackas is not talking about security threats facing golfers in a war zone — he’s talking about the course.
It is one big hazard, with unfair fairways of rock and thistles, sand-and-oil “greens” and the chance of falling into a ditch making even the most wicked of traditional sand traps and water hazards seem benign.
But in a country where guns far outnumber golf clubs and diplomats live in compounds set deep behind blast walls and razor wire, Usackas revels in the chance to “get out and get some fresh air”.
The air at Afghanistan’s only golf course — a half-hour drive out of Kabul — is certainly easier to breathe than the dust and pollution of the chaotic capital, but golfers accustomed to the eye-soothing sight of immaculate lawns would be in for a shock.
And they can leave the fancy two-tone spiked shoes behind, being well-advised to don army style boots to cope with the terrain.
As for clubs, forget about the state-of-the-art Titanium driver that cost a few hundred dollars and choose, like anybody else, from a dusty collection of bags containing ancient woods and irons in the spartan, single-room “clubhouse”.
Then, equipped with two caddies, one to carry the bag, the other to stake out the likely landing area of your — perfect — shot so that he can maybe see the ball ricochet off a rock into a pile of rubble, you are ready to play.
The fore-caddy will also warn picnickers and cricketers and the riders of passing donkeys that balls may soon be coming their way.
They tend to be most accommodating, shifting temporarily from the direct line of fire and applauding any good shot in this bizarre game, in which Usackas and his party of one reporter and Afghanistan’s only golf pro were the sole players one recent Friday.
The pro, Mohammad Afzal Abdul, 52, has been the manager and coach at the Club for 35 years — apart from war-forced closures and a couple of stints in jail under Soviet invaders and hardline Taliban Islamists “for associating with foreigners”.
A photograph of him with Tiger Woods in Dubai recently takes pride of place on the walls of the club’s office.
“I invited Tiger to visit Kabul. He said okay, but no plans have been made,” says Afzal. “I like him, I like all golfers — he’s a good man.”
Also on the wall is a large poster of the rules of the course.
“Tip #1: Play aggressively. There are no gimmes (a shot that players agree can count automatically). Don’t even ask for the stroke index because this is Afghanistan and they’re all tough.”
The tee boxes seem invisible in the scruffy terrain, except to Afzal, who has a scratch handicap and plays the course like the pro that he is.
The fairways can barely be distinguished from the rough and are scarred by ditches every 20 yards or so in preparation for a sprinkler system and dreams of covering the course in grass — but it has been like that for a year.
The greens are grey, made from sand and waste oil in an effort to provide a smooth surface. And the holes are, as Usackas says, “like everything here — relative”. Some have cups, others are just scratched depressions in the sand.
The course was built some 60 years ago during the rule of the then-king, Zahir Shah, but has been destroyed by 30 years of war: a line of rusting Soviet tanks from the 1980s can still be seen on a nearby hill.
The Russians were followed by civil war and rule by the hardline Islamist Taliban, who were ousted by a US-led invasion in 2001 for sheltering Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden after the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington.
When the Western-backed President Hamid Karzai came to power, Afzal returned to his beloved course. “I didn’t even recognise it,” he says now.
Deminers cleared the course, but as an extra precaution Afzal set several thousand sheep roaming over it for five days — they set off no mines and all survived.
But war still plagues Afghanistan, with the Taliban waging a 10-year insurgency against Karzai’s government and 130,000 US-led NATO troops.
On the golf course, if you’re playing with the ambassador, that means the age-old instruction for playing a shot — “Don’t lift your head” — takes on a new meaning.
If you do, you are likely to spot a man with an automatic rifle kneeling a few yards away — which could put you off your stroke.