Back up to par

Mohammad Afzal Abdul was becoming impatient. Grabbing the nearest driving iron, he grounded the club, took a looping swing and spanked the ball off the tee. The ball shaped an obedient fade and landed safely, a short wedge from the pin. Point proven, he returned the club and continued the verbal coaching as we completed the formalities. After the inevitable butchering that followed—a mixture of carve and slice—Abdul led the playing group down the first on a scenic excursion around Kabul’s premier golfing attraction.

Situated in a dusty basin in the outer environs of Kabul, the golf course has recently reclaimed its identity, having for many years been subject to the frequent imposition of war and ideology. Originally constructed during the reign of the country’s patriarch, King Zahir Shah, then relocated after his dethronement by his cousin Mohammed Daud, the course now abuts the Qargha Dam. Thankfully, the dam does not feature as a monstrous water hazard; however, it remains a popular spot for picnicking on the Jumma religious holiday and a glorious vantage point for a curious gallery.

The course was effectively abandoned during the Russian occupation and descent into civil war and was outlawed by the religious police of the Taliban. With specific edicts banning kite-flying and pigeon-fancying, golf could only be considered an affront to the air above. Nonetheless, in a city increasingly savvy to Western tastes, the golf course has proven a magnet for visiting expatriates and a continuing labour of love for Abdul, the crack club professional.

From a cursory glance, the course is only distinguishable by the fluorescent flags planted in the jet-black ‘greens’. Rolled with a mixture of sand and sump oil, the greens offer little variability, instead giving generous value for speculative putts. The fairways, a delight for rock fanciers, offer unpredictable lies and next to no reward for a gun-barrel-straight drive. The absence of even a blade of grass invalidates the need for a groundskeeper, but permits judicious use of the fairway tee and other concessions from the hackers’ manual. Hazards abound, though fortunately reduced by the efforts of a mine-clearance team who swept the course prior to its reopening. Golfers may, however, encounter a bore well sunk at the lip of the second green, a herd of goats forlornly grazing on the fifth, and disused explosive cartridges in the rough, seemingly begging the out-of-bounds rule.

As a spectacle, as indeed we were, the round attracted a full complement of characters. My young caddy’s frequent discursions into conversational German failed to improve my club selection, while our complementary troupe of ball-spotters stationed like nervous ninepins on the fairway, more often pointed at each other than at the location of an errant drive. The gallery swelled considerably as we tore up the course, the sight of eight expatriates berating an undersized white ball with a misshapen metallic stick guaranteeing an afternoon’s light comedy. The female players were particularly conspicuous trying to preserve their modesty during a full-blooded swing.

After retiring the round early due to a combination of bad light and worse form, we paid off our entourage and bid farewell to Abdul, who had already begun planning the country’s inaugural tournament, presumably featuring the cream of Kabul’s aid-worker community. Even without a patch of grass, a complete set of clubs or the obligatory 19th hole, Abdul had proven himself a genuine innovator and Afghanistan’s most eminent golfing tragic.

 

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