Forbidden TurfJanuary 26, 2016

Planet Golf: Golf In Cuba

Getting through customs and onto Cuba's only 18-hole course
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The 409-yard 18th at Varadero Golf Club is one of two holes that run along the Atlantic Ocean.

It's not impossible to get to Cuba, even if you're an American. All you need to do is cite one of the 12 accepted reasons (essentially anything other than straight toes-in-the-sand tourism) to get a visa. Officially, I was there to visit family but also planned on playing Varadero Golf Club, the only 18-hole course on the island.

I was born and raised in the United States, but I traveled with two Cubans—my mom, Anna Marie, and her cousin, Abraham. We booked our flights through cubatravelservices.com, which is one of the more popular organizations arranging charter flights between the United States and Cuba. The rest is cake: It takes just 41 minutes to fly from Miami to Havana.

I didn't bring my clubs, which was smart. Baggage claim at José Martí International Airport took twice as long as the flight, because it can be a real process to unload each passenger's 80ish-pound cellophane-wrapped behemoth of clothes, food and electronics. American goods do much to augment the quality of life for Cubans whose average salary is $20 a month. The shoes and Oreo cookies I gave my cousins were huge hits.

This was my mom's fourth visit since fleeing the country as a 12-year-old. She was one of 14,000 unaccompanied Cuban minors who sought freedom in the United States from 1960-'62 in Operation Peter Pan, which was organized by the Catholic Church. My mom first went to an orphanage in Paterson, N.J., and would live in four foster homes before setting out on her own.

One of her cousins, Jose, drives a taxi and fetched us at the air-port in his '54 Chevy.

In a one-story concrete house, Jose lives with his wife, their two kids, his mom and dad, his sister and her two kids, with lots of noisy pigs and chickens outside. So my mom and I could have his bed, Jose's dad slept on the floor.

The building where my mom grew up is abandoned. Walking around her neighborhood, she pointed out where she used to roller skate and which crumbling structures used to be stores. Kids begged us for money.

To satisfy my golf itch, eight of us piled into two cars and drove the two hours east to Varadero. Many Canadian and European vacationers are drawn to this 12-mile strip of beach. There are more than 50 resorts—mostly the all-inclusive variety. None of my family members who live in Cuba had ever visited them.

My cousins couldn't quite understand my passion for the game. Nor had they ever heard the name Tiger Woods.

Rolling up to Varadero Golf Club was easy. The staff members were multilingual, and I used my credit card for the $120 green fee, which included a cart and a nice rental set.

Varadero churns out more than 30,000 rounds during peak season (October through April). Originally, it was a nine-hole course owned by the wealthy American du Pont family. The present 18-hole layout opened in 1998 and was designed by the Canadian architect Les Furber. The eighth and 18th holes run right along the ocean. In general, the course plays similar to one you'd find in Miami—flat, peppered with palm trees and water hazards.

Pedro Klein, the course's operations manager, says the Cuban government has plans to support the construction of 13 new courses to attract tourists. Though he guesses there are no more than 300 Cubans who play golf. Many are his employees.

Golf Digest Architecture Editor Ron Whitten has written that Cuba, with its topography and abundance of oceanfront, is golf's last frontier. (Its lost courses used to attract stars like Ben Hogan and Sam Snead.) But golf's revival as an authentic part of the culture is a ways off. As the eight of us drove back to Havana, we shared a strange sense of relief. The glitz in Varadero was nice, but the simplicity of Havana felt like home.

Related Photo Essay: Golf In Cuba
Much has changed in Cuba but the caddies at the Havana Golf Club, a salty 9-hole course on the airport road, are still the best golfers in town.


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