Golf Is Great

Afghanistan’s embattled country club

Illustration by Tucker Nichols

qargha — In Muhammad Afzal Abdul’s vision of a peaceful Afghanistan, the long, crusty gash in the hillside behind us will cradle pipes carrying water from nearby Qargha Lake.

Then he might be able to have putting greens at the Kabul Golf Club, instead of the dark circles of oiled sand that surround its nine holes. He could grow his wispy pines — now not much bigger than pinfeathers — into a lush and welcoming curtain, something that will shade his golfers and shield them from the distracting hoots from Afghans on the road above, on their way to rent paddleboats and eat kebabs and stroll along the lake. He could actually put water in his water traps. They’re now dry as craters on the moon, so golfers have to imagine the water and take a penalty if their balls land there. He could even irrigate broader areas of the course so that the compacted dirt and weeds give way to grass. Today the caddies carry pancake-sized pieces of green Astroturf to set in front of golfers who find it hard to whack balls on the rocky fairway. But if he had water, Afzal believes that the turf he so carefully shovelled up and trucked from another course thirty years ago could be coaxed into an expanse of green.

He has promised to show me what’s left of this historic turf, which has survived the exigencies of war, looting, erosion, and now drought. On our way to the first tee, where he will give me my first-ever golf lesson, he taps his foot on a tuft of grass not much bigger than his shoe. “Here it is.”

Afzal is the golf pro at Afghanistan’s only golf course. He was introduced to the game back in 1973, up at the top of the hill on the road to the lake. A family on a motorcycle idles there now — a man in a grey shalwar kameez, a woman in a blue burka, and their sleeping child — but back then this was the site of the first tee. Afzal was just a boy, on a picnic with his family, and he hovered nearby to watch an American take a swing. The man asked him if he’d like to give it a try, so he took the man’s club and struck the ball. It was a connection that would change his life forever.

Afzal became a caddy at the club, one of forty or more kids who would clamour at the sides of the mostly foreign golfers. He was later made head caddy and then manager. Over the next six years, he golfed with ambassadors and other foreign dignitaries, plus the few affluent Afghans who liked the game. There had been a handful of these since the early twentieth century, when the country’s ruler, Amir Habibullah Khan, maintained a golf course near what is now Kabul’s Ghazi Stadium.

When the Russians invaded in 1979, they showed their distaste for this elitist sport and Afzal’s consorting with Americans by throwing him in jail. He fled to Pakistan, and his beloved golf course was first neglected, then ruined by land mines and bombs.

In 2004, the government wanted to revive the course, but no one could figure out the old constellation of holes and tees. Afzal was summoned. He stood amid a crowd of younger Afghans who were interested in golf but not in probing the rubble, worried about remaining land mines. But Afzal found the first hole quickly. “I cleared away the dirt,” he says. “Then from that hole, I find the second hole and from there the third, fourth, and fifth.” The sixth hole was harder to locate, since it had become a depot for burned-out tanks.

Now there is a clubhouse again, where a half-dozen sets of clubs tied with torn cloth lean against the wall. There are eager young caddies in green and yellow vests. But there are few players. Thousands of foreigners hunker down in Kabul compounds, but most are afraid to stray the eleven kilometres to this unsecured location. Although Afzal is teaching about fifty youngsters to play, there is not enough homegrown enthusiasm to draw much money or support to the course. Today, a sunny Friday, there are only fifteen players.

Fifteen, including me. It takes eight swings and five hits to get my ball to the first putting circle. As I lean down to pull the thorns from my long black pants, I notice that we’ve drawn a crowd. Men who were previously playing soccer or picnicking in one of the pavilions draped with camouflage netting have gathered to watch my threesome play. I bow out, tired of untangling my head scarf from my club.

Then I trail Afzal as he coaches my companions through the rest of their game. As they count out tips for their caddies, he and I watch three men push a car down what is either a dirt road or a dried-out creek that runs through the middle of the course. Afzal believes that people will come again when the golf course is green, but I’ve seen more green in the graveyards here. It’s the colour of martyrs and flutters on little flags everywhere.

Kristin Ohlson