Searching for the 18th hole in Havana

There cannot be many golf courses that celebrate Mayan cosmogenesis.

NO HANDICAP CERTIFICATE is required at Cuba’s only 18-holer (photo credit: Courtesy)
NO HANDICAP CERTIFICATE is required at Cuba’s only 18-holer
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The last is called “The Guardian” and the perfect line is between Xanadu and the Death God. Or God of Life.
There cannot be many golf courses that celebrate Mayan cosmogenesis, but in the left common Bermuda grass rough, 150 yards or so off the papsaculum tee of the 18th at Varadero in Matanza, two hours from Havana, stands a rock boulder statue (“The Watchman” or “Guardian”) that is laden with layered meaning.
It could allude to a Mayan civilization that failed to adapt to climate change – which may perhaps also be a subtle meaningful reference to ever-changing modern Cuba. It might also possess golfing symbolism and significance. That a nasty tug or snap hook will land you in the “land of death” or “land of fear” from which there is no return.
But at the end of your round, you are more likely to read your scorecard than the Mayan cultural narrative, “Popol Vuh” and the story of the twins who angered the gods by playing a ball game rather than venerating them.
You end up totting up your Net, having a post-round “Cuba Libre” on the mirador “Casa Blanca” bar in “Xanadu” – rather than “Xibalba,” the underworld of K’che’ mythology. The place of fright and terrifying flatulence.
Castro considered golf “a hobby of the idle rich.” He saw it as a symbol of social exclusion and capitalist decadence and greed. He banned it because it was bourgeois and elitist. He also lost to his Comandante, Che, in a famous propaganda golf match held at the now-no-more Colinas (Hills) de Villareal Golf Club six months before the Bay of Pigs in 1961.
When it was reported in Hoy (the voice of Cuban Communism, which was to become Granma) that Castro had shot a 157, the reporter was instantly sacked and fled the country.
Che could play a bit, having caddied for his father in Argentina. As a child, he suffered from asthma and carrying the bag for 18 holes was the cure. Ernesto, like Fidel, wasn’t one for collared shirts, tailored culottes or spikes.
They both preferred the “Combat Look.” Their caddies wore holstered pistols.
Post-revolution, plowing up golf courses represented a utopian dream of social masses. Castro turned the courses built in the 1920 by the likes of Dornoch and Pinehurst’s Donald Ross into barracks and social housing projects.
The original 1911 “Havana Country Club” (Rovers Athletic Club) was bulldozed to become an arts school offering terracotta painting studios and music rehearsal space to the masses.
The capital’s golf club moved to the airport road, surviving state land seizures. Until it was nationalized in 1980 and purged of “anti-social elements,” with Castro becoming its president and secretary and holding meetings on its putting green, it was a diplo-course with a British committee.
It hosted the “Havana Invitational” and attracted famous golfers like Snead, Saracen, Casper and Palmer.
Today, it has 40 members, mostly embassy staff. Its facilities include a swimming pool, bowling alley, snack bar, Basque sports court and electronic games consoles.
The fairways of the up-and-down course are prone to anthills and the cups to mosquito nests. Yardages are daubed on trees and the flags are bamboo poles with tatty red rags.
There is a small pro’s shop or room. Pro Johan Vega, a greenkeeper’s son, gives 30-minute lessons at 20 CUC (£17) a lesson. But nobody wants them.
“You will have the course to yourself always,” he says.
THE LARGEST Caribbean island has just two golf courses. Three including the “Lateral Hazard” at Guantanamo Bay, off-limits to anyone but military personnel and DoD (Department of Defense) civilians.
But more courses, resorts and “golf-associated- with-real-estate” developments are planned. Golf is at the forefront of the tourism drive. Cuba hopes to be a major golfing destination within 30 years. One course has even been mooted on the Isle of Youth where Fidel and brother Raul were imprisoned.
One of Fidel’s sons, Antonio, loves golf and won the Montecristo Tournament at Varadero in 2013.
No handicap certificate is required at Cuba’s only 18-holer. The scenic 1998 Varadero (dry dock) course – 6,865 yards off the “Oro” (gold) backs with shoreline holes and seawater lagoons – was designed by Canadian Les Furber, protégé of Robert Trent Jones Snr.
A green fee with buggy and club rental (£100) costs what a Cuban earns in three months.
The 1927 four-story, eight-bedroom beachfront “Xanadu Mansion” on the San Bernardino bluff overlooking the Gulf of Mexico was built by French-American chemical magnate, Irenee Dupont de Nemours. It is both “19th Hoya” and hotel. The five-star, five-restaurant color-coded all-inclusive “Melia Las Americas” is next door.
Delaware’s Dupont retired to Cuba, buying himself some of the Hicacos Peninsula. This included 8 km. of beach. He installed Italia marble baths and the largest privately-owned organ in all of Latin America. It called his guests to dinner. Al Capone was a guest.
“Xanadu” cost over a million dollars to build. The gardens were planted with coconut, banana, avocado and papaya trees. Parrots and cockatoos were imported to make the prime location “more tropically enchanting.”
The Cuban national monument is currently undergoing a £700,000 face-lift, courtesy of Cuban Tourism. At £200 a night with half-board, you can stay in the six second-floor rooms – “Califa,” “Oasis,” “Irenee,” “Samarkanda,” “Marco Polo” and “Kubla Khan” and enjoy the view of the sea and scaffolding.
It has been said that Cuba’s three main problems are breakfast, lunch and dinner. But Xanadu’s restaurant menu offers surprisingly edible £32 Lobster Dupontstyle (warm Caribbean lobster salad with soja) and Canadian/ Uruguayan Chateaubriand (£27). Chef Lima’s signature desserts are chocolate fondant and apple pie.
Naturally, “Xanadu” has its own extensive cigar menu. A “Cohiba Betika 54” costs £32.
You have to smoke it outside on one of the two putting greens. Or “shipping green.”
Haute cuisine and golf all began at “Xanadu.”
In 1933, a hurricane swept away five holes of Dupont’s original pitch ‘n’ putt. Hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of soil was needed to reopen the course in 1936. A green fee was a buck. Half went to the caddy and the rest to a local school.
In 1963, on the day Dupont died at the age of 85, Xanadu’s “Las Americas Restaurant” was officially opened by Russian astronaut, Valentina Tereshkova.
Only in Cuba, home of “El Vigia, The Guardian.”