Longtime USGA Member Assists In 'Moving' Afghan Golf Experience
April 22, 2005
By David Shefter, USGA
Far Hills, N.J. -- Nobody will ever confuse the Kabul Golf Club with the pristine layouts of Pebble Beach or Pinehurst. In fact, the local muni would look like a posh country club compared to Afghanistan's only golf course.
|Col. James Waurishuk presents a ball and other gifts to some of the participants in the tournament. (Courtesy U.S. Department of Defense) |
The nine-hole layout features no grass and sand greens that are oiled down to keep them smooth. But years of neglect in this war-torn Southwest Asian country have turned the course, which was built in the early 1970s, into what some might describe as a pile of rubble.
When the Russians occupied the country during the 1980s, the golf professional, Muhammad Afzal Abdul, was thrown in jail. The course became a storage depot for military weapons, including tanks and artillery.
Abdul eventually was freed once the Russians exited, but found himself again incarcerated when the Taliban government took control of the country in the mid-1990s following five years of civil war because the radical religious leaders didn't want its citizens taking part in such "fun" activities, especially a game cultivated in the "west."
Yet with the removal of the totalitarian government by U.S. troops and the move toward a more representative way of life, sports are making a comeback with the citizens.
On Nov. 24, 2004, the first golf tournament held at Kabul Golf Course in 30 years took place. It didn't have the fanfare of a major, but some 30 to 40 golfers - they ranged in age from 13 to their 40s - signed up to participate in this historic occasion.
When the U.S. Central Command found out such an event was taking place, it wanted to send someone as a goodwill gesture. Part of the responsibility of U.S. forces (members of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corp), in addition to performing wartime roles, is to take on the role of goodwill ambassadors and diplomats when dealing with the citizens. It's a way to develop rapport and trust among the locals.
Col. James Waurishuk, a 25-year veteran of the military who is the deputy director of intelligence for the U.S. Central Command, was tabbed for this venture. His superiors knew of his love for the game and knew that he had been a longtime USGA Member (he first joined in 1979 and has been a regular member since 1990). While his job keeps him from playing golf less than he desires, Waurishuk nevertheless loves the game and was honored to be selected for such a duty.
|The Kabul Golf Club has outlasted political regime change as well as foreign occupation. (Courtesy U.S. Department of Defense)|
He quickly struck up a friendship with Abdul and could see his frustration of having a course that potentially could be a challenging layout with some financial resources put into it. The course sits near a large reservoir, but because of a drought that has plagued the country for the past seven years, it is about 30 feet below its normal level. But the course also sits next to a major international hotel and is played by Europeans there on business.
Because of the course's characteristics - sand courses are common throughout most of the Middle East - players hit their balls off a small artificial-grass mat that they carry with them. Still, the playing conditions are rather primitive and even solid drives can ricochet severely offline.
"Tiger Woods could not go out on that golf course tomorrow and shoot 65," said Waurishuk. "He couldn't shoot an 80. You just don't get the playability. It's like playing in a virtual sand trap every hole.
"You hit a drive and you're going to get a lot of roll, but you are also going to get a [big] bounce if you hit a rock out there. I watched guys tee off and hit great drives and all of a sudden their ball hits and goes on a 45-degree angle into the next fairway. Or it just stops dead because of the deepness of the sand. It makes it difficult for playing, but if you like golf, you don't care."
That didn't stop the Afghans who signed up to play from enjoying their day on the links. Tournament organizers constructed a tent and Waurishuk joined several golfers for tea prior to play. He was surprised to hear of their knowledge of the game. Realizing that he was American, they wanted to know if he knew Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer or Tiger Woods.
"One guy asked me if I knew Craig Stadler," said Waurishuk, who did not play. No U.S. troops took part in the tournament and Waurishuk had to show up in his military uniform, which included a Kevlar vest.
"This was their day," the colonel added. "I walked around the course with them and watched the tournament. I talked to a lot of kids playing. After that, they had a little lunch/snack and we did an awards ceremony. I handed out little trophies. It was just a moving experience."
Keep in mind, Afghanistan is not one of the wealthier countries in the region, especially after enduring the struggles with the Russians and Taliban leadership. Even in the decades prior to Russian occupation, Afghanistan was ruled by warlords. So the golf equipment was not up to today's modern standards. The equipment came through donations or from neighboring countries such as Pakistan and most of the participants did not play with complete sets of clubs.
Waurishuk said some of the participants had potential as golfers and that the pro would probably shoot in the low 80s if you put him on a course here in the U.S.
Nevertheless, the potential is there to develop players. In 2002, the Islamic Republic of Iran sent a men's and women's team to the World Amateur Team Championships in Malaysia. Lebanon and Saudi Arabia have also participated in that biennial competition. Qatar and the United Arab Emirates annually host events on the European PGA Tour (Qatar Masters and Dubai Desert Classic) where resorts have sprung up out of the desert oasis.
"What they need over there is something like The First Tee," said Waurishuk of the grass-roots youth program that is funded by major golf organizations in the U.S., including the USGA. "That would be awesome for their kids. They just need to develop [the game]. There's probably some natural talent there.
|Organizers and participants pose with Col. James Waurishuk. Golf professional Muhammad Afzal Abdul stands second from the left. (Courtesy U.S. Department of Defense)|
"Golf could do a lot for that country. Golf is that kind of sport. It's looked upon as [creating] camaraderie and sportsmanship. It brings people together whether it's for fun or business."
As he toured the Kabul Golf Course, Waurishuk wondered what a top-notch course designer could do with this challenging layout. The topography is there for a challenging course, but renovations are badly needed. Unfortunately, Waurishuk can't use the military to improve golf conditions in the nation.
While the armed forces have had a long affliction with the sport - General Dwight D. Eisenhower was a golf addict and Waurishuk said the 36-hole golf facility at his base in Tampa, Fla., is constantly booked solid with tee times - military funds can't be used to raise awareness for things like sports.
That doesn't prevent him from making donations, but he would have to use normal means to deliver the goods to people such as Abdul and his golfing cohorts. Waurishuk could envision an architect going over there to re-work the course as a goodwill and diplomatic gesture. As he talked with Abdul, he asked the pro if there was one thing he could do to improve the game.
"Grow grass," he told Waurishuk.
"Somebody could make this a very challenging course," said Waurishuk. "It's got a lot of hills and some good hazards. The right technology could do it. The water is right there. It's a matter of running an irrigation system up to it."
So who knows, someday the U.S. Open could have a competitor from Afghanistan. Don't laugh. Twenty years ago, who would have thought the tiny Pacific Ocean island of Fiji could produce a World No. 1 in Vijay Singh.
David Shefter is a staff writer for the USGA. E-mail with questions or comments at email@example.com.