Our Man in Havana

As Cuba cautiously prepares for its post-Castro life, a Colorado reporter learns golf could figure mightily in the plans.

As we begin our descent into Havana, flying over the vast, hazy mountains of the fertile Pinar Del Rio region, where Cuba’s legendary tobacco is grown and cultivated, I am reminded of the landing scenes from every Jurassic Park movie: the scenes when everyone is eagerly peaking out the window, scanning the canopy below for signs of prehistoric life. Moving through cigar-smoke clouds, I occasionally get a glimpse of the biggest island in the Caribbean, a land off limits to americanos, where investors and government officials look to the game of golf as both an economic sparkplug and long-term tourist juggernaut—that is, if Americans can ever legally go there.

Birds zip through the airport terminal at José Martí International Airport as I approach the customs desk with caution. The woman sitting behind the counter wears a SARS mask, pulled over her tightly cropped bob. A small camera, like the one that would occasionally shoot out of R2D2, dangles in front of my retina.
“The reason for your visit to Cuba?” she politely asks with the dead tone of repetition.

“Tourism, you could say,” I said. “Actually, I’m here to write an article about golf in Cuba.”

“Tourism?” she asks, blinking.

“Uh, well yeah, I have a tourist visa card, but I’ll probably interview a few golf professionals along the way.” Visions of the Castros laughing in some dark room below the airport dance in my straw-hatted head.

For Cuba, a country still struggling to emerge from the “Period Especial” of the early 90s—in which the domino effect of the fall of the Soviet Union led to Cuba losing 80 percent of its import and export economy—tourism has become the most important aspect of future economic development. If golf is a key component of that development, you wouldn’t know it from visiting Havana, an old-world cultural gem and bustling hub of activity where 1950’s Chevrolets belch black smoke and Buena Vista Social Club music floats through the air, mingling with the smell of fried chicken and potent cigars.

Kids and teenagers of all ages play Cuba’s national pastime—baseball—throughout the cracked and cobblestone streets of Havana, where mentions of the word “golf” draw blank faces and a certain sizing up of yours truly. I tell Antonio, a burly power-hitting lefty, that I’m going to play the only golf course in Havana the following day. “Are you sure?” he says. “Golf is only in Varadero, no?”

“No, there is still one course in Havana. It’s near the aeropuerto,” I tell him, hoping I won’t be venturing out to a miniature golf course the next day.

“No se,” says Antonio, shrugging his shoulders and running to the outfield across the street.

I stay in a casa particular—basically a Cuban bed and breakfast, and a good opportunity to put cash directly into the pockets of Cubans who earn just $20-25 a month—arranged by my taxi driver in a matter of minutes.  We smoke black-market cigars into the wee hours. At 1 a.m. his neighbor, a cigar-factory worker, wakes his wife to teach me to salsa like a “true cubano.”

The next morning, I pull up to the parking arm gate at the Havana Golf Club, formerly home to the Rovers Athletic Club, built in 1948 for the amusement of British diplomats. An attendant sticks his head out of a tiny, windowed office. My driver, a “private” taxi driver from the lively Vedado neighborhood near the University in Havana, motions to him and we pull up to the clubhouse, a relic of 1940s resort architecture complete with turquoise trim, an art deco restaurant and photos of the legendary golf match between revolutionaries Che Guevara and Fidel Castro. An old, cut-off at the waist sculpture of a mustachioed man holding a golf club rests comfortably in the grass outside.

After paying the $20 green fee for 9 holes (the course is a 9-hole layout with two sets of tees that allow a slightly different look for golfers intent on playing 18), I head past the old Buicks and Chevys to the first tee where, as I warm up my sore salsa-lesson back, I notice Johan Vega, the head professional, giving a lesson in the middle of the first fairway. There is no driving range, so Vega has dropped a small green practice mat where he provides swing tips before strolling out to shag balls.

“I’m an 8 handicap here,” said Vega, who grew up across the street. “But I’m a 4 at the other course.” The other course is the Varadero Golf Club, two hours down the coastline east of Havana—a beachside gem and the shining example that golf can work in communist Cuba.

“It’s good practice to play at a place like this,” Vega continues. “This course is difficult.”

The same can be said of the course Cuba has followed since Fidel Castro and his band of guerillas seized power in 1959. Viewed by most economists and sociologists as a failed political experiment, Cuba appears to be on the cusp of a new revolution.  Just over the past few months, the country has taken “capitalist light” steps by turning over government-owned barbershops and salons to the Cubans who run them. While the trade embargo—which began during the last few months of President Eisenhower’s administration and became ironclad under President Kennedy—is still in place, there are signs that the wall is crumbling.

Two legislators from Minnesota, Rep. Collin Peterson (D), chairman of the Agriculture Committee, and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D) have both introduced bills that would cut through the proverbial red tape. Both the House and Senate bills are twofold: easing trade restrictions to open up new export markets to American farmers (who currently have to go through a third party to sell goods to Cuba), and lifting the travel ban to allow Americans to journey freely to the island for the first time since the early 1960s. When the bills were introduced in February, Klobuchar told the Minnesota Star Tribune flatly, “I do believe the best way to make change in Cuba is by opening things up.”

In March, tourism officials from the United States and Cuba met in Cancún for the “U.S.-Cuba Travel Summit” where Cuban tourism ministry officials revealed plans to break ground on at least nine luxury hotels in 2010, while seeking investment partners for up to 10 coastline golf courses, complete with villas and apartments.

Esencia Hotels and Resorts, a “leisure” company based in the U.K., already has plans underway for the Carbonera Golf Club, a seaside course set in the untamed stretch of beach between Havana and Varadero. The company declares it to be the “first project of its kind in Cuba, offering the first opportunity for foreign ownership on the island in 50 years.”

From his cramped office at the Havana Golf Club, where Vega unwinds by watching soaps on a small television set, Havana’s only head pro takes a measured view of Cuba’s golf future.

“We don’t need an explosion here. No one needs to get rich off of this,” contends Vega.

As I swing away from my perch on the slightly elevated first tee, I launch my drive to the left side of the fairway. I’m left with a 160-yard shot to a shaky bamboo flagstick, complete with a red flag tethered by ripped ends. It is the first in what will be many quirks in my round at the Havana Golf Club.
Before teeing off on the long, sloping par-five second hole, I chat up an Italian expat named Pierre, a tanned, slender gentleman in his forties who’s lived in Cuba for fifteen years. Pierre spends afternoons leisurely practicing his long irons. He’s aiming at a fallen palm branch in the wide second fairway.

“Sam Snead used to love it here,” says Pierre of golf in Havana, which played host in the 40s and 50s to the PGA’s Havana Invitational, where Arnold Palmer and Ben Hogan would compete and sip mojitos among the palms at the since-bulldozed Havana Country Club. “He’d love it even more now,” he says jokingly.  “The sand is only on the beaches.”

He explains the locals have been coming late at night for years now, taking the sand from the bunkers and loading it onto trucks to use for insulation in their homes. The course stopped replacing the sand, ”which is lucky for us golfers,” laughs Pierre.

I wonder if it’s a sign that Cubans may not be ready for a full-blown golf boom.

“They don’t know what they have here in Cuba,” he says, waving his hands in the air and looking around at the grounds. “The land is perfect and there’s some of the best soil in the world here. In many areas though, there isn’t even agriculture.”

I make it to the short, downhill par-4 third and realize I’m being followed by a young man carrying a driver, wearing a black golf glove on each hand. Like one of the Sharks from West Side Story, he moves slowly, a bit menacingly, approaching the third tee box from the trees next to the second green.
Turns out my furrowed-browed friend simply wants to sell me a few used golf balls, which I politely decline. As he watches me nervously pull my drive into the pines, he tells me in his best English, “You… need a caddy.” Regardless of my objections, he follows me around for the next few holes.

As my game began to unravel under the watch of my new pseudo-caddy, who shadowed me from the trees, the layout begins to show some curves—and teeth. Holes three through six wind through beautiful stretches of pine mixed with the odd aged palm. Yardage markers are painted on the sides of the old trees, while the biggest challenge comes from trying to sink a putt— any putt—on greens that are as long as the fairway in some places, bumpy in others and tougher to read than Russian fiction.

As I teed up my ball on the difficult, dogleg par-4 sixth, I noticed four well-dressed older gentlemen without golf clubs standing twenty feet from the teeing area, looking at me but also looking through me, past the out-of-bounds into the forest and desolate wilderness beyond the property. They said they were from South Africa, just “having a look around.” I mentioned that I would love to talk to them about any development plans they had, but as it turns out, both golf and politics are sensitive subjects in Cuba. Alas, the South Africans would not go on the record with their plans for developing golf in Cuba.

Finishing with a bogey on the long par-4 ninth, it was time to check out one of more noteworthy features of the Havana Golf Club. The “Hoya 19” features a solid scarlet red-brick bar, wood-paneled walls, lush plants lining the window sills and a crowded tropical fish tank in the corner. It is the perfect place to unwind and watch the palms bristle through the large windows looking out on the 7th green and 9th fairway. Fresh Cuban cigars sit in a humidor over the bar, while one of Cuba’s best exports, Havana Club Rum, flows readily. The mojitos are exceptional, but if you want to do as the Cubans do, drink some aged 7- and 15-year rum neat in a snifter or small shot glass. 

Locals wonder if the Havana Golf Club even exists, and as I pass through the parking gate, past the turquoise trim from another era, past the old Buicks and Chevys and sleepy dogs, I’m glad that it does.

For dinner, I ventured out to Gringo Viejo (the Old Gringo), a private restaurant, or paladre, in a quiet neighborhood outside of Central Havana. To keep a low profile, most of the private restaurants do not have signs or markings and can be tricky to find. As I walked up and down the street, double-checking the address I had scribbled down, a voice came from beneath a palm tree in the shadows.
“Uno?” he asked me.
“Gringo Viejo?” I asked.

“Si. Uno?”

I nodded and he promptly led me down a dark stairwell and into a lovely bistro in the basement of a row house. A DVD of Cyndi Lauper played in the background, the lamb stew was excellent and somehow, a picture of Harvey Keitel on the wall made perfect sense.  

The next day’s drive along the coastline from Havana to tourist hub Varadero is picturesque, views of vast stretches of clean (and empty) beach and rolling rainforest hills. Sixty miles from Cuba, the sleepy port city of Matanzas seems to be in a different country. The bridges and rivers that wind through the city earn its nickname as the “Venice of Cuba.” Another 30 miles and I arrive in Varadero, a small peninsula where white sand beaches and azure ocean attract around 700,000 visitors a year, according to the Havana Journal.

Canadians and Russians baked lobster-red from the sun zoom through the main street of Varadero on rented scooters. Further up the peninsula, where large hotels line the nearly 12 miles of beach, the Varadero Golf Club sits atop beach-side cliffs.

Chemical magnate Irénée du Pont built his Xanadu Mansion here in 1927. Today it serves as a ten-room boutique hotel adjacent to the clubhouse, complete with gorgeous marble floors, a restaurant and fully stocked top-floor bar that peers out at the ocean from one side and the practice green on the other. It’s easy to see why du Pont thought he had found Paradise—but it wouldn’t last. Du Pont essentially forfeited the property when the revolution swept through Cuba in 1959.
“Before the revolution, he left and never came back and the place became property of the government,” said Pedro Klein from the clubhouse bar. One of the only scratch golfers on the island and head pro at Varadero, Klein speaks five languages and comes across as a muscled version of Dos Equis’ Most Interesting Man In The World. He is a voracious reader and student of golf history and design.

“Fidel liked du Pont and offered to let him stay,” says Klein. “But when he left he wanted his property to benefit the churches and schools. In the 70s, people would come from all over the world, curious to see this famous mansion. So the place grew in stature. Soon enough, people looked around and said ‘wait this looks like a golf course—maybe this should be a golf course.’ ”

Sure enough, du Pont had manicured a small nine-hole course on the property as early as the 1930s, but by 1983 the flagsticks and tee boxes were long gone. Canadian architect Les Furber, who worked under Robert Trent Jones Sr., was brought in to design a championship 18-hole course.

Thanks to its location on a mile-thin peninsula, a day at the lovely Varadero Golf Club can turn into all you can handle. The wind whips up from both sides of the peninsula, and, depending which body of water you’re closest to, can toss your Titleist in different directions on the same hole. Water and sand abound and if you do lose a few balls, you can always purchase a couple more from a stray maintenance worker.

Varadero is no walking man’s links. The fact that the course has to fit in such a small peninsula makes for some long (and scenic) cart drives between holes. Like an enjoyable action film that doesn’t last long enough, you’ll be thanking the designers for turning an apparent liability into a genuine asset when you’re done. The course meanders up the beach cliffs out to the edge of the sea and back again, moving between limestone outcroppings and smoothly rounded fairways.

Nobody’s stealing sand from the bunkers.

To be a stop on a professional tour, Varadero Golf Club would need to be longer (the yardage boasts a 6,856-yard course but it doesn’t play like it) and better maintained. That said, the club has hosted two final qualifying rounds for the European Tour, and currently hosts the Montecristo Cup, an informal event open to professionals and amateurs, where Ernie Els served as guest of honor, handing out trophies (but not competing) in April of 2009.

Sitting on the balcony of the clubhouse bar overlooking the ocean, made clear blue from the hot afternoon sun, I ask Klein if South African investors poking around the Havana Golf Club and Ernie Els’ presence at the Montecristo Cup means that a certain smooth as a Cuban cigar-swinging South African is looking to develop golf in Cuba.

“I think so, yes,” says Klein cautiously. “He really likes it here. Ernie Els would like to invest to help build some courses down the road.” Els, in the midst of a rejuvenated career with two wins on the PGA Tour in 2010, declined to comment for this story.

“There are more important things than golf,” says Klein over a Cristal beer (Cuba’s refreshing ale of choice) in the bar atop the Xanadu Mansion. “But it’s too bad that a lot of things would be better in Cuba if relations with the United States were improved. If Americans could start coming here tomorrow, in ten years we’d have more courses than the Dominican Republic, which has the finest golf courses in the Caribbean right now.”

There is good reason for Klein’s tempered optimism. Stories touting the coming resurrection of Cuban golf have popped up over the past decade, from Cigar Aficionado to Golf Digest all weighing in as far back as nine years ago. If golf is going to succeed in Cuba as it has in the United States, it can’t just be a “rich man’s game.”

“You have to have local potential,” says Klein. “You can build all the golf courses in the world, but how are you going to pay for its existence once it’s built? The only place where golf is truly for everyone is in America. You have courses that you can play for thirty bucks, but you also have Pebble Beach and Augusta. That is what I would like to see in Cuba one day.”

Mike Wolf is a Colorado AvidGolfer contributing editor.

Guerilla Warfare

The famous photos of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara playing golf hang prominently at both Havana Golf Club and Varadero Golf Club. History seems unclear about why the two decided to duke it out on the links in combat fatigues. We attempt unravel the sepia-toned mystery. In a 2007 article posted on Cuba's state-run Television Camaguey, Castro declared that the match was simply “a photo opportunity. The real purpose was to make fun of Eisenhower.”

On an important diplomatic trip to the United States in 1959 (before relations between the two countries soured), Castro was denied face time with President
Eisenhower, who was busy playing one of the estimated 800 round of golf during his presidency. Some, however, believe that the match took place before Castro's trip to the U.S., with former caddie Che Guevara hoping to impart a few swing tips to the golf-challenged leader.

According to Pedro Klein, the head golf professional at Varadero Golf Club and a voracious student of golf history and design, the sport was held in both contempt and curiosity by Castro and Guevara. “One day Che Guevara came to (Castro) with the realization that Eisenhower, Churchill, and all these powerful men, were basically deciding the fate of nations-whether or not to go to war, which countries had their best interests at heart-they were deciding these huge matters in the middle of a round of golf,” says Klein from his office, where a picture of Guevara holding a short-iron looks down from the otherwise blank wall behind his desk.

“They were basically deciding which political course to follow,” says Klein.

“Che was a caddy in Argentina and so Fidel thought he would be the natural choice to play a round of golf. Especially at the time, golf was a very elitist sport and in Cuba before 1959, golf was only played by rich families.”

To Jose Lorenzo Fuentes, Castro's newspaper correspondent at the time and one of Cuba's most celebrated writers, the round not only shaped golf's immediate future on the island, but his future as well. Fuentes remembers the round as a way for Fidel to send a friendly message to President John F. Kennedy, one of the more accomplished golfers to ever occupy the oval office.

The photo opportunity quickly turned into a links battle, as the intense Guevara, one of the only men in Cuba who wouldn't simply let el jefe win, wanted every shot counted.

“Guevara was very competitive,” Fuentes recalled to the St. Petersburg
Times in 2008. “He wanted to win.”

Win he did, as Castro posted a 150 on the day. Fuentes reported what he saw, and never covered another event for Castro. The following years would see more golf courses (including Villareal, where the match took place) bulldozed as Fuentes was demoted, serving three years in prison accused of espionage. Fuentes now lives in Miami, his life forever changed by the most famous golf match in Cuban history. 

Info to Go:
Golfers intent on visiting Cuba before the travel ban is lifted need only a point of entry, a wad of cash and a pocket Spanish-English dictionary. The best entry points for Coloradans are Cancún (Frontier flies direct) and Mexico City. Cubana Air has daily flights from Cancún to Havana ranging from $250 – $350.  When you arrive, be prepared to exchange your currency (you’ll get a better rate if you first convert U.S. dollars into Canadian dollars or Mexican pesos), negotiate a cab fare from the airport into the city ($20-30). For the adventurous traveler, there are hundreds of Casas Particulares (rooms in private houses) in Havana that range from $20 – $65 a night.  Taxi drivers and tour guides are a good source.  Or check concha-renta.galeon.com. The less daring can check into:
•   Hotel Telegrafo, (7-861-1010) an architectural beauty located in the plaza surrounding the lively Parque Central.

•   Hotel Plaza, (7-860-8592) once the home away from home for Babe Ruth and Albert Einstein.  There’s even a Babe Ruth Suite (room 216), complete with a historical plaque, which contains a bat and glove that once belonged to the great Bambino.

To get to Varadero from Havana (an 87-mile trip), take a bus through Viazul, Cuba’s tourist bus company ($10-15 each way) or rent a car through one of the state-run hotels in Havana ($70-90 a day; American classic cars are not available to rent).

Tourist hotels abound in Varadero, but in order to stay close to the golf course, you have two options:

•   Xanadu Mansion, located ten steps from the practice green at Varadero Golf Club is one of the island’s finest boutique hotels.  Rates ($150-$225) include breakfast and green fees.

•   Melia Las Americas is a good high-end option located on the beach next door to the Xanadu Mansion.  Melia houses four bars, five restaurants, a lounge and dance club and rates ($290 – $450) that include unlimited golf.

Getting back:
To avoid trouble upon your return through Cancún, remember to extricate all of your Cubana Air luggage tags and toss any maps of Havana or Varadero.  Don’t even think of bringing back cigars or rum.

Cuba in Denver

Don’t want to risk fines and jail time by sneaking into the forbidden island? Denver boasts one of the finest Cuban restaurants in the country and several top-notch cigar shops.  

Cuba Cuba (1173 Delaware St.; 303-605-2822) dishes up an authentic sabor cubano that extends beyond the ropa vieja and fried chicken with rice and beans that is so prevalent on the island.  New menu items such as the Puerco Frico (roasted pork seared crispy with sautéed onions, maduros and a sour orange-garlic mojo) and Constilla Encendida con Fufu (braised short ribs prepared with a tomato creole sauce and plantain and pork cracking mash) are hard even to type without getting hungry. The vibrant bar hosts live salsa and rumba music on Thursdays, and in no time the knowledgeable and friendly bartender Andre will have you sipping blackberry and mango mojitos and rum in numerous concoctions. 

Cigars on 6th (707 East 6th Avenue; 303-830-8100), combines old-school charm with the latest in sports-watching technology.  The small parlor contains two sharp-as-a-cigar-cutter flat screen televisions (yes they have the Golf Channel), comfortable lounge chairs, and a damp humidor that may be the moistest place in Denver on a dry summer afternoon. Try their Cabaiguan Cigars, an American brand rolled in Little Havana in Miami that can be hard to find at many shops. 

Palma Cigars (2207 Larimer Street; 303-297-3244) in LoDo has a barber shop and is home to Clay Carlton, the only master cigar roller in Denver.  Clay learned from a Cuban master roller years ago, and blends different tobaccos himself.
Tewksbury & Co. (1512 Larimer Street in Writer’s Square; 303-825-1880) is the most angler-friendly cigar shop in Colorado, offering fly-fishing supplies and guided fishing trips along with daily wine tastings.

Tobacco Leaf (7111 West Alameda Avenue; 303-274-8720) in Lakewood has a huge selection of cigars (over 800) and pipe tobacco to fit any budget.