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Thursday, April 28, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Steve Kelley

Afghanistan's Kabul Golf Course a symbol of survival

KABUL, Afghanistan — Standing on the weedy tee box at No. 3, I noticed movement in my periphery as I started my backswing. I stopped and looked over my shoulder at the unsettling sight of a man standing about 20 yards away with an AK-47 slung over his shoulder.

"Who's he?" I nervously asked my host, Muhammad Afzal Abdul, the manager and teacher at Kabul Golf Club in the beautiful Bandi Qargha section of Kabul, about 7 miles from the city's center.

"That's my security guard," Afzal Abdul said with a sly grin. "You don't play golf in Kabul without security."

Afzal Abdul calls it "golf with an attitude."

This course he loves like a family member looks more like a bean field after harvest. The "fairway" is furrowed and strewn with rocks and twigs. The hillsides are guarded by Afghan National Army tanks.

The ball doesn't roll in the fairway. It plugs into the dirt. According to the scorecard, "If your ball lands on the fairway, you may either play the ball as it lies, play it from a mat, or play it from a wooden tee."

The rough contains souvenirs of the Soviet occupation, such as the massive green grillwork of an exploded Russian armored personnel carrier. A weathered explosive device lies nearby.

The "greens" are black, a compacted combination of sand and motor oil. The caddy uses a mat to drag the surface before you putt. It doesn't take a Stimpmeter to tell you these greens are as slow as Mississippi summers.

"Attack the course," I am told by my caddy. "Play aggressively. There are no gimmes. Don't even ask for the stroke index. This is Afghanistan and everything is tough here."

This nine-hole course, which reopened last November, is as much about spirit and survival as it is about golf. In its history it has been used more often as a battlefield than as a place to play. When you talk about bunkers on this course, you're talking about the real things.

Still, Kabul Golf Club is the pride of Afzal Abdul, who is symbolic of so many people I met traveling around this massive country last week with a delegation from the remarkable international aid organization Save The Children.

Neither the Soviet tanks, nor the civil wars, nor the Taliban's repression has robbed Afzal Abdul of his passion. The mines, the bombs, the fear that comes from 30 years of war hasn't taken away his love of golf.

How much do you love the game?

Have you been jailed twice and charged with the crime of being a golfer? Afzal Abdul has.

The Soviets locked him up during their occupation in the 1980s. They built a compound adjacent to the ninth hole and every day watched the golfers suspiciously.

Finally, they stormed his clubhouse, closed down his course and put him in jail for six months, without giving him a reason. He believes they must have thought he was conspiring with the golfers to overthrow the Soviets

"Every day," Afzal Abdul said, "they sent an Afghan down to the course to play and watch us like a spy. They thought I had links to foreign diplomats."

Links on the links? It was a most ridiculous idea, he says.

Ten years later, the Taliban broke into his home as he slept, took all of his golf clubs, his shoes, all of the certificates and trophies he had won and jailed him for two months.

"They left nothing of my golf," he said. "They told me they didn't like the people playing games. They said games are for the Americans, not for the Afghans."

You think you love the game? Afzal Abdul, who is fit and at 47 looks as if he could resuscitate his game in time to join the Champions Tour when he turns 50, has spent eight months of his life in jail because of this game.

"Golf is very important to me," said Afzal Abdul, who once was a scratch golfer and considered his country's best player. "The five years the Taliban were here I left for Pakistan and drove a taxi. When they left and I came back to my golf course, I became young again."

When he returned to his country, he asked de-mining crews to check his course. They promised him it was mine-free. Later, a United Nations employee donated several sets of clubs. The balls looked like range balls without the stripes.

He said about 70 people, mostly American, British and Korean, regularly play here. Greens fees are about $10.

"I wish Tiger Woods could come here and see what we are trying to do," said Afzal Abdul, who earns about $80 a month. "I am inviting him to come here and play."

Kabul Golf Club, which is owned by the Afghan government, is a work in progress. Before it reopened it was a training ground for mine-removal teams. Most of the detritus of war — exploded bombs and shrapnel, hulking pieces of Soviet tanks and vehicles — has been removed.

The irrigation pipes, which once brought water from the recently restored Karga Dam, were unearthed and destroyed by the Taliban, which for mysterious reasons banned almost all sports except volleyball.

The original clubhouse, which still stands shakily next to the small dirt parking area, was shelled by the Taliban. Its walls are pock-marked by shrapnel.

Afzal Abdul's new clubhouse is merely a large metal shipping container that has been painted and made to look as close to the real thing as your imagination will allow. Inside there is a cot where one of the security guards spends the night.

But as rough-hewn as Kabul Golf Club is, the surrounding scenery is breathtaking. Purple arghawan trees line the course. And as you stare down your drive on No. 8, you can stare up at the muscular, 22,000-foot snow-capped peaks of the Hindu Kush.

This course is a metaphor for Afghanistan. It is the story of the country, really, condensed into nine holes of golf.

It may be chewed up and littered by the devastation delivered by all of the wars. But it is surrounded by beauty that robs your breath. And with the Taliban government gone, hope now glimmers for Kabul golf, just as it does for all of Afghanistan.

"I believe we will make a beautiful golf course again," Afzal Abdul said as he walked the course with me.

He estimates he needs about $200,000 to restore the irrigation system, buy mowers and make his course the lush, green gem he says it was in the 1970s.

"My wish is for our golf club to look like American golf clubs," he said.

On the final hole, I missed a 10-foot birdie putt that stopped dead in the sand and oil about 6 inches from the cup. I winced, then looked at Afzal Abdul, who smiled and congratulated me on my scrambling round of 45.

I played golf in Kabul last Saturday.

Despite the tanks and the armed security guard and the remnants of war that were scattered everywhere, I felt safe and just slightly hopeful.

And I felt honored to be with Muhammad Afzal Abdul, whose affection for his sport is unlike any I've ever seen.

Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or skelley@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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