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When playing golf at Kabul, keep your head down and aim left of howitzers (Filed: 11/01/2002)
A round on an Afghan course is beset with lethal hazards and immoveable obstructions, as Peter Foster found
FOR 20 years Afghanistan has been too busy fighting to pursue the idle pleasures of the West, but propped up in the corner of a Kabul sports shop sat an intriguing reminder of happier times.
The golf bag needed a good clean, but the clubs inside - a full set of Ben Sayer irons and woods complete with headcovers - were still serviceable.
The shopkeeper said they were the property of a Pakistani professional named "Tarzee".
We agreed to hire the clubs and purchased a dozen Dunlop 65 balls, still individually wrapped in the black crinkly paper they had left the factory in more than 20 years ago.
In the Kabul bazaar, a craftsman whittled up a flagstick which he dressed with a pennant of red silk, the number six painted in Roman and Arabic numerals. All that was needed now was a golf course.
A passing mention in a 1972 guide book to Kabul provided the clue. It spoke of a boating complex built at Qargha, set in the barren hills north-west of the city.
"The new Golf Club is located at the end of the dam just above the new Golf Course which spreads over the hollow at the foot of the dam," wrote the author.
Thirty years on, the fairways of the nine-hole Qargha Lake Golf Club are grassless but still recognisable, the bunkers indistinguishable from shell craters and the "greens" turned to flat, grey dust bowls by five years of drought.
In the absence of local competition, The Telegraph teed up and struck the first ball since the days when regular medal competitions were held every Friday for expatriates in Kabul.
Without a scorecard for reference, the first hole was estimated to be a 350 yard Par 4 that dog-legged round five 75mm Russian howitzers which one of Afghanistan's many passing armies had carelessly left on the fairway.
Just as the players were considering whether discarded artillery pieces constituted an "immoveable obstruction" under rule 24-2, a passing local man warned "keep your head down".
The speaker introduced himself as Abdul Qayum, who as a young man in the 1970s had worked at Qargha Lake, teaching Afghanis how to play and caddying for the better players in competitions.
His claims, which had initially appeared too good to be true, were given credence when he demonstrated a neat interlocking grip and a swing that was elegant, if a little rusty.
He recalled some of the great local players in the days when Nicklaus and Player were vying for supremacy on the international scene. He said that a Murray Poole, a British engineer, was the best of them all. More recently the Qargha Lake course was the scene of battles between the Pathan forces of Abdul Rasul Sayyaf and the Hazara commander Abdul Ali Mazari, now dead.
Reminiscences over, Mr Qayum's first shot was a disappointing shank which scuttled into a dusty hole that had once been a water hazard. However, his second shot was a clean strike that sailed towards the "green" where the caddy had planted our flag.
Meanwhile, The Telegraph was still in need of an adjudication on the "howitzer question". A local soldier who doubled as a caddy and landmine awareness instructor said he reckoned the guns were too heavy to move.
After much further discussion, it was decided that only a satellite telephone call to the Royal & Ancient in St Andrews would settle the matter. Grant Moir, the assistant rules secretary at the R&A, graciously agreed to adjudicate.
He said the howitzers would be deemed "moveable" under rule 24-1 if they could be moved without "unreasonable effort" and without damaging the course - like a greenkeeper's cart.
We heaved on the gun carriage. It would not budge. The effort definitely seemed "unreasonable" and the course was beyond damage anyway. The ball was dropped a club's length away, not nearer the hole.
Before Mr Moir returned to his desk, he was asked to make a judgment about landmines, an ever-present danger in Afghanistan. Must the ball be played from where it lies? He said this dilemma was already covered by the R&A's Decisions on the Rules of Golf, with particular reference to Section 1, paragraph 4/10.
"If a ball comes to rest in a situation dangerous to the player, for example a rattlesnake or bees nest, in equity a player can, without penalty, drop at the nearest point which is not dangerous," he said.
Having reached the "green", Mr Qayum stayed and described the lay out of the old course, chatting further about the days when the fairways were carpets of green.
"I am very, very happy," he said. "Perhaps one day you will come back and re-build our course."
With mines littering the area, we called it a day. Since putting had been impossible, we shook hands on a gentleman's half.
-- Anonymous, January 10, 2002
Golfers are insane, lol.
-- Anonymous, January 10, 2002