Thursday, April 3, 2008 – Page updated at 12:00 AM
For golf, Cuba is an open fairway
By David Adams
St. Petersburg Times
ADALBERTO ROQUE / AFP/GETTY IMAGES
The golf course at the Varadero beach resort east of Havana was the only
course built during Fidel Castro's rule.
HAVANA — In March 1961, tensions between the United States and Cuba were
reaching a peak.
So what did Fidel Castro do?
He invited his fellow revolutionary, Ernesto "Che" Guevara, to a
relaxing round of golf in an apparent effort to ease the political
climate. Of course, the pair couldn't help but thumb their noses at "the
sport of the idle rich," stomping around the course in military boots
But the game didn't exactly work out as planned.
Castro lost and relations with Washington went from bad to worse. Before
long, golf was virtually wiped off the island.
Now, 47 years later, with Castro out of power, golf may soon make a
comeback. Cuban tourism officials are reportedly considering a major
investment in new golf courses across the island to boost its sagging
"The message coming from the Cubans is: Bring us golf projects," said
Mark Entwistle, a former Canadian ambassador to Cuba who represents one
A dozen golf projects around the island are on the drawing board, he
said, each consisting of hundreds of villas and apartments built around
Cuban tourism officials "crossed the Rubicon of the ideological
perception of golf a long time ago," he added. "It's now a priority of
After spurning tourism for decades, Cuba turned to the travel industry
in the 1990s to help substitute for its loss of trade with the Soviet
Union. Dozens of new hotels were built and the number of visitors rose
quickly to 2.3 million by 2005, with revenue of $2 billion.
But tourist visits dropped 4.3 percent in 2006 and were down again last
year, the result of complaints about poor service and a low rate of
return visits. To halt that slide, Cuba has announced several measures,
including adding new boutique hotels, as well as marinas and golf courses.
"They are trying to survive, and to survive they have to make money,"
said Tony Zamora, a Cuban-American attorney in Miami who visits the
island regularly and is an expert on Cuban real estate. Cuban officials
see the roaring success of golf resorts not far away in the Dominican
Republic, which has 3.5 million tourists a year, he said.
Several leading companies in Canada and Europe have drawn up golf
proposals in Cuba, including Foster and Partners, one of London's top
architecture firms, and Bouygues Batiment, one of France's largest
No golf projects have been finalized, although a European group says it
is close to signing a contract. A spokeswoman for Foster and Partners
said its project in the western province of Pinar del Rio is "on hold."
In the past, foreign companies have balked at Cuba's socialist
investment laws. Cuba does not allow foreign companies to have wholly
owned operations in the country. All foreign investments have to be done
under "joint venture agreements," by which foreign companies are allowed
only a 49 percent stake.
But Cuba is ready to sweeten the pot, says Zamora, allowing new golf
projects to include large apartment projects available to foreign buyers
with 75-year leases. This makes it much more attractive to developers
who can see bigger returns on their money.
Even so, some analysts say investors are unlikely to sign on the dotted
line while the four-decades-old U.S. trade embargo prevents American
tourists from traveling to Cuba.
Before the revolution, Cuba boasted a half-dozen quality courses,
including two in Havana designed by the famous U.S. architect Donald
Ross, who also laid out the Belleview Biltmore Golf Club in Clearwater, Fla.
In their day, the Country Club of Havana and the Havana Biltmore Golf
Club were among the top venues for Havana's elite, as well as PGA Tour
stars such as Sam Snead and Ben Hogan.
Soon after the revolution, the Country Club course was dug up and turned
into a music and arts institute. On a recent day, students played pickup
baseball on what clearly was once a wide, grassy fairway, as musical
notes filled the air from practice rooms. Cups were only recently
removed from holes on some surviving greens; mosquitoes were laying eggs
The golf course where Castro and Guevara teed off, Colinas de Villareal,
suffered the same fate as all the others and was converted into a
"These courses are gone forever," said Max Lesnick, a Cuban-American
exile radio broadcaster who has personally encouraged Castro to revive
golf. "But there's lots of other places where new courses could be built."
During Castro's rule, Cuba built only one new golf course, on the
Varadero beach resort east of Havana.
Varadero was constructed without foreign investment. It took almost a
decade to complete, according to its Canadian architect, Les Furber. "We
had lots of false starts," he recalls, recounting how a lack of diesel
and credit kept interrupting earth-moving on the site. "We tried to have
25 to 50 trucks working, but sometimes there were only four or five
Skeptics say talk of bringing back golf has gone on for years with
little to show for it.
"In Cuba, there's no culture of golf," said Orlando Vega, 69, a caddie
at the Havana Golf Club, the capital's only surviving course. "Our
authorities have other interests."
The nine-hole Havana course survived in large part thanks to the
diplomatic community (there are only about 15 to 20 golf-playing Cubans
left in Havana, Vega says). The condition of its fairways and greens is
uneven at best. Due to theft, the flagsticks are fashioned from tree
Politicians could learn a lot from a good golf swing, he says.
"In politics, the left and right are irreconcilable. In golf, your left
arm and right arm have to work in harmony."
Castro's swing was clearly not in harmony that day in 1961.
He shot 150 on the par 70 course, losing to Guevara, who shot 127. The
headline in the paper the next day read: "I can beat Kennedy easily —
U.S. President John F. Kennedy, who was by some accounts one of the best
golfers to occupy the White House, clearly was not troubled. Less than
three weeks later, he launched the Bay of Pigs invasion.