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Afghan committee looks to transform Kabul club's sun-baked fairways

Kabul Golf Club professional Mohammad Afzal Abdul unleashes his driver during a round. Like much of the country, the water-starved course has suffered through decades of instability.

The first hole is 371 yards, straight away. Par 4. Hit your approach shot toward the large pile of rubble.

No. 2 is a long par 3. On this day, a well-struck 4-iron bounces for a hole-in-one — a pretty good shot, even if the hole is the size of a swimming pool.

Not your typical day at the course, but not your typical course.

This is Kabul Golf Club.

The course, more a neglected, ant-infested desert than a set of links, is in the midst of a $650,000 refurbishment, paid for by the Afghan Olympic Committee in the hopes of turning its hard-baked mud fairways and sandy greens to lush grass.

The nine-hole course, some seven miles west of downtown Kabul, opened at another site in 1967 during the reign of King Mohammad Zahir Shah. The course moved to its present location in the early 1970s.

In 1979, Russian Red Army troops — who likely saw golf as a bourgeois decadence — parked tanks on the fairways and fought running battles with mujahedeen that left the clubhouse pockmarked with bullet holes.

Then the Taliban showed up.

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Despising golf — any kind of fun, really — they drained Lake Qargha, a popular picnic spot just 500 yards upstream, leaving fish flopping on the course and depriving it of water.

It didn’t take long for the lush grass, seen in old photographs on the clubhouse wall, to turn to hard-baked mud. And it will get worse before it gets better — assuming it gets better.

The refurbishment has left large craters in place of some of the sand-and-oil greens that made the course playable, despite the lack of grass.

It’s acceptable to use a tee from the fairway, if your caddy can push one into the rock-hard ground.

The renovation includes an irrigation system, new clubhouse, boundary fence and grass fairways and greens, according to Mujeebullah Rahmani, spokesman for the Afghan Olympic Committee. Golf, along with rugby, will return to the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janiero after more than a century’s hiatus.

Rahmani said the government also plans to pay for the long-term upkeep of the Kabul golf course; an eyebrow-raising proposition, given the nation’s paltry revenues and the many other priorities.

The third hole calls for an 8- or 9-iron over a water hazard — a 6-foot-wide drain — onto a sand-covered “green.” Kalashnikov-toting Afghan police at a checkpoint nearby are reassuring given that, only a few months ago, 18 people were killed in a Taliban raid on a restaurant overlooking the lake.

Club professional Mohammad Afzal Abdul, 53, still spry despite his more than four decades on the links, whacked an 8-iron in the general direction of the green before attempting to jump over the drain. Coming up short, he pitched forward and sprawled in the mud but was quickly back on his feet and setting up his chip shot.

It was one more up and down for the old golfer who has lived through all his club’s dramas.

His odyssey started at age 8 when he became a caddy, working for dollar tips. Back then, the customers were American and Japanese embassy workers and members of the Afghan royal family.

By the time he was 14, he’d risen to caddy-master and taken up the game himself. At 15, he won a tournament in Peshawar and was given a trophy by the then-Pakistani president, Gen. Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq.

Abdul was imprisoned by the Russians for six months for communicating with the mujahedeen, then fled to Pakistan with only a 5-iron to play golf in Peshawar and Kashmir.

Five years later he returned, but was soon back in jail after the Taliban arrived and decided to punish him for working with foreigners. Again he fled to Pakistan, where he drove a taxi for several years, returning in 2004 to reopen the course.

He even traveled to America a few years ago, met Tiger Woods and invited him to visit Afghanistan. Woods declined, citing security concerns, Abdul said after stepping up to the fourth tee with a battered Cobra driver to smack his ball fearlessly into a landscape resembling a post-apocalyptic wasteland where a caddy was waiting to retrieve it.

Love of the game hasn’t blinded Abdul from the golf course’s potential for revenue. He doesn’t miss a chance to flog club-branded hats, gloves and shirts — and he charged a $60 green fee on this day, on par with some of the pricier stateside links.

One of the club’s 50 caddies, Hsan, who like many Afghans goes by only one name, said he’s been playing golf for six years and models his game on Tiger’s.

Hsan, 25, who won a trophy for a “hole-in-two” after putting his approach shot into the cup during the annual caddies’ tournament, said No. 5, the last one playable on this day, is the toughest on the course.

An uphill par 3 with an elevated green bordered by a steep slope to the right and irrigation ditches and bushes on the left, it features a sand-and-oil green. It is covered in shrubs, with only a few narrow channels to putt along, and a hole that looks like it was dug by a small child. It’s a scene out of a golfer’s nightmare.

But near the hole there’s a sign of hope — a red drilling rig boring a well that, soon, may provide the water needed to turn the course from brown to green.

Zubair Babakarkhail contributed to this report.

robsons@pstripes.osd.mil

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