The hazards of golfing in Afghanistan
21. October 2007, 11:35

KABUL (AFP) Mohammad Afzal Abdul says he has been jailed twice for playing golf: once in the early 1980s after the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and then again by the hardline Taliban government more than 10 years later.

Both times he was accused of being a spy because he mixed with foreigners at the Kabul Golf Club, which sits under the steep wall of the Qargar Dam and looks down a gently sloping valley towards the capital.

Abdul, now the pro at Afghanistan's only golf club, doesn't rule out his hobby landing him in jail again.

The extremist Taliban, who banned all sport including even kite-flying, were removed from government in 2001. But now, as an insurgent movement, they often accuse any Afghan who associates with foreigners of spying -- and have killed several.

"Even right now, I feel some danger," Abdul says in a dusty room, surrounded by donated clubs for hire and caps and t-shirts embroidered with the club logo for sale. "But I won't leave," he says.

"This is a place for fun and people need it. People always need to have a good time, even during war."

Abdul says he spent two months clearing the nine-hole course of military hardware that remained after the 1990s civil war between the commanders who had months earlier driven out the Soviet invaders.

"Everything was destroyed, there were tank tracks, guns and weapons," he says.

Then the Taliban built bases in the area and the golf course and the dam -- now one of Kabul's favourite picnic spots -- were abandoned.

Today it has been cleared of landmines, but it is still a bit of a wreck.

It is difficult to tell the fairways from the rough, and litter is caught in the stubs of scraggy, dry grass that cover only some of the dusty and stony ground.

A ragged trough runs through the course from the dam wall -- Abdul hoped to could bring in some water but there is no money for pipes.

But there are red flags fluttering at the "greens" -- which are actually black being made of compacted sand and oil, as is normal at desert courses -- and Abdul says he has a steady stream of players and students.

This year there will be three tournaments: Friday's Kabul Desert Classic, in which mostly expatriates played, and two in November that are likely to attract mostly Afghan players.

It was the third time the Desert Classic had been held and 33 men and women entered, most of them bidding for a place to raise money for charity, says organiser Amaury Coste.

The contest was won by one of four Afghans who played despite being unable to afford to bid. "It was a great day, we had lots of people," says Coste.

The tournament has attracted international media attention in the past, but for Coste, spreading the word about a sport that is new to post-conflict Afghanistan, is not really the point.

"I am not sure it is a priority for Afghans today to discover and play golf. The intention is more to raise money for charities and have a fun activity for expats who live in Kabul," he says.

Abdul remembers the 1970s, when bankers and ministers would come to the course on Fridays. Today, he sometimes gets diplomats and other officials, who bring along armed guards.

But developing the sport would benefit Afghanistan's young people, he says. "It is good for their health and keeping their minds on their school work and away from drugs.".

Outside Abdul's office, three of his young students dressed in baggy shalwar kamiz tee off from a plastic golf mat and hit practice shots into parched bush.

One of them is 12-year-old Qadir Sarwari. His ambitions? "First I would like to play in a green place," he says.

For him and Abdul, who hopes that one of his students will one day beat him on the course, Tiger Woods is the man to look up to, his fame spreading to Afghanistan through magazines and DVDs brought over by expat players.

Abdul has a message for the star: "Please just once come to Afghanistan to play. Or invite us to your place," he says.

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