Friday, 14th December 2018

Paul Spencer Sochaczewski

Golf: An Antidote to War and Hardship

Posted on 25. Jun, 2010 by in Articles, Golf

Could golf in Iran help people love one another?

TEHRAN, Iran

And all along I had thought golf was a cause of anxiety.

“No, just the opposite.  Golf relieves stress,” Eisa Eshagi, president of the Iranian Golf Federation, said.  “And that’s what we need, since we’re a nation that has suffered wars and hardships.”

Few in the west would immediately think of Iran as a beleaguered nation.  But of course it’s all about perspective.  Iran lost some 600,000 people during the 1980-1988 war with Iraq, and in 2003 a huge earthquake killed at least 15,000 people near the ancient city of Bam.

Iranians have other reasons to feel defensive these days.   After all, George W. Bush has damned the country as part of the “axis of evil,” and the U.S. State Department, regularly reminding us of Iran’s close relationships with Libya, Syria and North Korea, tells Americans that Iran is secretly building nuclear weapons, supporting insurgents in Iraq and channeling aid to terrorist group Hezbollah. 

Nevertheless, Iran has been undergoing a halting process of reform, encouraged by diplomatic engagement and trade with European states – and to a lesser extent with the United States.

So, as an American, and as a golfer, I went to Tehran with personal and geopolitical curiosity.

Wherever I went in this polluted city of 11 million, where drivers seem to practice for bumper car tournaments and where upper-class head-scarved-women push the envelope to see how much fashion style they can get away with without getting busted by the morality police, I was met with consistent courtesy and often with warmth – many Iranians have family and friends in the States.  Once again I was reminded that it’s essential to separate the posturing of respective governments from the attitudes of ordinary people.

I traveled to Iran as part of my job with the International Osteoporosis Foundation – disease obviously respects no political frontiers.

 But, having an afternoon free after consulting with our member society and meeting the former president, Ayatollah Rafsanjani, to seek his support of osteoporosis-education activities, I drove to the north of the city to play at the country’s only grass golf course, Enghelab.

I was intrigued by the idea of playing what is arguably the ultimate “western” sport in a country effectively run by conservative mullahs.

And I had never played on a 13-hole course. Enghelab, which means “revolution” in Farsi, lost five of its holes in 1992 when the military confiscated the land for housing and facilities. 

In 1999 Bob Cullen, writing in Golf Digest, described a course “inexorably being reclaimed by desert weeds,” with bushes ten feet high in front of the tee, and with fuel tanks, freshly-dug ditches and “a pile of construction rubble” creating a challenging series of fairway obstacles.

My, what a difference five years makes.

Today, Iranian authorities obviously think that sports are perfectly compatible with the nation’s goals.

The Enghelab course is set within the vast Enghelab Sports Complex, with good facilities for gymnastics, wrestling, horse riding, tennis and swimming (separate men’s and women’s pools).

Cullen had written that the Revolutionary Guards had confiscated the land of the missing five holes. 

Enroute to Enghelab we passed the outer fence of the golf course, and I asked the driver to stop so I could take a photo of the buildings that were constructed on previous golf course land.

“No, no, you can’t take pictures here,” my companion said.  “Military.”

So I put my camera away and drove to the new offices of the Iranian Golf Federation where Eisa Eshagi, who had been on the job just three weeks, told me of his ambitious goal to popularize golf in the Islamic Republic, with plans to build driving ranges, enter players in the 2006 Asian championships in Qatar, establish a website and invite the public to try the game during golf introduction days.

Eshagi, 33, a relative newcomer to the game, explained, “I used to think golf was for old people, but it’s very exciting. And Iranians like new sports.”

“And golf is politically correct?” I asked, remembering how Iran’s government politicizes sports – Iran’s Arash Miresmaeili, a world judo champion, refused to compete against an Israeli in the 2004 Athens Olympics, citing “sympathy with the struggling Palestinian people”.

“Sure.”

“And women can play?”

“Why not?  The vice president of the Iranian Golf Federation is a woman.”

I saw that his third floor office had a lovely view of the golf course, including the (rather benign-looking) military constructions.  Could I take a photo from his balcony? “Be my guest,” he replied.

Earlier, I had corresponded with Simon Dicksee, a British instructor who had been sent to Tehran by the PGA of Europe to coach Iranian golfers. Dicksee noted that two golfers had “international potential”.  I was hoping to meet one of the promising golfers, Hasan Karimian, who doubles as the club pro.  He is also the Iranian national champ, which arguably makes him the 13-hole champion of the world

Even from a distance I could pick out Karimian  – like many club pros he had the infuriating ability to bounce a ball on his pitching wedge and then hit the golf ball baseball style, just like Tiger does in those commercials.

It was late afternoon and about a dozen people were on the practice range, including a handful of young women.  So Eshagi was right – golf is a sport that men and women can play together.  The lady golfers wore the customary head coverings and robes, but perched jauntily on one lady’s head, on top of the head scarf, was a Nike baseball cap.

Karimian, 27, had half an hour before his next lesson and agreed to play a couple of holes with me and another member of the club, one of some 100 golfers who pay about $4 a round, or  $70 a year, to play Enghelab (foreigners have to fork out about $50 per round).

He loaned me a good set of clubs – clones of a well-known brand.  We started on the 10th. The fairway was wide and open and I hit a long drive.

“Where’s the green?” I asked Hasan.

“Hit a 9-iron to just in front of that line of trees,” he instructed.

I did and still couldn’t see the green through the trees.

“Can’t you see the flag?” he asked.  The trees bordered a hidden stream that crossed immediately in front of the green.  I had maybe 30 yards to clear 10-yard tall trees and immediately drop the ball down on to the green. I pitched high enough, but long, but no problem, there was plenty of landing area. I chipped back and two putted. Double bogey six.

“What do you say when you miss an easy putt?”

Karimian indicated a common; four letter English expletive.

“But in Farsi?”

“Same word.”

I had done my homework though.  An Iran expatriate friend in Geneva had taught me several colorful Farsi expressions.  I muttered one of them under my breath.

The course was in surprisingly good shape.  Sure, the tee boxes were often an uneven combination of heavy grass and bare earth, and the fairways were irregularly mowed and often overgrown, and okay, the greens were either rock hard or swamp-like from over-zealous hand watering, but it was a functioning golf course with plenty of challenges.

Karimian left us to give a lesson, and I continued with Bahram, a retired engineer whose son lives in California.  I was pleased to see that the threesome in front of us was made up of two men and a woman.

On the 13th hole (which doubles as the 4th) I hit a good drive, then pitched to the green, about two meters from the pin, and watched my ball disappear.  As I approached the green I saw the reason – smack in the middle of the green was a sprinkler head, set to a depth of about six inches, about as big as the medium-sized pizza I had eaten earlier that day at Boff Fast Food restaurant.  Bahram wasn’t sure about the ruling, but I gave myself a free drop on the green.

The last hole at Enghelab has a narrow fairway, dogleg left, heading towards the Elburz mountains, as burnt out and sere as the sexless cloaks that women are forced to wear in public.  I thought of Eisa Eshaghi’s philosophy.  Golf reduces stress. What if he’s right? I slowed my breathing and nailed the drive.  And then nailed an eight iron to the green, missing the sprinkler head. My putt was just short. No stress. Tap-in par.  Maybe Eshagi has something there.