Cuba's Revolution Slices, Allowing Golf for Tourists

Greens Fee: $60

As a caddy at the Varadero Golf Club, Rigoberto Montero earns a monthy salary of about $8, near average for Cuban workers. But on top of that he makes between $5 and $15 in tips for 18 holes.

"Sure, this is a little different," says Mr. Montero, who learned to manage textile factories in East Germany and at one point gave tours of the Comandancia de la Plata, the Cuban revolution's headquarters in the Sierra Maestra.

Montero works at this Marxist state's most recent bow to bourgeois capitalism: a $5 million seaside golf course. "We're not used to these things. But this is an advance for the revolution. It took a lot to build this," Montero adds.

The Varadero Golf Club, which opened in April, is the first 18-hole golf course to be built in Cuba since the revolution triumphed in 1959. At least six additional golf courses are being planned throughout the island, says Roberto Garcia, Varadero's course director.

"This was a logical extension of the tourist industry in Cuba," he says. "Tourists on vacation want amenities. That's what we're providing."

Yet beyond the aquamarine borders of this narrow, 14-mile-long peninsula, freshly painted government-issued billboards continue to declare "Socialism or Death" and, "We have and we will always have Socialism."

The par-72 course is flanked by the Florida Straits and a stream of Soviet Lada cars and hobbling 1950s Chevys and Fords. It was enlarged from a nine-hole golf course on the expropriated estate of Irene Dupont Nemours. The chemical tycoon's renovated mansion now serves as the golf clubhouse, featuring a pro shop and French restaurant.

The Golf Club was designed by Golf Design Service of Toronto and is managed by Turquoise Overseas, a company based in the British Virgin Islands. It was built, however, solely with Cuban money, Mr. Garcia says.

Cuba earned more than $1 billion last year in tourist revenue, the government reports. At least 1.2 million tourists, mostly from Europe and Canada, visited in 1997, many flocking to Varadero's well-known beaches.

The course's manicured greens now weave between a network of saltwater lakes, 84 sand traps, and three Spanish-built hotels. And golfers bothered by dress codes, sand rakes, or slow parties ahead need not worry.

Players can march from driving to putting in anything from cut-off jeans to tank-top shirts. But golfers should avoid wearing sandals, as prickly plants speckle the ungroomed sand traps. And the long, skinny course still sports fewer than a score of golfers on any given day, Garcia says.

Those walking the greens in early June, when the tropical sun makes about anything more desirable than several hours on unshaded grounds, were practicing caddies and instructors. Course officials have directed the staff to improve their game before the winter season, says Montero, who took a crash course in the sport and can now casually instruct tourists on everything from a V grip to the proper swing plane.

Cubans, often banned from entering hotels or nightclubs designated for tourists, are allowed to play on the course - if they have the money, Montero says.

An 18-hole game runs $60 per person, $10 to rent a bag of new Spaulding or Tracer clubs, and $10 for one of the course's 70 Yamaha golf carts. Caddies are included. For novices, there are six newly trained Cuban instructors.

That price was right for Godfrey Clifton, visiting from England. Teasing the fresh sod with three fellow Englishmen, he says it was a pleasure to play golf in one of the world's last remaining communist countries.

"Who would have thought Cuba would have a golf course?" Clifton says. "Such an elitist sport in such a poor country that rebelled against these sort of things. The world changes."

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