On the coastal plain here where the 2004 tsunami arrived 30 feet tall, I recently saw knots of roving men pausing to hit golf shots. The scrubby area had been colonized by enough flowering weeds that it was impossible to see what the guys were aiming at, so I followed them and found their tiny, weed-whacked greens, complete with holes lined in plastic tarp and flags on coat-hanger wire.
Scattered on the ground were bits of concrete, tile floor, sea shells, an oven-sized ball of coral, an office shingle with two doctors' names on it. I pored over the detritus, still here these three years later. The players weren't interested. They handed me a few clubs, quality irons with graphite shafts, and asked me to join. They walked to their balls at a march. I asked them what they were doing at the moment the waves hit. They asked me what my handicap was. They swung in smooth, grooved arcs. They even anted up 50,000 Indonesian rupiah apiece (about $5) for each round's winner. "Please...," Jamil, a tall, quiet man, kept saying to me gently, pointing to my ball and encouraging me to step up and play. They were engrossed, playing for pocket money.
But I learned it was for much more than that. Once a full-length, nine-hole course sat here, with fine Manila grass greens and native pines lining the fairways. A clubhouse looked out over the sand dunes to the ocean. An enveloping wall kept the cows and goats out. These men were part of a staff of more than 200 caddies, teachers, and greenskeepers who catered to members and visitors – Aceh's wealthiest businessmen and government brass. Seulawah Padang Golf, named after volcanic peaks nearby, was the only course around. The workers want it back.
For that cause, a dozen of them daily stalk the makeshift pitch-and-putt they've hewn from the tsunami wasteland, hoping somebody with the means to rebuild will show up. They play to keep vigil for a former way of life not yet buried. "We want to show people there was a course here, because we live here, this is our land, and we still think there's something that can happen here," says Jumarlin, a former greenskeeper.
Three years have passed since the tsunami and the golfers, like their neighbors, have refashioned huge chunks of their lives. They've learned to let things go: their wives, their children, their friends, their old pictures of the course – all lost in the tsunami that claimed 169,000 Achenese. They accommodate the new – spouses and babies, odd jobs to stay flush, thousands of foreigners who've helped deliver fresh-built schools, boxy cement houses, mosques, and roads in the massive $8 billion recovery effort.
Seulawah Padang Golf remains in limbo. Its former importance in the district of Lhok Nga, 10 miles south of the capital of Banda Aceh, is no secret to the big players in Aceh's reconstruction. "It was a major source of livelihoods," says Simon Field, head of the UN Development Program (UNDP) in Aceh, which this summer found a way to pay the golf crew to clean up part of the former driving range.
But for the UNDP or any aid group to do more would mean selling the idea that a golf club is part of tsunami recovery. And it would mean winning the blessing of the provincial government, which owns the land but is preoccupied with steering the restless province as it emerges from 30 years of separatist struggle, as well as the tsunami aftermath.
Locals, meanwhile, steal the remaining turf for their lawns while kids speed their motorbikes on the fairways. "If somebody doesn't pick up the course soon, it's going to fade," says the UNDP's Nigel Landon. The course workers ask me, Would Tiger Woods be interested in investing?
As the tsunami swept through Seulawah in three waves on Dec. 26, 2004, it killed the course general manager, three staff, the club's captain, and four other golfers playing on a quiet, Sunday morning. It cut down the clubhouse at the foundation, and flattened the cement wall around the property's border.
Engulfing the villages behind the course, it killed around 2,600 people in Mon Ikuen, about two-thirds of the population, including Jumarlin's wife and their infant child. Jumarlin was at the bank in Banda Aceh. Jamil, an instructor at Seulawah who was still at home in the village, outran the water, first on a motorbike, then by fleeing on foot.
Today, the decimation is marked by mass graves – simple grass plots all around coastal Aceh. There is one at Seulawah's old second tee. On a clear morning this fall, Jumarlin and Jamil sit there drinking coffee, talking to me through an interpreter. The guys lay out the immediate surroundings of the old course. The raised mound of the former first green, still visible; the par-4 second, 394 yards from here to the hole. Some of the club's original pines, stripped of their lower limbs, stand tall in the distance.
"The place had the most beautiful view in Indonesia – people came here and said that," says Jamil. He first started caddying at 13 and paid his way through high school with his earnings. Later, when he became one of the 10 instructors at Seulawah, he made enough to support his six children.
At the course, they whiled away hours chasing a better swing, a lower score, golf's fleeting successes. In the mid-1990s, Jamil won two Aceh championships at Seulawah and earned a ticket from the club to go to Bandung, on Java, for a major tournament – a moment he still savors.
Jumarlin's reedy voice runs in a similar vein. "The place reminds me of my first wife," he says. "She supported me with money to develop my golf. If I wasn't at the course on my days off, she'd ask, 'Why aren't you out there?' "
The group returned to reclaim the land in the summer of 2006, steadily clearing debris, installing a few short holes, trying to bring order. Rustam Effendi, Seulawah's round, lively caddy captain, led the construction of a plywood shack to serve as the clubhouse. They dug a pit toilet.
In October of this year, they began asking the equivalent of 50 cents a day for greens fees. The guys willingly pay, the money trickling in from all sorts of places – one man is selling fish from the rejuvenated local fleet, another is cooking at a noodle shop, Jumarlin occasionally supplies construction materials to local rebuilding projects. Mr. Effendi turns some of the collected money over to the unemployed caddies, who slash weeds and pick up trash.
Every time I return something new is added – fresh white flags on the pins, painted tee markers, a chart announcing holes-in-one. A few members come back to play and take lessons from Jamil. "It's no good," he says of the living, which he's trying to stretch to support his wife and kids, all of whom survived the tsunami.
The other guys, working casually or not, return faithfully for the daily 4 p.m. money rounds. But I begin to wonder if, in placing their 50,000 rupiah bets, they are raising the stakes too high. What if the course doesn't work out? They worry, as well. "I stay awake at night thinking about this place, hoping somebody can help us," says Jajak, a 48-year-old caddy.
In most imaginations, somebody always does. Again and again, it's Tiger Woods. "Aaamerika!" Jumarlin likes to say, to accentuate the thought.
One afternoon, I play with Jumarlin, Jamil, and seven others into lengthening shadows, towards a newly cut fourth green. Behind the hole, 50 cattle take cover in the cool of a few pines. All of us find our balls under twigs or wildflowers, or, in my case, against half of a coconut shell.
Samsul Rizal, an aid agency security guard, is farthest from the hole and hunches down to play. That's when a small, wrinkled man comes riding through on a black bicycle, looking for livestock fodder. Mr. Rizal steps back from his ball and waves. Everyone pauses to watch the man strain on his pedals as he skirts the green. The sunlight streams between the tree trunks, the ocean washes lightly. I get a sense they are willing to wait here, as long as it takes.