An Open Invitation to Tee it Up in Cuba

All you dashing, devil-may-care, don’t-stamp-my-passport-if-you-please travelers out there, how about a trip to Cuba this season?

I have just received notice that the Second Annual Montecristo Cup and Esencia Cup will be held April 22 – 24 at Varadero Golf Club, the island’s only 18-hole golf course. The international competition, open to golfers worldwide, is sponsored by Montecristo, one of the most famous Cuban cigar brands. Both professional golfers as well as amateur players with a handicap of 26 or less are welcome. Prizes will be awarded to the winners by Spanish pro golfer Alvaro Quiros. The registration fee is 100 pounds (about $200 at current exchange rates) and covers three days of Cuban Pro-Am golf. The competition is limited to 120 players.

Last year’s inaugural event, at which Ernie Els was the guest of honor, attracted players from the U.K., Canada, Spain, Russia, China and Korea, though the tournament was won by the Andorran ambassador to Spain, a notorious sandbagger (just kidding).

Located 80 miles east of downtown Havana, the golf club caters almost exclusively to the all-inclusive hotels located along a 3.5 km resort strip fronting Varadero Beach. The golf course, opened in 1998, was designed by Canadian Les Furber, a former Robert Trent Jones associate. The windswept 6,856-yard layout runs from the San Bernardino Hill, the highest point at Varadero, down to a coral peninsula trimmed by a lovely white-sand beach. Interior lakes and wind-twisted cactus frame the interior holes. In a tip of the hat to his mentor, Furber built broad fairways staked out by large cloverleaf bunkers.

Varadero’s most memorable hole is the par-five 18th, which parallels the sea and plays to an exposed, well-defended hilltop green. Not far from the final green is perhaps the grandest clubhouse in the Caribbean. This is the Xanadu Mansion, once part of the Pierre DuPont family estate. Yes, that DuPont. Built in 1930, the mansion has been extensively refurbished. Upstairs is the Casa Blanca Panoramic Bar featuring cocktails, live music and a superlative ocean view.  There cannot be a better place in the islands to savor a mojito (or a Cuba Libre) than here.

The perfect refesher: a mojito

When Raul Castro took over from his brother Fidel as president of Cuba four years ago, a stronger push for more golf courses was anticipated as a way to spur tourism. The Cuban economy, after all, has remained strapped for cash following the collapse of the Soviet Union, its main benefactor, in 1989. The Wall Street Journal recently quoted a Canadian developer as stating that more than a dozen golf projects are in the planning stages, but progress has been slow.

Currently, the Helms-Burton Act prohibits U.S. citizens from doing business with Cuba. American developers will be sidelined until the law is overturned. In the meantime, Canadian and European developers are actively lining up projects, but no course has opened since Varadero’s debut 12 years ago.

The potential, on the other hand, is huge. We’re talking about an island roughly three-fourths the size of Florida with 1,500 miles of coastline, its northern shore a mere 90 miles below Key West. There is pent-up demand in the U.S. to visit Cuba–the nation’s art, history, music and culture are significant drawing cards. Also, Cuba has Papa Hemingway’s stamp of approval. And lots of retooled American sedans from the ‘50s. After nearly five decades of travel restrictions, many in the U.S. tourism sector believe the embargo needs to lift.

Somewhat incredibly, there is a golf tradition in Cuba. Havana hosted several PGA Tour events in the 1950’s—Bob Toski and Billy Casper both won tournaments at the Country Club of Havanna, a Donald Ross design, before the revolution. Fidel Castro and Che Guevara were avid golfers before overthrowing the Batista government in 1959. (Perhaps you’ve seen the black-and-white poster of Fidel and Che on a putting green in their boots and fatigues under the watchful eye of armed guards, a match clearly in progress). Among Castro’s first initiatives after seizing power was to bulldoze nearly all the island’s golf courses to make way for public housing and military schools. Destroying the courses was Fidel’s way of eradicating a twin symbol of social exclusion and capitalist decadence.

The famous match between Fidel and Che

Cubans tend to be more serious than comedic, but there is a longstanding joke in Havana that goes something like this. The Cuban revolution produced three great successes: public health care, excellent education and world-class sports (especially baseball). There have also been three great failures: breakfast, lunch and dinner. Food shortages are still a serious issue for many peso-poor Cubans.

Yet while the people of Cuba have been tremendously disadvantaged by Castro’s policies over the years, Fidel did forbid commercial exploitation of the island. I remember paging through a story in National Geographic a few years ago featuring the underwater photography of David Doubilet, whose images are works of art. He story was dedicated to the coral reefs off the south coast of Cuba. I remember his comment that he had never seen more pristine reefs or bigger Nassau groupers anywhere else in the Caribbean. Castro had preserved these coral “gardens” as underwater national parks.

Here, then, is your mandate for the Cuban Stogie Open. End-run the regulations. With the help of a travel agency registered outside the U.S., book a flight to Mexico or the Bahamas and fly to Havana via Cancun or Nassau. Bring cash—U.S. dollars are welcome, credit cards issued by American banks are not. And see if you take down that Andorran ambassador at this year’s event.

Tournament registration:

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