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Teeing off in Kabul

Its greens are brown, soldiers guard the gate, and the clubhouse is a shack. But somehow, Kabul Golf Club survives. Raymond Whitaker plays a round amid the ruins.

Kabul golf "Good shot!" exclaims 17-year-old Ali Ahmad as I tee off in a cloud of dust at the first hole of the Kabul Golf Club. As he is officially one of the two best golfers in Afghanistan, I know he is being kind.

Last week, Ali and his fellow caddy, 15-year-old Ashmat, defeated all comers in the biannual tournament at Afghanistan's only golf club. Their knowledge of local conditions was clearly a help – the nine-hole course, to the west of the Afghan capital, has no grass, only prickly scrub that leaves barbs in the socks of unwary golfers.

"Fairway" shots are taken from a circle of plastic turf carried round by the caddies, and the "greens" are brown, because they are created from a mixture of oil and sand. Before you take a putt, a scrap of carpet is used to smooth your path to the hole. The expatriates taking part – diplomats, private security men and workers from the hundreds of aid organisations that rushed into Afghanistan after the defeat of the Taliban in 2001 – never stood a chance.

But the success of Ali and Ashmat in the tournament might also have had something to do with the fact that only seven players teed off this time, down from 36 in the club's spring competition. The journey out from Kabul helps to explain why.

Just beyond the capital's teacher training college, there is a billboard showing the mangled wreckage of a bus, along with the slogan: "These terrorists kill innocent people. If you have any information, tell the police." The billboard is near the spot where, in September, a suicide bomber in uniform boarded a bus full of soldiers and detonated his explosives, killing 30. Until this week's slaughter in the northern town of Baghlan, when more than 70 people died, it was one of the worst suicide bombings in the country's history.

That September attack had immediately led most international organisations and NGOs to ban their employees from taking the road to Qargha, but their movements had already been restricted in the wake of earlier bombings, kidnappings and a rise in crime. In recent months, Taliban activity has moved closer to Kabul, with the roads of neighbouring Wardak and Logar provinces reckoned to be unsafe at night after a spate of attacks.

Within the capital, Westerners are advised to avoid walking the streets, even in daylight, and not to wave down taxis. Many organisations are taking steps to lower their profile, removing boards from outside their premises, swapping logo-bedecked white 4x4s for more anonymous vehicles, and imposing curfews on their international workers. The latest ominous sign is graffiti calling for revenge on foreigners for the deaths of Afghan civilians in air strikes.

It is all a long way from the optimism of 2004, when Afghanistan had elected a new president and parliament, aid money was pouring in and the Taliban seemed to be defeated. That was the year that Mohammad Afzal Abdul, 49, a man with a most un-Afghan passion for the game of golf, returned to the club where he had first played 39 years before.

Since Afghanistan is one of the poorest countries in the world, Abdul's obsession is all the more strange. Unlike India or Pakistan, where British colonialism imparted a love of cricket, or much of the rest of the world, where English visitors find that Manchester United and David Beckham are just about the only things the local inhabitants know of their country, most Afghans have never had the opportunity to become acquainted with foreign sports.

Buzkashi, where horsemen struggle over a headless calf, and wrestling are popular activities, but watching sport on TV is a pastime for the privileged few.

"This course was made in King Zahir's time by British and American expatriates," Abdul said, sitting in the dilapidated clubhouse. " It had only six holes, but there was grass, and proper greens." Then, in his third year of school near by, he became fascinated by the unfamiliar sight of foreigners hitting white balls with oddly shaped sticks, and was taught to play by an American.

"I was so good that they gave me a bag of old clubs, and I won a tournament in Peshawar," Abdul said proudly. "The prize was just a trophy, but I decided I wanted to make my living out of golf." His dream came true when he worked his way up from caddying to become the director and professional of Kabul Golf Club, rubbing shoulders with ambassadors and members of the royal family.

It did not last long; in 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan to prop up its tottering Communist regime, and the course, a symbol of Western capitalism, was closed. Worse was to come for Afghanistan's only golf professional: the Russians jailed him for six months because of his association with foreigners, and his house was destroyed in the fighting between mujahedin forces and the foreign invaders. The resistance factions seized the capital in 1992, but the soon began fighting among themselves and the golf club remained disused.

Four years later, the Taliban came to Kabul. They threw Abdul in jail for two months, again because he was associated with infidels. And they ruined his beloved golf course. "They pitched their tents here and let their sheep eat all the grass," he said. "Everything was destroyed – the fairways, the greens."

Finally came September 11, followed by the American-led campaign to oust al-Qa'ida and its Taliban hosts. The fighting left Qargha littered with wrecked tanks and artillery. There were mortar craters on the course and bullet holes in the clubhouse. "We had about 100 old clubs here that people could use, but they were all gone," Abdul said. Although a forlorn banner still proclaims that this is also a "Snooker and Biliards [sic] Club", the table, balls and cues disappeared along with all the other equipment.

But Abdul never gave up hope. The people of Kabul have always come out this way when they seek an escape from the noise, dust and choking pollution of the capital. In more peaceful times, the road was full of day trippers heading past Qargha for the royal summer palace at Paghman and its famous gardens, but decades of war have destroyed both. Only a ceremonial arch remains, and the area has become the stronghold of Abu Sayyaf, one of the most extreme Sunni Muslim warlords in Afghanistan. It is enough to put off even the most determined picnicker.

Paghman's loss has been Qargha's gain. The late king built a dam here to irrigate the pine forests that covered the hills, and its waters also supplied the golf course, tucked into the valley below the dam wall. The lake dried up during the Taliban years, but the local landowner, Ezatullah Atif, a leader of Afghanistan's Arab community who became a mujahedin warlord, refilled the dam and restocked it with fish.

Brightly coloured swan-shaped pedalos now bob on the lake, whose shores are lined with food stalls and "Swiss standard" weekend chalets. The resort is only just out of sight of Kabul, but the air is sparkling and enough pines remain to give it an Alpine feel, making Qargha a popular refuge. A shiny new restaurant has opened at one end of the dam wall, and on Fridays, the Muslim sabbath, the area is thronged with visitors.

But Afghans do not play golf as a rule, even though Abdul says he has taught the game to about 70 boys and boasts that some of them could be "as good as Tiger Woods". Kabul Golf Club has always depended on expatriates, and in 2004, when Afghanistan seemed set to become a member in good standing of the world community, the course reopened.

An American United Nations official, John McNeill (now in Sudan), helped the club to get back on its feet, donating old clubs and balls. In the good days, which lasted until roughly the end of 2005, between 150 and 200 expatriates turned up every week to play, paying $20 a round. The income was welcome to Abdul, who has six children, and his staff of 11 caddies and assistants. He dug new irrigation channels across the fairways, anticipating the day when grass would again cloak the slopes.

That dream has turned, literally, to dust. Afghanistan's slide back into instability means that only a dozen or so more intrepid foreigners venture out here a week. The pipes to water the course have never been installed, and the unfilled trenches are just another hazard.

Abdul arrives every day at 7am to prepare the course, planting flags made of metal reinforcing bars and a scrap of red material in the holes. But most days he sits around with his assistants, watching golf videos on a TV set in a corner of the clubhouse, which consists of a single room with a couple of sofas.

A counter sells polo shirts and caps bearing the legend "Kabul Golf Club, Afghanistan". Expats are happy to pay over the odds for these souvenirs, which will be talking points back home – although, in keeping with the somewhat hazy English evident on every sign at the course, some of the shirts read "AFGHASTAN".

With everyone trying to scrape a living from the handful of paying players who turn up, the caddies have plenty of time to practise. "Some of my boys were invited to play in a tournament in Nepal, but we couldn't afford to get them passports, let alone pay for their travel," Abdul said.

My arrival with a companion brought the club to life. Ali and his fellow caddies all turned out to accompany us, because there are only seven golf balls left and the loss of even one would be a disaster – although at least there no water hazards to worry about.

Abdul demonstrated his technique off the first tee, but our ineptitude was soon clear to everyone. Whenever we hooked or sliced or topped our shots, the caddies would praise our efforts, but immediately produce another ball and invite us to try again.

As we Mulliganed our way round a couple of holes, Abdul insisted that he remained optimistic about the future of golf in Afghanistan. "Afghans can watch tournaments on satellite TV, and see how popular a game it is," he said. "Many people want to learn to play, but there is a shortage of equipment. My two sons are very good, and I hope that one day they can become professional players."

But he admits that the health of Kabul Golf Club "depends on the security situation, and at the moment it is not good. Many foreigners are not allowed to come here."

Afghanistan, in short, has much more important matters to be concerned about than the eccentric desire of a few expats, and one Afghan, to whack little white balls around a rocky hillside outside Kabul. It is hard to foresee the day when Ali will no longer have to call "Good shot!" no matter how terrible it really was, for fear that a paying customer might not return.