Include Duque in golf's return to Cuba
John JeansonneJohn Jeansonne
Jeansonne has been a reporter in Newsday’s sports department since
A New York Times report last week that the Cuban government has given preliminary approval to bring the bourgeois excess of golf back to Fidel Castro's "socialism or death" society conjures a long-ago meeting with that nation's only golf pro.
Jorge Duque, who would be 49 now, spoke in 1991 to a pair of American reporters about being, literally, one of a kind in a land of 10.5 million people. At the time, Cubans did not play golf. Only two courses existed on the island -- strictly reserved for foreigners, and only one employed a teaching pro -- Duque.
Banned after the 1959 revolution by Castro, who mocked the sport and U.S. president Dwight Eisenhower's devotion to it, golf virtually disappeared with Cuba's transformaton from a playground for rich American capitalists to Castro's Communist template. Pre-revolution, Duque said, there had been four plush golf courses in Havana alone, played by the likes of Sam Snead and Ben Hogan in the 1950s.
But, in 1991, Duque was like some invisible man, an underground operative, in a place when citizens weren't aware his job existed. He worked at the lesser of the two existing courses, the nine-hole course at the Diplo Club near the Havana airport, where he gave lessons - at $10 an hour - to visiting diplomats and foreign businessmen. The country's only other course was a pro-less new seaside resort, situated hours east of Havana at Varadero Beach, which had the feel of a Hilton Head plopped down in the poorest region of the Mississippi Delta.
Varadero, it turns out, was a glimpse -- 20 years ago, when the collapse of the Soviet Union meant the loss of Cuba's sugar daddy -- of Cuba's scramble for foreign investment and tourist dollars. In spite of official policies espousing pure socialism, there long has been a distinct separation of classes -- a fact obvious to American reporters who spent three weeks in Cuba during the 1991 Pan American Games -- and a growing economic crisis.
Now, foreign developers say Cuba's almost desperate need for cash has nudged the government to try luring free-spending tourists (besides Americans, who still are not permitted to spend money on the island under the cold-war-era trade embargo). Golf, via a plan for four luxury resort projects and eventually as many as 16, appears to be part of the answer. (Go for the green!)
So, with this golf revolution, who better qualified to lead than Jorge Duque, a sort of Che Guevara of the links?
In 1991, Duque was something of a golf astronaut, a man who described his original knowledge of the sport as "the moon" and who then was walking where literally no other Cuban in his generation had. He sat in his small office at the Diplo Club - with its serene pines, orange-flowered flamboyant and mango trees, swimming pool, restaurant, two bowling lanes, two tennis courts - to describe the lightning bolt of serendipity that had put him in that lush, serene setting amid a crumbling, ramshackle city.
Ten years earlier, he had been studying at the Havana sports school to be an instructor in water sports. "In Cuba," he said, "when you are born, if you are a boy, you are playing baseball or soccer or boxing. Those are in our blood. We never think of golf. It's not part of our life."
But Duque and three others were asked if they would like to be trained for the Diplo Club job, to replace the 85-year-old pro there at the time. Though he knew nothing of golf, Duque said, "when I was a kid, my father used to walk in the country with me. I liked to be with nature. This one thing, to walk a lot outdoors, made me fall in love with golf."
Within a year, he was made the Diplo pro, based on his quick understanding of the sport and grasp of English, and a knack for communicating with visitors. Friendly visiting diplomats brought Duque months-old Golf Digests and videotapes of U.S. television coverage of major tournaments, to hone both his teaching skills and his own game.
Playing on the Diplo Club's small, slow greens with their original 1953 Acapulco grass and wide fairways between three-inch rough, he lowered his handicap to seven, could drive a ball 270 yards, once scored a 18-hole best of 70. Inevitably the best golfer in Cuba - since he was the only one - he compared favorably with visiting players from the outside world.
Among all the visiting diplomats, he said, "none of them even make par. Maybe this will start a war. But some of them are very bad from Great Britain. Some from Japan are really bad. 85, 90. In the 100s. Whew!"
Surely Duque deserves at shot at all those potential duffers with deep pockets who apparently will be welcome in Cuba soon.