Afghan golf team makes Asian Games debut


GUANGZHOU, China – For Hashmatullah Sarwaree and Ali Ahmad Fazel, hazards aren’t a major concern on the golf course. After all, their club in Kabul was cleared of land mines after the fall of the Taliban regime.

That’s probably why scores that were more than 130 strokes behind the winners in the four-round Asian Games competition weren’t a major concern for the pair from Afghanistan, who finished third-to-last and last on the lush Dragon Lake Golf Course outside of Guangzhou on Saturday.

For 10 hours a day, pretty much every day, Sarwaree drives a taxi on the chaotic streets of Kabul.

That’s only his job, though. His heart belongs to golf.

“I just like golf,” he told The Associated Press. “I want to do it all the time.”

Golf in Afghanistan is a different brand than most people are used to. First off, the greens are made of sand and oil, which actually makes them brown but keeps them from blowing away. And there’s only one course in the whole country.

“It’s totally different here,” Sarwaree said after finishing his fourth round at Guangzhou in his country’s first try at golf in the Asian Games, a regional version of the Olympics that is held once every four years. “It’s so big, and there’s grass!”

Unaccustomed to teeing off on anything but sand or gravel, Sarwaree and Fazel finished at the bottom of the rankings – Sarwaree was 73rd out of 75 men at 116 over. Fazel was last, with a 179-over par total of 467.

The winner, South Korea’s Kim Meen-whee, finished with a 15-under par 273 total, and the silver medalist, Miguel Luis Tabuena of the Philippines, shot 6-under par.

Fazel, a student, was undaunted.

“I’m satisfied with what I did,” he said, smiling broadly. “I want to be a professional golfer someday. I just want to work hard.”

Despite the glaring lack of proper training facilities, golfing in the warzone that is Afghanistan is not as much of a hardship as one might think, said national coach Mohammad Juma Herwati.

He said the only course is at the Kabul Golf Club, a 9-hole facility built about 40 years ago by the Afghan government that is a 20-minute drive from the center of town. Because Kabul is relatively safe compared with some other parts of the war-torn country, the club is fairly active and usually open.

The golf course is something of a symbol of Afghanistan’s resilience.

It was cleared of land mines several years after the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001, and has been in business since.

“I play every Friday,” Herwati said. “I’ve been playing for years.”

Herwati, who learned the game in Iran and has a 4.5 handicap, said that the number of Afghan golfers is steadily growing, although he acknowledged that the people who have the time, money or interest in a nation that has a lot of other things on its mind remains tiny in the overall scheme of things.

Still, he said, Afghanistan loves sports.

“People are very enthusiastic about this game,” he said. “We have actually started down the right path. We are doing our best.”

Afghanistan has 67 athletes competing in 13 sports at the Asian Games, and has won one silver and one bronze, both in the martial art of taekwondo. Its basketball team was knocked out in the preliminary rounds earlier this week. The men’s cricket team is in with a chance of a minor medal.

Herwati said that he tries not to think too much about the lack of funds and support that his team has compared with Asian sports powerhouses like China or South Korea. Instead, he says he wants to focus on what can be done on a day-to-day basis to improve the lot of Afghan golfers.

Progress is being made.

Sarwaree, for example, said he gets a $200 a month stipend from the government for golfing. That is roughly equal to the amount he makes driving his taxi.

“We want to do something constructive,” Herwati said. “We all have to work hard. We started from zero and have moved ahead.”