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Sunday View: Zim politics in the rough but not its golfing

Golf has been played in this landlocked country in Southern Africa for more than 100 years, since the arrival of European settlers in the 19th century.
The first golf course was constructed in the provincial town of Bulawayo in 1895, just two years after the city was founded by the British. In short order, golf courses followed colonial settlements across the length and breadth of the land.

Today, there are more than 50 golf courses in Zimbabwe, from Mutare near the Mozambican border, to Harare the capital, to Victoria Falls in the far west near the borders with Zambia and Botswana.

During the economic meltdown of the late 1990s, when hyperinflation eroded the value of the local currency, and with the political violence accompanying elections in 2007 and 2008, there was a slight decline in the ancient game. Some golf courses fell victim to the land seizures that began in the mid-1990s.

International golfers, including those from neighbouring African countries, avoided Zimbabwe’s courses for several years. World-famous Zimbabwean golfer Nick Price, for instance, has reportedly said he would not return to his native country until Robert Mugabe, the country’s leader since independence in 1980, is no longer around.

Zimbabwe’s political situation remains chaotic and uncertain, despite the establishment of a coalition government that included the ruling Zanu-PF party and the two opposition parties: MDC-T, led by Morgan Tsvangirai, and MDC-M.

But with the stabilisation of the economy through dollarisation — or establishment of a multi-currency economy and abolishment of the Zimbabwean currency in 2009 — golf has come back with a vengeance.

Not, mind you, that it ever went away. Some of Zimbabwe’s golf courses, like Royal Harare Golf Club, located near the centre of the city and adjacent to State House (Mugabe’s official residence and office), did not suffer during hyperinflation because of access to funds in offshore accounts, and the fact that their proximity to Mugabe’s seat of power ensured continual power and water supply.

Golf in Zimbabwe is a unique experience. With its varied and exotic landscape, the views adjacent to, and sometimes incorporated into, golf courses are unlike those in any other place in the world. Unusual rock formations, such as those found at the Ruwa Country Club in Ruwa, can become part of the hazards a golfer has to negotiate.

In addition to the scenery, animal and bird species in Zimbabwe can also become part of the game. At Leopard Rock Golf Course, in Mutare on the Mozambican border, it is not unusual to find a pack of baboons sitting in the grass just off the green, watching you try to sink that 30-foot putt.

At Elephant Hills in Victoria Falls, along with warthogs grazing near the green, golfers often have to halt play while elephants cross the fairway, and if a ball is hit into a water hazard, it is prudent to forgo attempts at retrieval, lest you disturb a sleeping crocodile. The same holds true of the high grass of the rough; cobras are a common hazard, making balls in deep rough a case of “take the penalty and forget about that ball.”

There’s still a lot of 19th-century English customs associated with golf in Zimbabwe, from the ninth-hole tea break that is obligatory to a strict dress code on most courses.

If you’re a traveling golfer, looking for an unforgettable experience, forget about the politics and pack those clubs. Make Zimbabwe your next stop.
l Ray is the US ambassador to Zimbabwe.

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