On the road…again!
Afghanistan to Zambia
Chronicles of a Footloose Forester
By Dick Pellek
Golfing Where and When You Can
Living and working overseas does not mean that you have to give up the pleasures that you enjoyed back home. Playing golf was a pleasure that was not available everywhere, but the Footloose Forester always tried to make the most of the prospects. He was able to play golf in more than a dozen countries. Sometimes it was part of a planned vacation, or even during an intense working week-end. Many potential golf partners did not want to keep pace with his idea of a round or two of golf, so for most of his life he went to play alone. The lone wolf, at work and at play.
This memoir is not about celebrating an achievement in golf, or even about sports, per se. In some ways, it is an examination of conscience about how he happened to play golf when other people thought that he should be working. People judge you, even if they say that they are not judgmental. He seldom tried to defend himself, because most of the time those who judge you don’t accept your explanations. The Footloose Forester always put work before pleasure, but not everybody believed that, either. In any case, he wanted to record some of the gadabout adventures on golf courses he visited and, perhaps, bare his soul about how he managed to squeeze golf into his workdays on the road.
Golf Course in Viet Nam - Post War Era
To start, he recalls including the prospects of playing in most of his travel plans. Packing for a trip usually meant thinking about putting his golf clubs at the ready. The few times that he rented clubs at his destinations were ventures in relative disappointment. It was like wearing somebody else’s soiled clothes.
He rented clubs at a hotel in Tanzania, only to find that they didn’t feel right. Same thing at a public course in Kampala, Uganda. They had clubs for rent, but they were real cheap-os and felt like you were swinging a steel rod. The first time he played golf behind the hotel in Gaborone, Botswana was with rented clubs, but he decided that when he came back to work on the same project, he would pack his own clubs. On his next trip, that is what he did.
Some of the silent criticism about having clubs, in the first place, showed in the raised eyebrows of his nearby project associates and a few colleagues who stayed behind. He never told them that he played after work, and in the hot sun. Too hot for other golfers, so he played alone. The most direct criticism about playing golf, however; is a stinging memory that has long been stored in his memory. At last, here is the story.
The Footloose Forester was part of a week-long conference on Soil Conservation in Tanzania and Kenya, that was held in both Tanzania and Kenya venues. Before he departed from his office in Nairobi, his superior told him to pack his clubs so that he could enjoy golf after hours. The boss knew that the rural resort in the Kenyan highlands had a small golf course. Gladly, Footloose Forester packed his personal clubs but started getting criticism from the moment he loaded them on the bus. However, he played every day he was at the Aberdare Country Club where the conference was held. He played alone, and during the long lunch “hour”! He never missed a scheduled meeting and was never late when they began. To play golf at lunchtime, however; meant that he gave up lunch every day. One day, however; a British colleague asked him to help with an assigned conference task, so he skipped his golf and joined the Brit for lunch. The moderator of our Workshop Group, an opinioned woman, could not wait to look the Footloose Forester in the face and announce, “So, today you are acting professional.” This little story ends there. He did not try to defend himself, but merely made a mental note to be on guard when dealing with such uninformed people.
The Footloose Forester carried his personal clubs on other trips in Africa. At times he was permitted to drive his personal auto across borders, so putting the clubs into the car was a routine. At other times, he either borrowed the clubs of other golfers, or rented them. Rich Bayless, a colleague in Rwanda, was a golfer who understood how it was among travelers, so we played at his course in Kigali before the days of tribal genocide in the early 1990s. On another occasion he remembers hearing criticism regarding a golfing colleague who arrived for a job in Namibia, but with his golf clubs in tow. Same type of uninformed comments, but without considering that maybe the man was planning to play on his days off. Footloose played in Namibia, as well, but cannot recall anything about the course. He does, however, remember playing in South Africa, and in a former tribal sovereignty called Bophuthatswana. But those episodes were during vacations, so the eye-rolling looks of disapproval were not part of the circumstances.
There is a placard on display in some golf course pro shops that describes why golf is happiness. Can’t remember how it goes, but it stuck in the mind of the Footloose Forester who first saw it at the Rutgers University course in New Brunswick, New Jersey. In retrospect, it was easy to rationalize the prospects of playing golf while on business trips. It is possible to have your cake and eat it, too. Anybody who doubts that perhaps has not deliberated enough about making use on one’s free time.
Golf overseas was partly adventure. There were baboons and impalas on the course in the Abadaires hill country of Kenya; and zebras and a couple of elands on his home course (Sigona) outside of Nairobi. One day, some of the local people trapped one of the elands and slaughtered him on the spot, in back of a short par-3 and near the fence that was supposed to keep wild animals out. He also remembers a couple of places where local rules allow you a free drop if your ball is moved by monkeys. The small book entitled, “Rhinos in the Rough” suggests the idea that courses in Africa are different; and playing golf is not just about tee to green.
Footloose Forester enjoyed playing golf in England, Wales and on Malta during a vacation that was supposed to be devoted to learning to be a paraglider pilot. Golf was the back-up plan, and since he snapped some cartilage in his right leg while paragliding, that part of the plan was scrapped; so golf became Plan B. Malta came first; however, so he walked the course without the limp that would come after paragliding in Wales. Mostly, he sought to play as many different courses in Kenya and elsewhere that he could. There were plenty, and even when some of them were deemed “country clubs” or were private courses, a person usually was allowed to play if you asked, or went as a guest.
He was denied playing privileges, however; at a short course with tiny greens in Singapore. On the other hand, he did ask and was accepted as a guest at a private course in England. “You don’t get if you don’t ask,” and it never hurt to ask. At the courses linked with hotels, for the most part, hotel guests were permitted to play. No wonder Footloose Forester was able to play after work in Namibia, in Tanzania, in Uganda, in Botswana and a few other places that he can’t remember. Nonetheless, he usually played alone because other companions or other hotel guests seldom showed the same enthusiasm.
The fondest memories of golf overseas are perhaps from Africa. East Africa has quite a few decent courses, and the countries in the southern part of the continent have some very good ones.
In West Africa, he played in Cape Verde, where there were shockingly bad playing conditions on the old course in the city of Praia. As a nominal public course within the city limits, local people used it as a toilet. One of the local rules (unwritten) was that if your ball landed in, on, or too near a pile of human excrement, you could replace or move your ball without penalty. One of his more-or-less regular playing partners, who later became Cape Verde Representative to the World Bank, first told him of that rule. Landing near a smelly pile was a daily event, for there were hundreds of them around. Local houses generally did not have bathrooms, so such events were expected.
A year or so after playing on the city course, the serious golfers—who also had influence in high places, laid out a new course outside of town. The new course was on an arid plateau where virtually nobody lived. It was so arid that the course did not have a single blade of grass. Fairways were open, earthy and sometimes rocky lanes bordered by re-forestation trees planted by the Food and Agriculture Organization. “Greens” were circular areas where the stones were removed and constructed with packed sand that was treated with oil to keep the sand from blowing away. Once in a while a high approach shot stuck in the pitch mark, but most times it rolled a few feet. An unwritten local rule was a three-putt maximum; firstly because the greens were so small that one never had to muscle the putt. The second reason was because holing a putt did not present the same standards of possibility that one expects on other golf courses. Time blurs the details about the limitations, but everybody followed the same rule.
Time also dims the memories about other places where Footloose Forester enjoyed golf. He played wherever and whenever he could. When he was in the Army he was given a two-day pass to compete in a golf tournament near his duty station in Germany. He wasn’t very good, but his lousy score embarrassed a Bird Colonel who was his playing partner for two days. The Colonel came in dead last, even not counting the six stokes he shaved off his score on the first day. Footloose also remembers playing alone on a picturesque course in the Bavarian Alps, during an administrative leave. The US Army had captured the resort area near Garmisch-Partenkirchen during World War II and never gave it back. Truth stranger than fiction?
Finally, he remembers the Golf Club de Saigon where he played as a member during the Viet Nam War. The course was directly across the street from his office at Tan Son Nhut Airport, so he was able to play nine holes during his lunch hour. Lunch time was actually 2 ½ hours long, in keeping with local custom, so he was able to play nine holes without missing any work time. Of course, he also played there on week-ends but there was usually a long wait involved because most people played only on week-ends.
There are too many stories and too many memories about the Golf Club de Saigon, so this present memoir will have to be revised and updated in the future. One of the juicier stories might be about aiming over a line of 14 Claymore mines hanging from a barbed-wire protective enclosure that encircled a sandbagged bunker. In deference to the golfers, the bunkers manned by Vietnamese soldiers armed with machine guns, grenade launchers and other military trappings, were positioned adjacent to the fairways. Only a bad shot put your ball inside their defensive perimeter, and then you might have to pay to get the ball back. Oh yes, the Golf Club de Saigon was an assault route directly to the Headquarters of General William Westmoreland at his MAC-V (Military Assistance Command, Viet Nam) compound nearby. During the second VC offensive in 1968, the sand bunkers became protective cover for the VC. Then, after the offensive was over, most of the sand was used to fill sand bags for the protective enclosures. We golfers henceforth got a free drop out of the (machine gun) bunkers. On one occasion the Footloose Forester felt a wee bit safer. He got paired with an Army Captain who had his weapon with him as he played. The Captain tucked his carbine down the side of his golf bag, just like it was a golfer’s umbrella.