HAVANA HFB — HAVANA -- The only club golf professional in Cuba has a 7 handicap and wears black sneakers, faded blue jeans and a blue-and-white sport shirt on the job.
He wedges himself behind a desk in his office that doubles as the pro shop at the Diplo Club. He can sell you a set of Dunlop clubs for $475, a dozen balls for $32, a hat for $1.50. He can sign you up for greens fees: 18 holes for $30, rental equipment for $10, the caddie's tip for an additional $10. He has all day to sit and chat because business is slow, very slow.
"We have no tee times," said Jorge Duque. "You just come and you start to play. I think there is no other place like that in the world."
Duque, a slender 28-year-old with thick brown hair and soft brown eyes, presides over an oasis of green that lies near Jose Marti Airport just outside downtown Havana.
"In the morning, all you can hear is the sound of the birds," he said. "You can see it is a special place. All the people try to maintain it. When you love something, you do your best. Here, it is beautiful. No?"
Yes, it is very beautiful at the Diplo Club, a private retreat built in the 1950s by a handful of English residents for the colony of foreigners and winter snowbirds. Now, only diplomats and tourists venture beyond the factories and ramshackle housing of the main road and pass beneath the arch and two giant palms at the front gate. Here, they enter a privileged world at odds with the poverty of Havana. There are two tennis courts, a playroom with two bowling lanes, a snooker table, two billiard tables, a video game and a swimming pool that is rarely used.
The course is a tiny emerald, nine holes with fairways lined by pines and palms and a creek that cuts from one end of the property to the other. Two sets of tees are used to double the par-70 layout to 5,932 yards.
"We once had four golf courses in Havana, but after the Revolution, no one used them," Duque said. "I don't think it was quite popular. Now, we have two courses, this one, and one in Varadero. I think this one is the best."
Before he began training as a golf pro in 1983, Duque didn't know the Diplo Club existed. He was one of four students selected from the sports school in Havana to work with the Diplo Club's aging pro, Jose Fernandez.
"I was studying recreation, water sports," he said. "The first time I played I shot a 59. I loved it. I got the real sense of the game. It's a real combination of small things that become one big thing, your swing. You can become a king or the lowest guy in the world."
After two years of study, reading training manuals by Tommy Armour, Jack Nicklaus and Bob Charles, learning about the game's Scottish roots from an encyclopedia, and working daily with Fernandez, Duque was chosen to be the assistant pro. He was named head pro in 1988 after Fernandez retired.
There really isn't much to the job. He commutes six days a week, 45 minutes by bus from his home in Artemisa, and oversees a staff of 55.
"I think maybe 30 of us play here," he said. "I think we are the only Cuban golfers. A lot of them have handicaps of 24. Some of the old caddies can shoot 80. But I guess I am the best. It should be that way, right?"
Duque keeps abreast of the U.S. pro tour by receiving magazines and videotapes from some of the 300 club members. A February 1990 Golf World and May 1991 Golf Digest are scattered on his desk. He excitedly recalls watching Jack Nicklaus defeat Chi Chi Rodriguez in the recent U.S. Senior Open, one week after the playoff was televised in America.
He played a regulation 18-hole course once on a trip to Mexico in 1988. Asked where he would like to go in America, Duque said: the Masters at Augusta (Ga.) National.
"All over the world people are trying to make golf popular," he said. "But I don't think it is. It is a very expensive game. You have to have time to play golf. In the United States, though, there are a lot of golf courses. The ones I've seen on TV and in magazines are beautiful. I would like to visit America. Why not? Every sports player would like to be in the big place and play."
The only club golf professional in Cuba smiles and waits.