There is a 1954 television episode of “I Love Lucy” in which Lucy buys Ricky a set of golf clubs for their anniversary, then regrets it when he and pal Fred Mertz become obsessed with the game.
Until the fawning coverage of New York Mets’ outfielder Yoenis Cespedes’ recent tour of the Palm City, Fla., links during another relentlessly uneventful baseball spring training, that “Lucy” show may have been the last widely disseminated account of a prominent Cuban playing golf.
It is showing one’s age to know that the TV role of Ricky Ricardo, a Cuban singer/bandleader, was played by real Cuban-born singer/bandleader Dezi Arnaz. (Ask you grandmother.) But when it comes to the old club-and-ball sport on that Caribbean island, time has pretty much stood still between the addictions of Ricky and Cespedes.
That’s because golf was banned in Cuba after the 1959 revolution led by Fidel Castro, who mocked the game and U.S. president Dwight Eisenhower’s devotion to it. Castro’s transformation of the island from a playground for rich American capitalists to his Communist template—“Socialism or Death”—included the demise of all but one of the nation’s courses.
A rare photograph unearthed at a 2014 London auction, interpreted as ridiculing Yanqui extravagance, showed Castro and fellow Marxist rebel Che Guevara playing golf in military fatigues and combat boots shortly after the revolution. Sort of a farewell to irons in Cuba.
Layouts, where golfing greats Sam Snead and Ben Hogan once played, disappeared. Only a small nine-hole course near the Havana airport, built by the British in 1953, was preserved to entertain diplomats and foreign businessmen. Not until the Spaniards constructed a plush resort in the early 1990s on Varadero Beach, two hours from Havana, was a second Cuban course carved out. Also for foreigner duffers only.
So, while sport was declared by the Castro government to be “the right of the people” in Cuba, that didn’t include golf. To a young Yoenis Cespedes, the odds were approximately zero that he would have known the first thing about the game, since he was born in 1985 and raised in Campechuela on Cuba’s opposite coast from those two off-limits-to-Cubans courses.
In 1991, when I was in Cuba to cover the Pan American Games, I interviewed a fellow named Jorge Duque who, at the time, was the country’s only golf pro. His job was to offer lessons to visiting diplomats at the Havana course, then called the Diplo Club. “In Cuba, when you are born, if you are a boy,” Duque said then, “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.” Before training for the Diplo assignment, Duque knew only that golf “is that game you play with the bag, and you hit the ball. And that’s all. It’s like the moon. It’s like this”—he formed a circle with his hands—“and it has little holes and it’s up there.”
Baseball, of course, has been so widely played so well for so long in Cuba that the national team has been winning world, regional and Olympic championships since the 1930s. Fidel Castro himself, pre revolution, was briefly considered a pitching prospect by the old New York Giants. And even the end of U.S.-Cuba relations barely slowed the steady flow of Cuban baseball talent to the States. Since 1959, more than 90 Cubans have defected to play in the Majors. Cespedes is one of 10 to become All-Stars, and one of 27 Cubans on current big-league rosters.
But it wasn’t until shortly after Cespedes escaped the island in 2011 that Cuban officials announced preliminary approval to bring back the bourgeois excess of golf. Foreign developers concluded that Cuba’s almost desperate need for cash had nudged the government to turn to golf resorts in an attempt to lure free-spending tourists (besides Americans, still under the cold-war-era trade embargo, though President Obama has asked Congress to end it). There is a plan for four luxury resort projects and eventually as many as 16.
Things are changing. Next week Obama will become the first U.S. president since 1928 to visit Cuba, and the agenda of incremental improvement in the two nations’ dealings will include Obama’s presence at a baseball exhibition between the Tampa Bay Rays and Cuban national team.
Whether the opportunity to play golf (one of Obama’s enthusiasms, it happens) should be conflated with freedom and democracy is debatable. But, in the meantime, there may be no more obvious example of a conspicuous consumption capitalist than the fabulously paid ($75 million for three years) Cespedes, who paraded $1 million worth of personal vehicles into Mets camp and escorted a group of reporters to witness his U.S.-discovered upscale passion for golf. And that is in stark contrast to his homeland, which continues to look like something from a black-and-white “I Love Lucy” set.