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BENNER: Daly's victory great, but Cuban adventure was better

August 13, 2011

Twenty years ago this past week, a hillbilly long shot from Arkansas who got into the field at the last moment as the ninth alternate pulled off one of the greatest upsets in golf history by winning the PGA Championship at Crooked Stick Golf Club.

I wasn’t there to cover John Daly’s victory for the ages for the local daily. But I never regretted it, because I was having my own larger-than-life experience that also included a little writing about golf.

In fact, the day of the PGA’s opening round at the Stick, I was at a golf course … in Havana, Cuba, writing a piece about the only golf club in Havana (and one of only two on the entire island) and its lone golf professional.

The course was a nine-holer. The pro was a seven-handicapper. His name was Jorge Duque, and he oversaw operations at the Diplo Club (I still have the hat), about 10 miles south of Havana.

I was there to cover the 1991 Pan American Games in general and, specifically, the USA men’s basketball team coached by Purdue University’s Gene Keady.

But since I, and about 100 other American sports journalists, had arrived three days in advance of the games’ opening ceremonies, it allowed a few of us the time to marry the focus on one of golf’s major championships—the PGA, back in Indiana—with an exploration of golf in Cuba.

We quickly learned there wasn’t much to explore. Just the Diplo Club, so named because it was played almost exclusively by foreign diplomats who staffed embassies in Havana. The course had been built years before by Brits.

Duque was delighted to welcome the handful of us who had sought out his course. Greens fees were $30 (in Cuba, American dollars were very much the preferred currency) and club rental was $10. Nearby were some tennis courts, a two-lane bowling alley and a swimming pool.

When Duque learned I was from Indianapolis, where the PGA was being played in nearby Carmel, his eyes lit up. Mostly, he wanted to talk about his golfing hero, Jack Nicklaus, for he had learned much of the game from reading Nicklaus’ book, “Golf My Way.”

Duque, who was in his late 20s, explained there had once been as many as four golf courses in Havana. But after the Fidel Castro-led revolution in 1959, the others were either plowed under or allowed to deteriorate, as golf was viewed as an elitists’ game, and that didn’t square with Castro’s socialism.

Cuba’s only other course was at a resort called Varadero, about 100 miles east of Havana, because even Castro had conceded that foreign tourist dollars could contribute significantly to the Cuban economy.

I did not play the Diplo Club, but walked a few of the hilly, palm-tree-lined fairways. The grass, both in the fairways and on the greens, was long. Duque noted that resources—especially mowers—had to be used judiciously because replacement parts and gas were scarce.

Duque followed golf through American golf magazines (though they would be several months old before they got to him) and occasionally on pirated American television.

In the intervening years, I often have described the nearly three weeks I spent in Cuba as one of the best yet saddest times of my life. I met warm, wonderful people who, though most were incredibly poor, were enchanting. Havana, while in decay, still was a beautiful city.

But the poverty and despair were overwhelming. I met incredibly bright people who were trapped by the circumstance of a socialist state and lived ever fearful of the government. Many spoke, quietly, of their determination and desperation to leave for the United States, even if it meant drifting on a raft across shark-infested waters.

To this day, I wonder how many tried. And I wonder how many made it.

Anyway, this past week as we recalled John Daly and his Crooked Stick miracle, my mind drifted back to Jorge Duque. A Google search reveals that he is still the pro at the Diplo Club, though it is now the Havana Golf Club.

After Crooked Stick, Daly won the 1995 British Open and a handful of tournaments in a career also marked by mighty struggles with gambling, alcohol and relationships.

Joined together, and so far apart, these two men.•

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Benner is senior associate commissioner for external affairs for the Horizon League college athletic conference. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at bbenner@ibj.com. He also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.

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