Now Chavez takes a swing at golf

Rupert Cornwell
Thursday 13 August 2009 00:00 BST

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


He has already railed, to little effect, against the capitalist corruption behind the Yankee Devil USA, evil oil conglomerates, and the craven international media. Now President Hugo Chavez has turned his attention to a still more infuriating target, and one that will win the sympathies of millions of people around the world, whatever their views of Marxism: golf.

The Venezuelan leader is trying to shut down some of his country's best-known courses. It's hardly the worst example of the global bourgeois conspiracy, but he had to start somewhere. "Let's leave this clear," said on his live television programme on Sunday. "Golf is a bourgeois sport."

The two latest courses to be targeted are in Maracay, close to the capital Caracas, and the coastal resort of Caraballeda. If they are closed, no fewer than nine courses will have been shut down since the campaign began in 2006, Julio Torres, head of the Venezuela Golf Federation, told The New York Times this week. Most of them, it so happens, are in oil-producing regions, and therefore linked with an industry once demonised by Mr Chavez for its links with the political opposition, and by extension with those "damned Yanquis".

On the face of it, this initiative from the most vocal self-proclaimed socialist revolutionary in Latin America makes perfect ideological sense. The courses occupy pricey land that could be used for housing. For Mr Chavez, they are as good a symbol as any of the social divisions in Venezuela – manicured fairways and greens used by the affluent few, juxtaposed with the slums and overcrowding that are the lot of the impoverished majority.

Health advocates might also argue he has a point when he denounces the use of golf carts as a sign of laziness. "I respect all sports," Mr Chavez insisted on his TV show. But "do you mean to tell me this is a people's sport? It is not."

In fact, in Scotland where golf started, it is. But as far as Mr Chavez is concerned, it is the favoured pursuit of those irredeemable champions of the bourgeois elite, the men who have occupied the White House.

Every recent US president has played the game. John F Kennedy is said to have owned the most graceful swing. Bill Clinton loved to give himself mulligans, or do-over shots, while the elder Bush played at madcap speed, in what became known as "goofy golf". President Obama has kept up the tradition, though his handicap is reported to be a distinctly modest 16 to 24.

Mr Chavez's ire for the carts in particular may well be the result of George W Bush's "Golf Cart One", which the last president used at Camp David, and in which many foreign dignitaries – were obliged to endure rides.

Mr Chavez presumably does not play golf. But his campaign bucks a longstanding trend in the world's dwindling bastions of socialism. This correspondent, for instance, was in Moscow in October 1989 when Sean Connery took part in the inauguration of the then Soviet Union's first golf course in the Lenin Hills, as President Mikhail Gorbachev attempted to give his country a more West-friendly image.

Cuba may be Venezuela's closest ally in the hemisphere. But it may build up to 10 new courses to attract US tourists. China, likewise, boasts over 300 courses. But the prize surely goes to North Korea. If the local media are to be believed, the hermit state has the greatest golfer in history: Kim Jong Il. The first time the Great Leader played a round in 1994, he is said to have got five hole-in-ones, covering the 18-hole course in 34 strokes, 38 under par. Maybe he should take those skills to Venezuela.

And he's not the first...

There's little to unite Hugo Chavez, Richard Nixon, Woodrow Wilson, and Winston Churchill. But on golf they are as one.

"A game in which one endeavours to control a ball with implements ill-adapted for the purpose," Wilson said. By the end of a game, Nixon fumed "You've blown seven hours. There are better things you can do with your time." Even Churchill, that arch-Conservative, would have nodded his assent at Chavez's fury. He thought the sport "like chasing a quinine pill around a cow pasture."

Nor is disdain for the game limited to the political class. "Typical capitalist lunacy," George Bernard Shaw said. But few can rival Robin Williams' contempt: "Golf," he groused, "is a game where white men can dress up as black pimps and get away with it."

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