Opinion: Zimbabwe's Politics Are in the Rough, but Not Its Golf

If you flew from Johannesburg, South Africa, to Harare or Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe, took a limo to your hotel, played a round or two at the local golf course and then left, you'd be forgiven for thinking that the country is not only normal but actually a nice place for a golfing vacation.\r\n

Golf has been played in this landlocked country in southern Africa for more than 100 years, since the arrival of European settlers in the 19th century. The first golf course was constructed in the provincial town of Bulawayo in 1895, just two years after the city was founded by the British. In short order, golf courses followed colonial settlements across the length and breadth of the land.

Today, there are more than 50 golf courses in Zimbabwe, from Mutare near the Mozambican border, to Harare the capital, to Victoria Falls in the far west near the borders with Zambia and Botswana.

Just one of the amazing views at Leopard Rock GC in Mutare, Zimbabwe, near the Mozambican border.

Courtesy of Charles A. Ray
The Leopard Rock golf course in Mutare, Zimbabwe, sometimes attracts baboons, which sit in the grass just off the green.

During the economic meltdown of the late 1990s, when hyperinflation eroded the value of the local currency, and with the political violence accompanying elections in 2007 and 2008, there was a slight decline in the ancient game. Some golf courses fell victim to the land seizures that began in the mid-1990s.

A warthog grazes just off the fairway at Elephant Hills GC in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe

Courtesy of Charles A. Ray
A warthog grazes just off the fairway at the Elephant Hills golf course in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe.
International golfers, including those from neighboring African countries, avoided Zimbabwe’s courses for several years. World-famous Zimbabwean golfer Nick Price, for instance, has reportedly said he will not return to his native country until Robert Mugabe, the country’s leader since independence in 1980, is no longer around.

Zimbabwe’s political situation remains chaotic and uncertain, despite the establishment of a coalition government that included the ruling ZANU-PF party and the two opposition parties: MDC-T, led by Morgan Tsvangirai, and MDC-M, led by Arthur Mutambara.

But with stabilization of the economy through dollarization — or establishment of a multi-currency economy and abolishment of the Zimbabwean currency in 2009 — golf has come back with a vengeance.

Not, mind you, that it ever went away. Some of Zimbabwe’s golf courses, like Royal Harare Golf Club, located near the center of the city and adjacent to State House (Mugabe’s official residence and office), did not suffer during hyperinflation because of access to funds in offshore accounts, and the fact that their proximity to Mugabe’s seat of power ensured continual power and water supply.

Golf in Zimbabwe is a unique experience. With its varied and exotic landscape, the views adjacent to, and sometimes incorporated into, golf courses are unlike those in any other place in the world. Unusual rock formations, such as those found at the Ruwa Country Club in Ruwa, a small town about 30 minutes from downtown Harare, can become part of the hazards a golfer has to negotiate.

In addition to the scenery, animal and bird species in Zimbabwe can also become part of the game. At Leopard Rock Golf Course, in Mutare on the Mozambican border, it is not unusual to find a pack of baboons sitting in the grass just off the green, watching you try to sink that 30-foot putt.

Sponsored Links At Elephant Hills in Victoria Falls, along with warthogs grazing near the green, golfers often have to halt play while elephants cross the fairway, and if a ball is hit into a water hazard, it is prudent to forgo attempts at retrieval, less you disturb a sleeping crocodile. The same holds true of the high grass of the rough; cobras are a common hazard, making balls in deep rough a case of "take the penalty and forget about that ball."

There’s still a lot of 19th-century English customs associated with golf in Zimbabwe, from the ninth-hole tea break that is obligatory to a strict dress code on most courses.

If you’re a traveling golfer, looking for an unforgettable experience, forget about the politics and pack those clubs. Make Zimbabwe your next stop.

Charles A. Ray, the U.S. ambassador to the Republic of Zimbabwe, is the author of "Taking Charge: Effective Leadership for the Twenty-First Century," as well as numerous articles on history, culture and leadership. Read his blog on Red Room.