Teeing off on to the browns

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As I sipped a beer I noticed the handwritten signs on the walls of the bar saying “No Smoking Area”, a rare sight in a clubhouse. Was this club anticipating enforcement of the legal ban on smoking that parliament, against the wishes of your columnist, has imposed on private clubs in England? Well, actually it wasn’t because the bar concerned was in the Gymkhana Club in Dar es Salaam in Tanzania – not to be confused with the Royal Dar es Salaam in Rabat.

Aware there would be one gap in a recent business trip, I hinted to the British High Commission that a chance to play the only course in Tanzania, laid out by British officers before the second world war, would be welcomed. The head of the political section turned up trumps and even found me a set of clubs.

Given the damage done to the Tanzanian economy by the misguided “African socialism” of the charismatic former President Nyerere, it’s remarkable this course has survived. Tennis, squash, soccer and cricket were also being enjoyed during my visit. There wasn’t a club history on sale in the shop, or much else for that matter, so I couldn’t verify whether it started life as a gymkhana but I suspect it did.

As it’s close to the Danish Embassy, where Muslim protesters were expected, I was pleased to see security in the form of a manned entrance gate, which has to be elaborately opened by hand. Inside, the drive isn’t quite Magnolia Lane but the sun was warm and having left freezing London 24 hours earlier that alone raised the spirits.

The opening task was to select a caddy by taking a numbered tag from a hut near the first tee. Number 34 turned out to be a willing young man named Sued. Within moments of being engaged he was trying to sell me balls, which may explain the limited stocks in the shop. Two more caddies were required, one for my opponent and the third as forecaddy and greensweeper, or more precisely, brownsweeper.

The lack of water in this country means you putt on browns, a mixture of mud and dirt, rather than greens. The surface of the brown gets scuffed up when anyone walks over it so before every putt the third caddy sweeps it smooth with a sort of handsaw. I am not sure how this fits in with The Rules of Golf but at least it means your putt may go where you hit it. The borrows are not severe but the variable speed is a big challenge.

With no time to practise, my tee shot on the first – a par three lined with palms, eucalyptus trees and bougainvillea – was predictably wild and a peacock wailed sympathetically as the ball hit a tree. Smelly open drains, deeper than the Swilcan Burn and evidence of Tanzania’s dire urban sewerage, criss-crossed the next few fairways and on the fourth I drove into one of these. I was impressed to see the forecaddy jump in at once and fish out my ball though I made a mental note not to put my finger in my mouth after touching it.

With an irrigation system the condition of the course could be rapidly improved but in a country with an acute water shortage this is unlikely to happen. The result is very patchy fairways so you play preferred lies. As the distinction between fairway and rough isn’t always clear, Sued helpfully teed up my ball on the nearest tuft of grass, however far I strayed off the line.

Although the terrain is flat and the course is in the middle of the growing city, the setting is lovely and the seventh and 15th tees are separated from the Indian Ocean only by a small beachside road. The bunkers are excellent, better than some I know at home. One hole only boasts a green, conveniently close to a source of waste water, something I celebrated by knocking in a 10ft putt for a birdie.

The closing hole is 460 yards with a long carry off the tee. Having got used to the clubs now I crunched a decent drive right over the palm tree Sued advised. A three wood to the back of the brown should have secured a par. Alas, this one was slower than the rest and my approach putt was woefully short.

Although it may be a while before the European Tour includes the Gymkhana Club in its schedule, the game I played there was certainly golf, if not quite as most readers know it. That is a great deal better than no golf, which would have been deprivation indeed.

tim.yeo@ft.com

More columns at www.ft.com/yeo

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