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Last Updated: Monday, 26 July, 2004, 01:36 GMT 02:36 UK
Battling Botswana's dusty golf courses
By Alastair Leithead
BBC correspondent in Francistown

Caddy smoothing out sand
The caddys smooth out the 'brown' from your ball to the hole...
Golf can be a pretty frustrating game at the best of times, but at Francistown Golf Club in Botswana, the lack of grass is the biggest problem.

"So where's the golf course," I asked, as the club captain explained we were standing on the ninth fairway.

There was lots of dust, lots of sand, a little bit of scrub - in fact fairway number nine looked like a desert with a few thorn trees in it, which of course is exactly what it is.

"It's very difficult to hit a shot from the fairway," said club captain Carlos Chileshe, somewhat stating the obvious.

"You can improve your placing using a tee, or you can use a piece of carpet."

And he's not joking, essential kit for a round of golf in Francistown is a small square of doormat that everyone carries with them - their own little piece of fairway.

The other essential is a lot of spare balls.


"The problem is you can hit a fantastic shot straight up the fairway just to see it hit a rock and bounce off into the rough," club golfer Graham Atkinson chipped in.

Graham Atkinson putting
... This would make it easier, except for the bobbles in the sand
And you don't want to be in the rough.

It looks quite similar to the fairway, except you have to run the gauntlet of sharp, unforgiving thorns, and the resident wildlife of snakes and brightly coloured insects.

"You see these stones painted white? Those show you where the fairway ends - if you look it leads right up to the flag, and the brown," Carlos explained.

Ah yes, the browns.

With less than 450mm of rainfall on average a year there just isn't the water for grass, and so what most golfers call greens are, in Francistown, brown.

"They're a mixture of sand and engine oil - the kind you get when you take your car in for a service and they empty the oil sump," Carlos added.

And they do a pretty good job.

When you land on the brown the caddy steps up with a big metal scraper and smoothes a path from your ball to the hole.

Then, placing the ball carefully so as not to break the sand, you're free to putt - removing stones as required.

Rusty cars

"The club was founded before the First World War," Patrick Magowe told me. He's a vice-president of the Botswana Golf Union.

"The first trophy was competed in 1917 - it was the settlers who set the club up - they came here prospecting for gold."

Patrick Magowe, vice-president of the Botswana Golf Union
'Where's the golf course?'
"Today we've got locals and of course ex-pats from Zambia, Zimbabwe, South Africa and from the UK as well."

The present day course was designed in the 1940s, but some of the course hazards include deep trenches cut by the gold speculators.

There is also a fair share of rusty old cars dumped in the scrub.

"We don't have any fences on the course, so people come and go," said Patrick, as a donkey cart scuttled across the fairway.

"On Sundays the little rocky hills on the course have church groups gathering on them singing - you get used to it though so it doesn't put you off your shot."

Green shoots

But the constant frustration of watching your beautifully struck shot veering off into the bush could soon be replaced by a new grass course.

"At the moment we are talking with the government and business for a grass course as the council has earmarked the land for a possible extension to the hospital or for a school," said Carlos Chileshe.

"It's better playing on grass, but we struggle on the greens - the nearest grass course is in Bulawayo, but you have to cross over the Zimbabwe border.

Alastair Leithead putting
Alastair managed to win a couple of holes
"Then there's a course which is in a diamond mining area, so that's difficult. In fact the nearest course really is Gabarone [the capital] - 440km from here. That's a long way to go for a game of golf."

For an awful golfer I was quite pleased to win a couple of holes against such good opposition, but then they were unusual conditions - and the luck didn't last long.

It was an unusual experience, but there's no doubt my fellow players are looking forward to grass coming into their golfing lives.

Graham Atkinson said he'd be a little sad to see it go: "You can look at it in two ways, one you are losing a bit of history with a course that has been here for years and is great fun, but at the same time we're gaining a great course to play on.

"And yes we'll take the new one - it'll have grass and a driving range and a clubhouse and a restaurant - yes please!"

Golf bug grips SA
14 Apr 03 |  Africa
Country profile: Botswana
10 Jul 04 |  Country profiles


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