Fore! In Iran, golf remains a game of the elite

Tehran (AFP) - The bumpy fairways and patchy putting surfaces -- more burnt-out browns than grassy greens -- are not much to look at. In Iran however, this is golf at its finest.

In the same way that the streets of Tehran got new names when the Islamic republic dramatically came into being in 1979, so did the Engelhab ("Revolution" in Farsi) Club.

Iran's only recognised golf course has had a fairly rough time since.

Somewhat starved of attention, and perhaps a greenkeeper, it lost five of its original 18 holes under an army land order -- players now play five holes twice to make up the numbers.

But somehow, the course has kept going despite few regular players. Some grumble and others joke at its unorthodox, 13-hole layout.

"It's pretty terrible, but it's all we have," says Mehrdad, a 40-year-old businessman who splits his time between Iran, Canada and Germany.

He tries to play at least fortnightly with his friends, but other than on the Persian weekend (Thursday and Friday) the club is deserted, he says, remarking that few Iranians know what golf is.

Kaykavos Saeedi is a 53-year-old civil servant tasked with waking Iranians up to the game's potential.

"Golf can be for everyone but we are something of a poor relation," says Saeedi, president of the Islamic Republic of Iran Golf Federation.

Iran's international sporting success is in wrestling, football, volleyball and basketball. As such, golf is considered a tough sell.

Saeedi admits he's no great shakes as a player but for 15 minutes he talks passionately about what his wish list would include.

More courses, more driving ranges, more education and publicity about the game in schools and then -- and only then -- could more players ultimately be accommodated.

- Elite beginnings -

Only 3,500 people, around 500 of them women, from a population of 78 million, pick up a club, Saeedi says, so there would be little point in a sudden uptick in numbers unless more facilities are built.

The paucity of the sport is reflected in the federation's annual budget of $200,000 (175,000 euros) and the game in Iran has a history that probably doesn't lend itself to expansion.

It arrived with the British early in the 20th century -- when their oil executives weren't busy trying to take control of Iran's southern fields they liked to tee it up.

This elitism was magnified by Iran's former royal rulers. The last shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, played golf and built the Tehran course in the grounds of what was then the Imperial Country Club.

Beyond the solitary grass course there are four sand courses across Iran.

As to talent there are few shining hopes for Iranian glory but Hassan Karimian is the country's best.

A scratch player and captain of the national side, the 38-year-old has played in Asian Championships.

"When we go abroad to international events I've been asked 'Do you have any courses in Iran?'" he says.

"They're surprised when told we've only one standard grass course, which is not a very good one."

- Most players over 30 -

There are few youths coming into the game, Karimian says, while giving lessons at Engelhab's driving range which despite being only 225 yards (metres) long is a good practice facility for the few who use it.

"Our players are usually over 30. It is rare to see 17- or 18-year-olds, but as a team we are making progress," he says, pointing to national championships and participation abroad.

"When the sports ministry notices this progress they will eventually pay attention. We need a vision to expand and make golf a known sport."

But getting people properly involved will be a tall order, says David Cherry, chairman of the Asia Pacific Golf Confederation.

"The Iranian populace gets no exposure to the game as it is not on TV," says Cherry, who visited Tehran in January, and suggested schools are the route to follow.

"I tried to convince the ministers I saw that golf is not an elite sport and it can be played the whole of your life. I started at age five and am still playing 63 years later."

On a positive note, Iran is making the right noises by establishing good links with the APGC and golf's ruling body, the Royal and Ancient Golf Club (R&A) of St Andrews, in Scotland.

"I sensed a deep-seated enthusiasm for the game but they are uncertain how to get to the next stage. It's difficult to see where children could get access to anywhere a golf ball could be hit," Cherry says.

Federation chief Saeedi has a tough job, but with his office dotted with golf memorabilia, as well as portraits of supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the late Ruhollah Khomeini, founder of the Islamic republic, he will seek another five-year term later this year.

"We have problems but we have to concentrate on finding talent," he says.