CAIRO – Just like cathedrals in Europe, Buddha temples in Asia and any meal in England, there is a limit. After a while, they just pass through your system and your vision without leaving much of a trace.
Such was my state of mind during a pre-Arab Spring adventure in Cairo. The one in Egypt. We saw the magnificent pyramids, a couple museums and plenty of ruins. So many ruins. Then with an excursion to Memphis, the region’s ancient capitol, set up for the next day, I had hit the wall. One hieroglyphic too far. Interest had waned. What I really wanted to do was play golf, ideally with the pyramids in the background.
Playing the ancient game in front of the last surviving of the Seven Wonders of the World would be pretty cool. I’ve seen pictures of people on a golf course with the shadow of the Great Pyramids of Giza in the background. I liked that image.
There was a course right across the street from the downtown Marriott where I was staying – said to be the oldest course in Egypt – but you couldn’t see the pyramids. It was in the middle of the city. That would be like playing the local muni.
I wasn’t sure which course had the best pyramid backdrop. By good fortune, I had with me a book, “Around the World in 80 Courses” by Seattle (now New York) writer David Wood. He traveled to every part of the world to play courses and had a chapter on Egypt. Wood talked about the Mena House, a course adjacent to the pyramids. I emailed David and he got back to me quickly, saying it was a non-descript course but with the revered ruins just behind it. Perfect.
So why didn’t I play Mena? I don’t have that answer. I guess I trusted the advice of the hotel concierge along with a supportive call to the starter at another course that was suggested to me, Dreamland.
Dreamland? Hardly an exotic, Egyptian-ese sounding name. But when I asked on the phone if you could see the pyramids while playing the course, the starter, Nasr, said, ”sure, of course.”
So I decided on Dreamland. Dreamland? I got a taxi rate of about $60 round trip (didn’t realize until later that my taxi driver waited outside the gates for five hours until I finished). Nasr told me the round would cost $60, plus $25 for the rental. Reasonable.
However, on the way to the course we passed the pyramids on the left side and just kept going and going until they were lumps on the horizon. Dreamland, located in the City of October the 6th, was part of a tacky amusement park, arcades and, of course, a minaret (everything has to a religious element to it).
It’s a nice complex, part of the Hilton chain, but remote. There didn’t seem to be many people there. It was kind of depressing. Why didn’t I play Mena?
The pro shop was about a quarter mile from the starter. I made that trek three times because of miscommunications. My budget was somewhat limited. I decided to play in my sandals rather than buy shoes and haul them around Egypt. I didn’t buy a glove because they were $15 apiece (yet another mistake and I have the blisters to prove it), and tried to limit the number of balls I purchased. I also grabbed a couple small bags of tees and shoved them in my pocket, believing they were free. When I paid for my stuff, I was told those two tee bags that I stashed away in my pocket were not free. They had apparently seen my stealthy indiscretion. Awkward.
Nasr, the starter who I talked to on the phone, was a friendly guy but got no favors from him. He handed me a set of rentals clubs that I thought one of the pharaohs might have used. The clubs consisted of a Sure Fire putter, Browning irons and Ben Sayers woods.
Now there’s a lot of things I don’t know about golf - and Ben Sayers is one of them. Forgive my ignorance, but wasn’t he an 80s pop singer? I would later look up the brand on the Internet and it seems that it’s the oldest golf manufacture company in the world, founded in 1883. Really? Never heard of him.
Sayers started his business at the North Berwick Golf Club in Scotland. He played in 23 various British Opens from 1880 to 1923 but never won. His reputation was based on teaching, including the Royals, and club-making, not necessarily shot-making. He was the first to develop a square-edged grip putter. I think the patent ran out on that around the turn of the century, not the 21st, the 20th.
After hitting a few balls on the range, I already needed to replace my Ben Sayers driver. The grip was loose and shredding. It was in fragments. When I asked Nasr if he could replace it, he said he had nothing to give me. Apparently, this was it, the only rental clubs on the course. Maybe in Egypt.
Then I found out that if I wanted to see the pyramids as I intended, I would need to play the nine-hole new course. And I would need a caddy because it’s so remote and difficult to follow without a guide. The charges kept piling up. I smelled a fish – and a sucker.
However, in Egypt the cost for a caddy was reasonable, about $20, although my caddy used a pull cart. I could have done that! But it was a great opportunity to meet a quite a nice fellow named Amat. Probably the best decision among the many bad ones I made that day.
It took a while to get used to the new clubs, especially the Sayers driver and Sure Fire putter, playing in sandals, without a glove on a new layout. The new nine was a finished product but it was surrounded by an unfinished housing development. Brown, sandy and not real attractive. But it was a good test of golf, long, winding, and a lot of sand (of course, it’s Egypt). In fact, Amat, a 7 handicap, said it was the best course in Egypt. That’s not saying much considering there are just 12 in the country.
I played on a Friday and on Fridays there is a change in the call to prayer at the mosques. Instead of a five-minute lecture/singing session on the minaret loudspeaker, he runs on for an entire hour. I supposed it’s all about a last reminder to behave yourself as the weekend approached. The mosque, on the edge of the third hole, blasted out the labored singing and harsh lecture – sounding much like a dictator’s diatribe – for my entire front nine. But at least I’m a better man for it.
It was a tough start for me, beginning with an eight on the first hole that included two lost balls. I had two balls remaining after one hole and a little worried that I might run out of balls before holes (I found a couple more later). My biggest problem was getting used to the light-headed Sure Fire putter, as I was consistently putting the ball short.
What made this day great, however, was the hands-on help from Amat. It was an on-course lesson. He helped with my turn, my follow-through, ball-striking and pace. After 40 years in America trying to figure out this game, I got my best advice ever from a 38-year-old, 7-handicap Muslin in Egypt.
It was on the new nine, the par-5, 540-yard No. 6 hole that you could finally get that much-sought pyramid shot. It was a bit anti-climatic. The pyramids could be seen in the far distance under a pair of high-voltage electrical towers and between two unfinished condos. This was not playing in the shadow of the Great Pyramid as I had hoped but it would have to do.
I got the shot. Cost me about a couple hundred but you can see those ancient twin peaks – barely.
I also got better. After struggling with a 48 on the front, Amat’s advice began to take hold. I got my first par on the first hole of the back nine, a much more established and lush Dreamland course. I followed with a couple more pars and began feeling comfortable with the clubs and my Amat-enhanced swing.
Thanks to Amat, I finished with a memorable flourish. On the par-3, 165-yard final hole, we had to wait for a foursome ahead to notice us. They finally waved us on so I had an audience for the first time. The pressure was on. Amat handed me what I thought was a nine iron. But I said maybe I should at least have an eight. It’s a little too far for a nine, especially with water in front.
Amat looked at me strangely and said, just use it. So I did, hitting it squarely as he had advised me, and it flew straight at the pin. It settled pin high, drifting about 12 feet to the left. No doubt that group ahead was impressed. Little did they know it was by far my best shot of the day.
As we walked to the green, I learned why Amat had insisted that I use that club because he knew I believed it was a nine. It was actually a six iron (they have different markings on the clubs). So that allowed me to swing with a good rhythm.
I followed it up with a quick putt into the center of the hole for a two and a back nine 41. Nice way to complete my Egyptian golf career.
It was costly. I sacrificed what I heard was a pretty interesting Memphis tour. But I had made progress in my game. I had learned something new in this ancient land.
I had my picture and I had an unexpected lesson from an unlikely source.