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Les Furber is making golf common in Cuba

John GordonBy John Gordon,

HAVANA, Cuba - Look at you! Sitting in front of your computer, sipping on a dark rum and Coke, topped with a slice of lime. Don't they call that concoction a Cuba Libre?

Aside from raising, for political right-wingers at least, an apparent contradiction in terms (a la jumbo shrimp, metal wood, military intelligence, maximum distance combined with maximum spin), Cuba Libre brings to mind Les Furber, a golf course architect based in Canmore, Alberta, in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains.

Having a problem making the connection? Don't blame you, since Furber, who has been designing and building courses worldwide for 30 years, remains largely unknown in his own country, let alone the rest of the world. But among his many, and largely unheralded, accomplishments is that he designed the first - and of this writing - only 18-hole golf course in Cuba, which opened in 1998.

Talk about tough connections. How does a course architect tee it up in the foothills of the Rockies and hit the green in Cuba, some 90 miles off the Florida Keys?

To say it is a long story is an understatement. In a nutshell, some Cuban expatriates in London, Ontario, sourced Furber through a Canadian Supreme Court justice who was from British Columbia and was familiar with Furber's work.

"So I went down there in 1990 and the fact that I was fluent in Spanish helped clinch the deal, I'm sure. I lived in Spain for five years, and worked in the Dominican Republic and Mexico," reveals the self-effacing Furber, who ran Robert Trent Jones' European office for nine years.

"We were in Switzerland, Italy, Belgium, just about everywhere, before we moved the office to Spain because the climate was the best. We did a lot of work there, like Valderrama [the controversial site of the 1997 Ryder Cup and the 2000 WGC American Express Championship], where I was in charge of design and construction." Furber also had a major part in designing and building the terrific Troia course in Portugal, among others.

Despite his fluency in Spanish and his gregarious, easy-going personality, it still took Furber eight years to complete Varadero, the only course on the island other than a venerable nine-holer five minutes from the international airport. He doesn't know which was harder to work with -- the bureaucracy or the topography.

"That site was all rock, no topsoil and poor sand. Cuba is not a fertile island by any means. We had to import 750,000 cubic metres [26.5 million cubic feet] of material from 25 kilometres [15 miles] away by truck because the course was below sea level and it would flood when they had hurricanes. Then you would get contaminated salt water flowing onto the land, so we had to raise it all three to four feet. It was a very difficult project, especially the irrigation and drainage, with all that rock."

The result is a very playable golf course. There are a couple of dramatic holes, like the par-3 eighth that is reminiscent of Pebble Beach, with the beach and the surf. The overall impression is less of a typical Caribbean course than that of a good Florida resort course, i.e., fairly flat with lots of water. Furber's creation has been tested by some pretty good competition during tournaments including a couple of European Challenge Tour events.

The links-style course is the centerpiece of several resort hotels in Varadero, on the site of an estate owned by the U.S. millionaire DuPont family until the 1959 Cuban Revolution. In fact, the clubhouse is the former DuPont mansion, Xanadu.

"They call it Varadero Golf Club," says Furber. "It was going to be named Las Americas, but they aren't too excited about anything suggesting the United States."

And that mutual antipathy suits another Canadian, Wally Berukoff, just fine. Berukoff, a developer in North Vancouver, British Columbia, is behind a joint venture that calls for the construction of six hotels and two courses in Jibacoa, a coastal paradise 40 miles east of Havana.

Berukoff is circumspect when asked about his relationship with Cuban President Fidel Castro. But you can safely assume that relationship has made this farmer's son a force to be reckoned with in a progressively more vital Cuba.

He spent five years assessing properties before settling on four sites. The main criterion was that Americans hadn't owned them prior to being seized in the revolution. In deference to the Helms-Burton embargo legislation passed in 1996 by the U.S. government, he ensures U.S. lawmakers vet all his deals.

The other criterion was that they have sufficient infrastructure to allow vacationers to access them from Cuba's international airports. "Did you know more than 60 international airlines land at Havana?" he asks. "Add the European-based cruise ships and you've got a lot of people on holidays who want to play golf."

After researching dozens of companies, Berukoff decided on Gleneagles Golf Developments, a division of Gleneagles Hotels, to design, build and manage his courses. Yes, it's the same Gleneagles, the legendary Scottish hotel with its tremendous golf courses.

"I initially wanted an easy, holiday golf course, but when we joined up with our partners, Meridien Hotels and Resort, we decided we needed a championship course, but one that most golfers could play. Gleneagles seemed to understand the project the best. We plan on an 18-hole course first, then a 27-hole one with a short course for teaching."

The smart money says he will not stop at just two courses. Furber says Cuba needs between 15 and 20 courses.

That target received a boost via a year-end announcement from England that PGA Golf Management, the design, development and management arm of the British PGA, had been signed on by the Cuban government to produce new courses at Cayo Coco and St. Miguel de Banos, near Varadero. Following the typically languid Cuban timetable, news of this concept, a joint effort with Berukoff's Leisure Canada group, first appeared almost three years ago.

John Gordon has been involved fulltime with golf since he became managing editor of Score, Canada's Golf Magazine, in 1985. In 1991, he was recruited by the Royal Canadian Golf Association to create their Member Services and Communications departments, and to revive Golf Canada magazine, their national membersmagazine which had been defunct for a decade. After successfully relaunching Golf Canada and serving as its inaugural editor, he was named executive director of the Ontario Golf Association. He returned to fulltime writing in 1995.

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