Anyone who finds the old course at St. Andrews challenging—with its mine-free greens and minimal risk of a civil uprising—probably wouldn't enjoy golfing in Baghdad or Kabul. But for a select group of thrill-seekers willing to add sniper fire and house arrest to the more traditional hazards associated with a round of golf, there is a handful of courses tucked away amid the poverty and chaos of the world's failed or post-conflict states. Some are little more than dusty plots where the mortar blasts have barely been patched up, while others shine as oases of luxury that stand in sharp contrast to the desperation outside their well-guarded gates. Since most of these courses do not receive many foreign guests, playing them is less about whom you know than how you are going to get there.
Between the two of us, we've been to links in Zimbabwe, North Korea, Sierra Leone and Colombia, and hope someday to try the courses in Sudan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Burma and the Democratic Republic of Congo. These countries may top the rankings for violence, repression and poverty, but they also boast a class of elites eager to pick up the booming sport. As much as these resorts promise refuge from the outside world, they inevitably reflect the political drama of their countries.
Take the Bogota Country Club, Colombia's most exclusive golf course. Because of security concerns—drug smuggling, kidnappings, bombings—no one is allowed even to tour the place without written consent from the manager. It is rumored that even the Japanese ambassador couldn't gain membership because he didn't have the requisite three references from existing members. The numerous guards who patrol the premises serve as an unpleasant reminder of the country's precarious political situation as a democracy that has been immersed in a low-level civil war for years, with guerrillas and narcotraffickers still operating in some quarters.
Halfway across the world, Zimbabwe does not have rebels, but it does have possibly the world's most dysfunctional economy. As a result, many of the nation's golf courses have closed or been pillaged, including Harare South, despite the best efforts of Tim Price, brother of professional golfer Nick. The Zimbabwe Open, once a popular sporting event in the region, hasn't been played since 2001.Today your best bet is the Royal Harare Golf Club or the course at Borrowdale Brook, the wealthiest neighborhood in the country. In either place, you can watch regime leaders sip afternoon tea while the rest of the country struggles to get by on one meal per day. President Robert Mugabe has an Asian-style palace in Borrowdale Brook, and the country's elite can play on the 18-hole course while an army of impoverished workers mow the lawn and attend to their needs. But even this privileged suburban redoubt has seen the effects of hyperinflation and cholera: the water in the clubhouse bathroom has been shut off.
For something more rustic, Sierra Leone's only links, the Aberdeen Golf Course in Freetown, has more bumps than holes. The availability of power here—a full 12 hours a day!—is one of the club's biggest marketing draws; the rest of the country must make do with a few hours at random times of the day. Located near Lumley Beach, the club is bordered by a dozen construction projects, part of the nation's reconstruction and development efforts after a brutal, decade-long war.
Still, you can't call yourself an extreme golfer until you've played on an island in North Korea nicknamed the "Alcatraz of Fun." The secluded haven is meant to keep foreigners from wandering off unsupervised into Pyongyang, the capital. Duffers may spot Kim Jong Il himself on the nine-hole course, where—according to state media—he shot a whopping 38 under par on his first round (and not to rub it in, but his scorecard showed 11 holes-in-one). Why stop there? An even more nerve-racking single-hole course awaits at the nearby DMZ. You're so close to the action that a stray ball may actually set off a land mine.