Caribbean Golf Vacations

Cuba, Libre? What The Latest News Means For Golfers

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You may have heard the news last week surrounding the United States and one of its nearest neighbors and longest-running foes: Cuba.

President Barack Obama announced last Wednesday that he seeks to “normalize relations” with the Caribbean island nation of more than 11 million. So I could not help but wonder:

What does this mean for golfers?

Fidel Castro and Che Guevara once played golf to mock its perceived "bourgeois" and elitist nature. Now, Cuba has a softer attitude towards the game. (Alberto Korda)

Fidel Castro and Che Guevara (who worked as a caddie during his childhood) once played golf together to mock its perceived “bourgeois” and elitist nature. Now, Cuba has a softer attitude towards the game. (Alberto Korda)

Despite the current thin golf offerings, it turns out Cuba has an interesting history with the game, and that might help indicate whether you should be expecting to tee it up at, say, Trump International Havana anytime soon.

Here are the two important questions and their answers.

What’s the history of golf in Cuba?

Before Fidel Castro took over in 1959, Cuba was a vibrant place for tourism, particularly from the US. Havana was a sub-tropical Las Vegas of sorts, with casinos, nightclubs and, yes, a golf scene. In fact, the Country Club of Havana was designed by Donald Ross. So was the Havana Biltmore Golf Club.

The communist revolution of 1959 and the ensuing decades more or less crippled the game, though. Today, there is a relatively pedestrian nine-hole Golf Club de Havana on a different site from either of the plowed-over Ross courses and, about 80 miles to the east, Varadero Golf Club in the seaside resort hub of the same name. Varadero is a scenic modern layout designed originally by Canadian architect Les Furber. The course measures 6,856 yards from the longest set of tees. It hosted European Tour Challenge Tour Grand Finals in 1999 and 2000, won by Stephen Scahill and Henrik Stenson, respectively.

Varadero Golf Club is Cuba's only 18-hole course, and it's a pretty one, overlooking the Caribbean. (VarageroGolfClub.com)

Varadero Golf Club is Cuba’s only 18-hole course, and it’s a pretty one, overlooking the Caribbean. (VaraderoGolfClub.com)

That brings Cuba’s golf complement to 27 holes. A $350 million resort called the Club at Carbonera is planned, with no word as to progress; it is supposed to be the first of as many of a dozen luxury golf resorts to be built in Cuba. The developer, the UK-based Esencia Group, has not provided news on the project since June 2013.

Can I visit?

If you’re Canadian or European, you are able to travel to Cuba as a tourist and have been for years. If you’re American, the answer used to be a pretty flat “No way.” In the wake of last week’s news, however, the answer is more like, “Kinda.”

For Americans, there are now a dozen circumstances under which travel to Cuba is permitted. You can read about them all here.  The most important point, though, is that visiting purely as a tourist is still not allowed.

However, if you’re truly interested, I may have found a loophole:

It’s the Grand Tournament Cuba Golf, scheduled for April 10-12, 2015 at Varadero Golf Club. Yes, that’s the same week as the Masters.

Men with handicaps of 24 or less and women with handicaps of 30 or less are invited, and given that the new rules on Cuba include “…public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions, and exhibitions…” it looks as if American golf travelers may have a back-door way onto Cuba’s seaside course.

Men with handicaps of 12 and less compete in the “Open 1st Category” at medal play, while the other divisions (men with handicaps of 13-24; women with handicaps of 30 and below) will play in a Stableford format. Assuming the potential competition loophole is legitimate, we’d wager that this event might just top these six amateur events in great golf vacation destinations. With an entry fee of $150, which includes a practice round and two tournament rounds, it’s quite reasonable (outside of the cost of traveling to and from Cuba, of course).

As Craig indicated, it’s not as if Cuba is going to rival the Dominican Republic anytime soon. But if you have an adventurous spirit, you might consider it for more general exploration, with a side of golf.

What are your thoughts on playing golf in Cuba? Let us know in the comments.

The Latest On Golf In Cuba

42 Comments

  1. rodolfo lorayes

    December 23, 2014 at 8:34 am

    For the love of the game any golfer may play at the Veradero Golf and Country Club of Cuba. Similar sports activities was done somewhere in the Pacific by Chinese and Filipino soldiers without regards to their ideology , Just for the love of playing Volleyball.

  2. Freddie Barber

    December 23, 2014 at 8:35 am

    I would not hesitate to go. This has been too long coming.

  3. rodolfo lorayes

    December 23, 2014 at 8:35 am

    Good sportsmanship knows no boundary

  4. frank nusca

    December 23, 2014 at 8:40 am

    Hi, I’ve never been to Cuba, although I’d love to go just to see Havana and all the old cars and to sightsee. Golf no, there are so many places in the US I’d prefer to go.

  5. Kirk

    December 23, 2014 at 8:45 am

    Craig,

    Too many other great places to go that are way better. It will take Cuba years to develop something that will rival the Dom Rep, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, and the other usual destinations in the region.

    That said, once they build it, I will come…

  6. Craig Better

    December 23, 2014 at 8:46 am

    Thanks, Kirk, and I agree — it will be exciting to see what develops!

  7. Freddie Barber

    December 23, 2014 at 9:01 am

    Without a doubt.

  8. Jim

    December 23, 2014 at 9:03 am

    Like the sound of the tournament.

  9. David Knoppert

    December 23, 2014 at 9:25 am

    I agree with your take on golf in Cuba, Craig. I am a Canadian and have been going to Cuba regularly for about the past 10 years with medical colleagues from the UK to participate in a workshop in the city of Camaguey. I have played both Varadero and the 9 hole course just outside Havana. The courses are fine, but there are only 2 of them. For a family vacation, with a round or 2 thrown in, perfect. Hopefully some of the golf development companies will begin to explore the opportunities for golf in Cuba. That will be exciting, but as you said, time will dictate when, and if, this will happen.

  10. Craig Better

    December 23, 2014 at 9:26 am

    Thanks, David. Sounds like you have a ton of Cuba experience — would love to learn from you if/when things open up more to Americans.

  11. Marina

    December 23, 2014 at 9:34 am

    Why put yourself in harms way for a game of golf on a sub par course.

  12. dave

    December 23, 2014 at 10:12 am

    I would love to visit Cuba as a holiday and to visit cigar facilities. I think a nice cigar and golf vacation would be the Dominican Republic where the course choices and maintenance are much better.

  13. Scott

    December 23, 2014 at 10:20 am

    I think I will wait awhile. I take 2 big golf trips per year. If I am unsure of the quality of a trip I would wait for feedback from people who tried a destination before I would consider going there.

  14. Roger Crabb

    December 23, 2014 at 10:20 am

    “Why put yourself in harms way for a game of golf on a sub par course.”

    That encapsulates the insularity of so many Americans. If there’s no Hilton with a Jack Nicklaus golf course, best not to go there.

  15. Bob

    December 23, 2014 at 10:41 am

    Yes I would go to Cuba tomorrow, it would also be nice to play golf

  16. Luis

    December 23, 2014 at 10:48 am

    Why would anyone consider Cuba for a golf vacation with so many great golf destinations throughout the world, There are many interesting things to do and see while in Cuba and Cuba only has twenty seven holes on the entire island so why go there on a golf vacation? I flew to Cuba from Cancun a few years ago and let me tell you it was like going back in time. Cuba was once the place to go, (Monti Carlo) and was where the mafia bosses hung out, it was a beautiful island but everything is run dowm and in need of repair. As an avid golfer who has gone on many golf vacations. How about Puerto Rico, Hawaii. Mexico, Myrtle Beach, Canada. These are just but a few great golf destinations to consider before Cuba’s 27 holes. Beautifully manicured and challenging golf courses. I would not even consider Cuba golf as a topic warrenting discussion.

  17. Frank Nunziato

    December 23, 2014 at 11:00 am

    Hi Craig. Nice to hear your voice, but I would not go to Cuba. Happy holidays.

  18. Rose Doud

    December 23, 2014 at 11:35 am

    Well as it turns out, I am going to play golf at Varadero Golf Club in January 2015, at first your comments made me wish I wasn’t already booked but reading further I think I am happy to be going. I am Canadian but have never been to Cuba, quite looking forward to it tho.

    R. Doud

  19. Edward Duran

    December 23, 2014 at 11:35 am

    Thank you for your advice, Going to Cuba for a golf vacation might be better to wait a bit,but to go just to go would be an adventure anyway, but if a round of golf even if it’s 9 holes, I’d go for it! why not!

  20. Tim Gavrich

    December 23, 2014 at 11:36 am

    Hi Rose–
    Excited to hear you’ll be going to Cuba next month. Please be sure to report back to us and your fellow GVI readers about it!
    Safe travels.
    –Tim

  21. Paul Gillen

    December 23, 2014 at 11:44 am

    My wife and I have spent a number of years vacationing in Cuba, including golf – you can’t lay on the beach all day. Anyway, having spent a 35 year career in the golf course maintenence business, I can assure you that there is minimum maintenence at either of the clubs (cutting grass with really dull blades for one). If you want a golf vacation, bypass Cuba for now. If you want a great experience with wonderful, friendly people with a game on the side, go now before it gets too commercial.

  22. peter

    December 23, 2014 at 12:00 pm

    Played Varadero last year on my 25th wedding anniversary. The scenery on the 18th hole is spectacular but the course overall isn’t as nice as say the one’s in Myrtle Beach or in Arizona or Florida, but what would you expect when you consider their operating budget? Once you encounter the Cuban staff; cart ladies, grounds crew etc. they are such wonderful people that those that choose to go will be richer for the experience!

  23. Bob W

    December 23, 2014 at 12:12 pm

    I have played the Varadaro course a dozen times going back about 15 years. It is a real nice layout with lots of water and challenging holes. BUT it is funded by a government that was compleatly crippled when Russia cut the purse strings 20 years ago. They do not have the technology or experence in place to get it into tournament shape.
    Save your money until they get the know how and funding in place to turn it around. When / if they do, GO

  24. MT Cruz

    December 23, 2014 at 12:47 pm

    I was at Varadero for the first time the last week of November 2014 for a golfing trip with a bunch of golfers from Canada. It was cheap and fun. The Varadero Golf Club is not a 5-star golf course like what you can find in resorts in the US. The greens are super slow compared to some glass like putting greens in Canada and US. This course is very forgiving. Other than the par 5 15th hole where you have to cross 3 rivers, there is not much trouble that can cause for a lost ball. The 18th hole though is a magnificent view overlooking the Atlantic ocean. This reminds me of Hawaii golf. Will I come back next year? Probably not. I would explore DR, PR or even Mexico before I go back to Cuba.

  25. Geert

    December 23, 2014 at 1:09 pm

    We visited Cuba a few years ago.
    There is no island in the Caribean that gives so much fun!
    My wife and I consider it to be the best holidays we’ve ever had!
    So visit Cuba and enjoy the typical Cuban music and joy.
    Far better than than the Domican or other destinations.
    Play golf now and then. Hopefully in the near future more golfcourses will open in Cuba.
    Go before it is spoiled by the American way of life!

  26. Doug Osborne

    December 23, 2014 at 1:27 pm

    I have golfed in Cuba.. I expected a lot more… They charge through the nose.. I would say- don’t go to Cuba just to Golf.. If you are going to Cuba for a vacation and want to do a round, go for it so you can say you golfed in Cuba.
    Don’t go out of your way, so many beautiful places to enjoy and get that real experience!
    Cheers!

  27. Bernie

    December 23, 2014 at 1:32 pm

    My buddy and I went to Veradero for a golf vacation in November. I had read many reviews….good and bad…but we went because we found a screaming deal for 1100 CDN, all inclusive, unlimited golf, for 8 days… and thats departing from western Canada. We had a blast. Its true, much of Cuba is in need of repair…but this fact was quickly overlooked as soon as we landed. The people are so friendly and accomodating! The course? Absolutely no complaints. We are both 15 handicappers and scored in the 80s every round. Sure the carts were old and theres far better tracks in the Caribbean….but the course was spiffed right up for one of the tournaments….and they knew us and picked us up at our resort every day. Definitely a good bang for the buck.

  28. martin nelson

    December 23, 2014 at 2:22 pm

    Why not make it a three third-world country golf vacation: Dominican Republic, Cuba and Nicaragua! Yes, Nicaragua. The new David Mclay Kidd course is one of the most beautiful ocean side golf courses in Central America. Check out Isla Guacalito and the luxurious Mukul Hotel. Hacienda Iguana Golf and Beach resort has a sweet nine hole course nearby with views to Costa Rica.

  29. Larry Grady Sr

    December 23, 2014 at 3:29 pm

    Love to play that course and see Cuba..

  30. John and Irene Basaraba

    December 23, 2014 at 4:07 pm

    Our first visit to Cuba was a very long time ago, actually BC, yes before Castro. Batista ruled from the elegant palace, his chaufferred Cadillac had license 1, his wife’s, 2. The Malecon along the Carribean was paved as well as any in the USA. A major attraction was, still is, the El Morro Castle which guarded Habana against the likes of Sir Francis Drake (1536). The bad guys found themselves in a chute at the end of which was the ocean with waiting sharks.
    Many other attractions, Tropicana with trees growing through a glass ‘roof, 2 orchestras going,1800 guests – still exists on a smaller scale, Pennsylvania Club,
    Brass Rail made famous by the writer/adventurer, the up/up scale hotel later made a fancy barracks for Castro and friends.
    Later visits included golf on the reasonable Varradero 18-hole course, which I understood started as a 9-hole duPont family venue.
    All in all, great place, Gulf Stream keeping climate temperate, and the Cubans are first class hosts. Cheers and Enjoy, John and Irene, Canada. ‘scuse my typos.

  31. Plen

    December 23, 2014 at 8:05 pm

    I have been to Cuba several and have played the course in Varadero. It may take a while to build new courses over there but what could be done quite quickly would be to open some driving ranges at or near the resorts. I feel certain that many of those million Canadians and the tourists from the other visiting countries would be more than happy to have a place to practice and it would be a way to introduce golf to the Cubans .

  32. Louis Mabry

    December 23, 2014 at 11:12 pm

    There is no way that I would put money in the coffers of this communist country.

  33. Peter Fazio

    December 24, 2014 at 12:30 am

    Not in my lifetime but only because I am too old now-my expectation is that given what we have just seen that in 15 years there will be lots of golf in Cuba for the moderately well-to-do tourista. So good!! Do it!

  34. Brenda

    December 24, 2014 at 7:20 am

    I have no desire to go to cuba, whether I was going to play golf or not.

  35. Kuliman

    December 24, 2014 at 4:14 pm

    Golf in Cuba without hesitation. Why wait? Go again down the road to see how time has changed/improved it as a destination in general. I love the adventure of golfing outside the US. Aruba, Costa Rica and the DR so far. I just may have to plan some time for that tourney in April…Who needs to watch the Masters when I can make my own “Major” adventure!

  36. George

    December 26, 2014 at 9:28 am

    What about Guantanamo Bay? Supposedly at one time it was the best in the Caribbean. Now you have to bring your own turf. If they turn the water back on, it would probably take little time to get it back in shape.

  37. John

    December 28, 2014 at 8:17 pm

    No desire to go. Many places to play right here. Would play in Cuba, MO.

  38. paul

    December 29, 2014 at 1:43 pm

    Do I trust Americans to much or are Americans realy so thrustfull? I go for the last choice. And so…I believe all they try to tell me.

  39. JW Means III

    January 7, 2015 at 1:18 am

    I spent a month in 2014 as a consultant to and playing golf with the head pro from Veradero Golf and would be willing to pass on my professional experience there if interested contact our email address golfpgt [at] sbcglobal [dot] net

  40. Bob

    March 27, 2015 at 7:08 pm

    The golf course is quite good for the price – but the women who work at the place where you pay for the golf are obnoxious, arrogant, huffy and rude individuals – the exact opposite of the Cubans. I have never encountered such socially inept staff at any golf course anywhere in the world. Their lack of social skills should be recognized by the golf course manager and the government. They are responsible for the disenchantment of tourists who wish to play golf in Cuba. Can the course manager not get rid of them?

  41. Bob

    March 27, 2015 at 7:10 pm

    Get rid of the women who “run” the pro shop

  42. paul dunn

    July 23, 2015 at 7:14 am

    I am the co-author of Great Donald Ross Golf Courses Everyone Can Play – 2nd Edition (Roman and Littlefield Publishers). I am seeking the original plans of the Country Club of Havana and Havana Biltmore courses and expect to travel to Cuba next year once our Embassy is open and operating a full tilt.
    In the next fifty years I predict that there will again be great golf in Cuba, tied to inviting housing and open to public play. Under the present government I do not foresee private courses and clubs being created until there are gradual changes in the governing philosophy there.
    Anyone reading this with knowledge of the original Ross plans for the two courses here may contact me at paulandbj [at] nc [dot] rr [dot] com
    Paul Dunn
    Pinehurst, NC
    910 235 0397

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