Golfing Baghdad’s Green Zone: the Baghdad open at a course with real bunkers

Iraq’s rocky Crossed Swords Golf Course is filled with sounds of helicopters and gunfire.

.BAGHDAD (AP) – The weight of the 9-iron felt just right. My first swing off the first tee was smooth and the ball sailed straight and true.

For a brief moment I forgot where I was. Then I gazed down the fairway – actually just a few clumps of grass, scrub brush and plenty of rocks.

This is golf, Green Zone style.

One recent afternoon – squeezed in between sandstorms and incoming mortar rounds – a colleague and I hit the links. We dubbed it the Baghdad Open.

But there’s nothing really open about it. The nine-hole Crossed Swords Golf Course is closed in by 15-foot concrete blast walls and watched over by humorless Gurkha guards from Nepal.

Black Hawk helicopters buzzed overhead. Bursts of gunfire interrupted backswings. The threat of incoming rockets and mortars was ever present.

The course – a total of 479 rugged, dusty and nerve-fraying yards – was created a year ago by a British military officer who was part of a NATO training mission. Its name comes from one of Saddam Hussein’s eccentric architectural legacies that’s now a Green Zone landmark: two giant hands holding curved sabers that served as an archway for the late dictator’s parade grounds.

The course “is the sole entertainment that we have here in Iraq,” said Air Force Maj. Al Geralt of San Diego as he finished a round. He reported his score was somewhere between “abysmal and miserable.”

“But it’s loads of fun,” he said. “The NATO boys that came up with it – it is one of the best things they could have done for morale out here.”

So long as you don’t expect anything resembling the country club back home.

The greens would more aptly be called “browns” as they are made of dirt. The cups are fashioned out of baked bean cans sunk into the ground with large, creepy beetles crawling in the bottom.

There was, of course, a sand bunker. But oddly, for a desert country, just one.

Arguably the most hallowed spot of American golf – Augusta National, home of the Masters – bills its Amen Corner, holes No. 11, 12 and 13, as among the toughest tests in the golfing world. But I would challenge Tiger Woods to a round at the Green Zone course any day – just to see how his steely concentration would hold up when the mortar alarm blares: “Incoming! Incoming! Take cover!” and shells land nearby.

Players are allowed only two clubs – a short iron or a pitching wedge, along with a putter. I chose a 9-iron, the club my father taught me to use for my short game since my first feeble swings in preschool. My competitor, Associated Press photographer Petr David Josek, went with a pitching wedge.

The short irons and sand wedges – along with woods used at a mini driving “range” consisting of a small tee box and net – were donated by Nicklaus Golf Equipment. Putters were donated by the Yes! company.

The fee is a small donation (most people give $2 for a round) and about $800 has been raised so far. Once they hit the $1,000 mark, all future proceeds will go to the National Fallen Heroes Foundation, a charity that helps the families of American soldiers killed in Iraq.