TRIPOLI (Reuters) - Among the rubbish-strewn bushes and occasional bullet shells on the rocky ground, nine flimsy flags flapping in the breeze mark the holes of a golf course along Tripoli’s Mediterranean coast.
The occasional volley of automatic rifle fire in the distance is yet another of the unique “hazards”, and a reminder of the chaos that still reigns in many parts of Libya.
The course is mostly empty except for a few workers building what one day may become a clubhouse and a dog sniffing discarded water bottles, fish bones and trash peppering the fairway.
This is not the lush greenery of Augusta or St Andrews but for Libya’s golf fans the small course in the capital’s upmarket Gargaresh area is one of a handful where they can get a game.
Libya, a desert state apart from its coastal north, has no grass courses, just sand ones where the distinction between fairway and rough is extremely tenuous.
A wilderness of rocks, bushes and rubbish - and now empty bullet shells following the 2011 war that ousted Muammar Gaddafi - the course could be described as one perpetual rough.
“The first time I played after the revolution, you looked for your ball among pieces of metal, scrap, bullet cases,” said David Bachmann, former commercial counselor at the Austrian embassy in Tripoli.
“It was all kinds of weird things you would not normally expect in the rough of a golf course.”
Drives streak across arrow-straight fairways from tees that consist of brick platforms covered with damp sand. Occasional wooden markers make it just possible to discern the boundaries between holes.
Given the lack of grass, players carry a small stretch of artificial turf on which they place their ball to take a shot.
The green itself is more like a “brown” - a patch of flattened damp sand that needs to be smoothed out after putting - with a cup for a hole. Sometimes gunfire rattles in the distance as fighting rages between armed groups.
“One morning, myself and a friend from the United Nations made it to the course in the quiet period after the previous night’s shooting subsided and before it restarted,” a Western diplomat formerly based in Tripoli said.
“I double-bogeyed the last hole with renewed gunfire interrupting my concentration.”
While based in Tripoli this year, I played golf twice - once at Gargaresh, where I had to borrow my male playing partner’s clubs because there was nowhere I could rent them from.
Taking my second shot by the sea, I was horrified when my ball hit a stone on the fairway and came flying back at us.
At Mudi golf course, a nine-hole par 36 some 50 kms (31 miles) west of Tripoli, a caddie was on hand to guide us.
Owner Abdullah Mudi said the course, boasting a driving range and clubhouse, had been built on farmland.
As I practiced, I waited as chickens passed the driving range before taking a shot. I later lost my ball on a hole which overlooked an orchard and got distracted by camels in a nearby pen.
Before the war, Mudi also had cows and ostriches but scarce resources during the fighting made it difficult to keep them. He says Gaddafi was not a fan of the sport and it was neglected.
“Gaddafi did not like golf and he didn’t support the game,” he said. “I sent my son to the Junior Open in 2008 to show the world Libya likes this game.”
The Libyan Golf Federation, registered with the International Golf Federation, counts some 300 members in a country of more than six million people. Mudi said Libyan golfers usually compete in regional competitions.
“We don’t get good positions - sometimes fourth place, fifth place - never first place,” he said.
“I don’t know if the government will support us. We’ve been saying we need a grass golf course to improve the game in Libya but nobody listens. There are many problems in the country.”
Those are mainly security woes as the Tripoli authorities struggle to impose order on a country awash with weapons.
Before the war, Bachmann said expatriates drove to Djerba in neighboring Tunisia to play on grass courses. Now, with their movements restricted and the border often shut, that is not so easy, although still very few play in Tripoli.
“The coastal geography is breathtaking and one could easily envision many courses in the future,” the diplomat said. “For now it’s for die-hards only who desperately need a golf fix.”
Editing by Michael Roddy and Alistair Lyon