An old joke runs that the word golf is an acronym for “gentlemen only, ladies forbidden,” and for centuries there has sometimes been a misconception that women couldn’t level up in the game because men have “stronger arms”.
Today, it is accepted that the word golf in fact means “club”, with the first documented mention of the word coming in 1457 when king James II of Scotland banned the sport to encourage the practice of archery instead.
Just as women proved men wrong and aced the game, another rule that has been broken is that golf is reserved for the wealthy and ruling circles. In fact, many golf players have come from the bottom of the economic ladder and engraved their names on golf’s Walk of Fame, prime among them being Francis Ouimet, an American nicknamed “the father of amateur golf”.
Ouimet won the US Amateur twice and was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 1974. His US Open success is credited with bringing golf into the American sporting mainstream. Today, the US boasts more than 15,000 golf courses.
In 1939, Egyptian player Mohamed Al-Sunni broke the golf dress code at the time by ranking second in the Egyptian Sphere Tournament held at the Maadi Club wearing his traditional galabiya and headscarf. Al-Sunni was a master caddie at the Helwan Golf Club, and he participated in the Sphere Tournament, beating many Englishmen in three hours.
It was 100 years ago that golf was introduced to Egypt by its then British occupiers, whose golf games were concentrated in Maadi, Helwan, and the Mena House Hotel near the Pyramids in Giza. The hotel’s grand backdrop of the Great Pyramids lured many foreign residents to practise the sport.
To encourage Egyptians to play golf, nobleman Abbas Halim, a member of the then ruling Mohamed Ali family, set up the Egyptian Sphere Tournament. Not a single Egyptian applied to compete against the British at first, and the competition would have failed had it not been for Halim’s call on golf club caddies to take part. That was when Al-Sunni’s name rose to fame.
Today, Egyptian professional golfer Mohamed Fahmi coaches at Giza’s Dream Land Golf Resort. Fahmi started out as a caddie at the age of six at the Mena House Hotel, where his father used to work. He fell in love with the game and the golf course, “which overlooks the majestic Great Pyramids — the world’s best and most historic background,” as he explained to Al-Ahram Weekly.
Fahmi had won many domestic and international golf competitions before he decided to focus on training. “My first golf gear consisted of a tree branch and a nylon bag in the shape of a ball. That was in 1970, and today, 50 years later, golf remains my passion,” he said.
“Parties and gatherings held with each tournament strengthen friendships among players and make the game even more entertaining,” he added. But because many golf players are the representatives of international conglomerates, “there will be instances when aspiring businessmen-wannabes will pay a hefty sum to join a golf club and buy the expensive gear and attire just to approach the big shots to seal a deal,” he said.
Business aside, Fahmi added that Egypt’s sunny weather also attracts travellers and golf professionals to practise the sport in the country. “Snow can be a reason to put off or cancel golf tournaments abroad, which is never the case in Egypt,” he said.
“The majority of foreigners who play golf in Egypt are Koreans, followed by Italians. In general, the Mediterranean weather is like a magnet for golfers. For example, 43 per cent of US golfers participate in tournaments held in Egypt, the UAE, and Turkey,” Fahmi added.
BEST FOR GOLF: Another attractive asset is the low cost of practising the game in Egypt.
“A golfing tourist might spend at least double the price a regular traveller might spend during a visit to Egypt. Even so, a foreign golfer might pay 1,000 euros to play three times in some countries. In Egypt, the sum would be enough to play for a year. This is why golf can be a major asset to the national tourism industry,” Fahmi said.
“It is high time Egypt marketed the destinations of Sharm El-Sheikh, Hurghada, El Gouna, Sahl Hasheesh, and the North Coast, not only for their beaches, but also for their golf courses as well,” he added.
In Taba, for example, there is a golf course nestled between the clear blue waters of the Red Sea and the spectacular Sinai Mountains. Fahmi said there was a need for better promotion of the game in Egypt. “The cinema has not always presented a positive image of the game, depicting it in superficial scenes revolving around businessmen and powerful figures,” for example, he added.
“Even on a political level, [former president Hosni] Mubarak was critical of the sport, describing it as a waste of water. The fact is that potable water is not used in irrigating golf courses, which use treated water recycled after being used in resorts or hotels. In some cases, a desalination station may be built to irrigate a golf course,” he explained.
“Even if it might cost a lot to set up a golf course, the revenues far exceed the expenditure,” he added.
Egypt has more than 20 golf courses, some of them designed by world famous designers such as Greg Norman and Gary Player. European golf competitions have also included Egypt among their world-class golf destinations, according to the Egyptian Tourism Authority.
With the Covid-19 outbreak now subduing in Egypt, the Egyptian Golf Federation has resumed its activities after issuing detailed guidelines to ensure the safety of players. On 30 September, the Allegria Open was launched at the Allegria Golf Club in Cairo, and five days earlier the Federation kicked off the Second Egyptian Junior Masters Tour at different venues.
For golf professionals and amateurs alike, golf is more than greens, tees, and bunkers, and instead it is a philosophy in itself. In many cultures, golf has been romanticised. Among some men, golf has been described as a woman who should be treated with extra care and gentleness to win her over. And women have been told to treat the ball like they would treat their mothers — with patience and tenderness.
It’s also been said that an elegant look doesn’t necessarily mean a good golfer. On the course, players are not allowed to wear jeans or accessories. The clothes, watches, shades, and shoes come with reasons attached to them, reflecting a decent, practical look that shies away from extravagance.
But golf has not always maintained the same form. Unlike the greens of today, early Scottish golf courses were soil-covered sand dunes inland from beaches. The game as we know it today originated in 15th-century Scotland, and the 18-hole round was created at the Old Course of St Andrews in 1765.
Some historians trace the sport back to the Roman game of paganica, however, in which the participants used a bent stick to hit a stuffed leather ball. One theory asserts that paganica spread throughout Europe as the Romans conquered most of the continent during and after the first century BCE.
Other historians say golf is based on the Chinese game of chuiwan (meaning “striking a small ball”), which was played between the eighth and 14th centuries. The game is thought to have been introduced into Europe during the Middle Ages.
However, it wasn’t until 1552 that the first woman golfer played the game, and it was only in the 20th century that women were taken seriously on courses, finally breaking the “gentlemen only, ladies forbidden” joke.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 15 October, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly