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Let Them Play Golf: Destitute Turkmen Get Designer Golf Course 

The new golf course in Ashgabat was built on a former residential site on which dozens of dwellings were bulldozed.
The new golf course in Ashgabat was built on a former residential site on which dozens of dwellings were bulldozed.

Building a designer golf course in arid Turkmenistan -- where golf is virtually unknown and a biting economic crisis has citizens scraping manats together to survive --may not have been the most practical thing at the moment.

But that didn't stop Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov from unveiling the country's first course to great fanfare on October 17, with music, dancers, flag-bearers, and even the golf legend known as the "Golden Bear" on hand.

The American golf great Jack Nicklaus, whose global design firm sculpted the championship-caliber 18-hole Ashgabat Golf Club out of land in the capital, expressed excitement about the government-funded project in comments made in December.

Having made five trips to the Central Asian country to lay plans for the Ashgabat course and others, Nicklaus appeared smitten by an authoritarian leader with a reputation for spending lavishly on pet projects intended to develop his personality cult.

"Every time he brought something in; it's not just the capital, he said: 'I want all my provinces to benefit,'" Nicklaus said of Berdymukhammedov in comments to "He brought horses in, he brought hockey in. And he's doing the same thing with golf.... He takes it to all his people."

But Nicklaus -- who is widely considered the greatest golfer of all time, and whose firm has designed more than 400 courses worldwide -- also admitted that "I don't really know why the president wanted golf." He said that, aside from a handful of foreigners living in Ashgabat, "this does not interest anyone, nobody is engaged in golf here," Hronika Turkmenistan reported.

That isn't stopping the president's sporting initiative. The next Nicklaus-designed golf course --of a possible 10 reportedly being planned--is to be set up in the resort town of Awaza.

Economic Crisis

Berdymukhammedov epitomized his country's unfamiliarity with golf when, at the symbolic first tee-off on the country's new links, he hacked a short, bouncy drive down a fairway to an assembled group of state workers, ambassadors, and business leaders who cheered boisterously.

In a video clip on state TV's Altyn Asyr station, the authoritarian president's weak drive was lauded, with the commentator saying that "despite a headwind of 14 meters per second, our nation's leader hit the hole from 75 meters," and claimed his golf skills were praised by Nicklaus.

Berdymukhammedov Unveils Turkmenistan's First Golf Course
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The embellished description of Berdymukhammedov's drive led some to make comparisons to North Korean media reports of leader Kim Jong Il's first round of golf in 1994 in which they boasted he hit multiples holes in one -- 11 in all.

The new golf course in Ashgabat's Gazha district comes as the country of 5.5 million is in the throes of an economic crisis as government revenues are drained due to failed energy deals and low world prices for natural gas, the country's main export.

That has led to shortages of certain foods and other commodities in stores and forced the government to abandon subsidized prices for utilities such as water and electricity.

The government announced last week that Turkmen citizens will have to pay 25 times more for "extra" tap water starting on November 1.

The average monthly salary in Turkmenistan is about 670 manats ($191 official rate, $95 unofficial rate), RFE/RL's Turkmen Service reported.

Thousands Displaced

In addition to the huge price tag for the new golf course -- construction of a course by a well-known designer like Jack Nicklaus can cost between from several million to tens of millions of dollars --there is the issue of the large amounts of water needed to maintain the grass, trees, and shrubbery on the 70-hectare golf course, considering that Turkmenistan is an arid country mostly covered by the Karakum Desert.

The new course was built on a former residential site on which dozens of dwellings were bulldozed to make room for the golf links and a park as part of a long-running master plan to restyle Ashgabat into a "white-marble city."

Thousands of people have been displaced by this and other similar urban-renewal projects in Turkmenistan, with many saying they were forcibly evicted or not adequately compensated for their property.

Berdymukhammedov -- who holds absolute political control and exerts massive influence over society -- has tried to promote sport among Turkmen and raise the profile of the country by spending billions of dollars on venues, such as those used to host the Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games last month.

He defended his promotion of golf by saying it was important for developing "coordination, endurance, and discipline" while also "allowing a person to become closer to nature."

Berdymukhammedov also implied that Turkmen are old hands at golf, claiming that an ancient people living in what is now Turkmenistan many centuries ago played a game called "chilik-hekgal" that was similar to golf -- though a description of it sounds more like a mix of field hockey, lacrosse, and baseball.

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