Tashkent, Uzbekistan, 11,665 km North West of Melbourne, Australia.
Golf certainly is a global game, which take us PGA Pros to all corners of the globe but never did I think I would find myself in Uzbekistan.
It was a long journey; 26 hours after departing Melbourne, Australia I landed in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. With no phone service and no local SIM cards available I made the trepidatious journey from the safety of the airport arrivals hall, across the road, and out into the public. Carefully searching for a sign with my name on it I entered an area filled with what felt like a football crowd, where all of the noise was directed at me. Do you need a taxi? Do you want a hotel? I didn’t find that sign with my name, so I stood still...waiting as I continued to be peppered with offers.
What happened next was a sign of good things to come. A taxi driver whom I had denied 30 seconds earlier offered me his phone to call my host. After a short conversation I was connected with my host and we made our way to the Soviet inspired Hotel Uzbekistan.
I have been to numerous countries in my role as a PGA Pro and golf coach educator but this country was more different than I could have ever imagined. Engaged by the International Golf Federation, the PGA’s job this time was to educate the coaches of the Afghanistan Golf Federation, in Uzbekistan. With the status of Afghanistan deemed too unsafe for a westerner to travel the Afghanistan Golf Federation coaches were flown to neighbouring Tashkent for a six day seminar at the country’s one and only golf club, Tashkent Lakeside Golf Club.
Shortly after my arrival I met with fellow PGA Professional Kim Baldwin and the rest of the host party for a welcome dinner and the next morning I laid eyes on the Tashkent Lakeside Golf Club for the first time. The venue is a tired golf club built shortly after the country’s independence from the USSR. They did a lot of things right. An 18-hole golf course, a serviceable clubhouse, practice greens and a now bruised and battered driving range. It was more than we needed to do our job.
For us the condition of the playing surfaces would be no better than the cheapest public course in a big city. Their 150 strong workforce was no match for Australia’s highly trained superintendents, apprentices and resource budgets. For the Afghans though this was golf paradise. Their one and only golf course, Kabul Golf Club struggles to maintain any real playing surfaces and is at times too dangerous to play. Particularly if local insurgents are controlling the area surrounding the course. In Tashkent, the coarse greens and sparse multi grass fairways were a welcome break from their normal conditions of sand and oil based putting surfaces and dusty fairways.
The seminar itself was conducted like many of the education programs the PGA runs; presentations combined with learning activities and practical training. Initially it was said that language would be no issue, yet when you combine a fast talking Aussie, a second or third language and a sport with its own vocabulary the need for translation was apparent. So after just five minutes of introductions we proceeded at a slow pace of 2-3 English sentences, translated to Afghan and then occasionally translated into Uzbek.
We started methodically, talking about the role of the coach, the different coaching styles and the stages of learning. After a day of laying the foundations we moved into some more technical instruction in areas like ball flight, full swing, short game and putting. They are hungry for knowledge in these areas. Their current information source is a lethal cocktail of YouTube videos and traditional golf myths like “keep your head down, keep your lead arm straight, lift under the ball, straight back and straight through.” They enjoyed our step by step approach and liked having their assumptions challenged. Our goal of having them leave with a coaching framework was achieved.
Preparing to deliver these presentations greatly helps your coaching pedagogy. You drill down into what is non-negotiable, what is a principle and what is a preference. The Afghans are doing their best to grow the sport with non-fitted equipment, dimpleless balls and open, nondescript playing areas. No holes, flags and bent grass greens. The basic items found in their everyday environment are used to make golf enjoyable and fun. I think the simplicity of golf can get lost along the way due to the latest driver, newest course or revolutionary training aid.
Whilst in Uzbekistan we were hosted by the Uzbekistan Golf Federation. To say we were looked after would be an understatement. We had a driver to transport us between the hotel, the golf course and the numerous restaurants and attractions we visited. A professional boxer was amongst the Uzbek entourage that shadowed our steps. All of our needs were catered for. The people are so friendly, warm and welcoming.
Personally one of the highlights of the trip was our ability to visit tourist attractions. On similar trips we’ve been placed too far from the main attractions, living like a hermit golf coach for 7-14 days. This trip was very different. The Hotel Uzbekistan is located in the town square. From the lobby you can see many of the main attractions and a short 2-3 minute walk will have you in the middle of the action. The Amir Temur monument, Metro railway, State Museum and National Forum are all an easy 6 iron from each other.
I honestly believe we will hear more and more about Uzbekistan in the future. The once closed country is now opening its doors to tourism with Australians able to enter VISA free for 30 days. The new President is striving to give the country it’s own identity. The country is a fascinating contrast of post 1960s earthquake Soviet architecture and 1990s national pride buildings and monuments. This was certainly a trip that over-delivered on my expectations.
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