Zim’s Leopard Rock a Real Gem

Welcome to Zimbabwe

BY NICK JONES, Former Chief Sports Sub, News of the World

Now, as a tabloid sports hack, I’m used to people thinking we wield great power (utter rubbish but Lord Justice Leveson seems to think differently). But this was ridiculous. The lad was on his knees, in tears of gratitude. And all because of a $20 note. I hadn’t expected this reaction but, frankly, I hadn’t expected anything that had happened in the last 12 hours.

It sounded a great idea when our Webmaster and professional Zimbabwean had suggested a golfing trip to her homeland. I’d only been to Africa once before — when you’ve seen one elephant you’ve seen them all – but this promised to be different. I knew the economy was screwed, Mugabe was a tyrant and that most of their cricket team had defected. But that was it…

A flight on Air Zim, an early morning landing and then straight off to Chapman Golf Club in Harare. We met up with a couple of Hayley’s friends and preceded to the first tee with our caddies tagging along – oh the novelty of it all. My first realisation that this was not England came with the bag check. Now I didn’t feel the need to inform my caddie that I had six balls, a camera and a pair of sunglasses in there – but the locals did. I was also told to ignore his requests for cash.

As for the course, well I loved it. It had a kinda American feel and, although my game was all over the place, the caddie – wearing a Manchester United shirt (Mr Glazer please note) – went willingly into the rough to look for my ball. Coming straight from an English winter it was a delight to see the ball skip along rather than just go splat. The condition was excellent and the rough, which appeared nothing to worry about, incredibly clingy a round the club. Chip out sideways quickly became the order of the day. One hole that stood out for me was the par four 6th. Only 300 metres but a water hazard in front of the green which left little room for manoeuvre.

All was going well until we got the 18th tee. As the sole gentleman in our fourball I teed off from the back (if you’d ever played with long-drive queen Barlow you’d know how ridiculous this was) and that gave me and the caddie a few minutes to talk while the ladies got underway. He told me that his parents were dead, he had to walk 10 miles each day to reach the club and that he was raising a brother and sister alone. Now I’d been told not to fall for this kinda thing but how couldn’t I? I reached into my pocket and peeled off a $20 bill. £14. That’s all. Even in a poor country that was surely about right for a tip? But his reaction totally took me by surprise.

He got on his knees, crying and promising to name his first born after me. Two things struck me. 1. I had changed a man’s life. A first for me. 2. How the hell could I get this weeping man up and off his knees before Hayley and the gals noticed. Thankfully I managed to haul him to his feet before the locals were aware and we completed our round. At which point I sheepishly watched as the Zims paid their caddies in Zim dollars and we headed to the bar – with Barlow looking on suspiciously.

As we chatted over drinks and the sun set over an excellent course, I got another lesson in economics Zimbabwe style. We ordered our first round which came in at 1800 Zim dollars. A half hour later we ordered exactly the same round… 2200 dollars. I will never complain about English inflation again. It was to become the running theme of the week.

After a good night’s sleep (the water had gone off in the night so we had to take advantage of the swimming pool) we packed up the car and headed towards the Eastern Highlands. Hayley was in her element, driving along and chomping on some kinda local delicacy called biltong as she headed back to the hometown where she had spent many of her teen years.

On the way we worked out that a 20,000 dollar note was the equivalent of 50p which helped us make sense of the stratospheric numbers required for every beer. Add in the fact we had literally wodges of cash and I have never felt more like a millionaire. An unsettling feeling in a country where the poverty was obvious.

A three-hour drive saw us in Mutare and then we headed up into the Vumba hills to Leopard Rock – a hotel the Queen Mum had stayed at in the dim and distant past. It’s fair to say there weren’t many guests, in fact at one point we were the only guests, but after checking into sumptuous rooms (and, God be praised, with hot running water) we headed off to the first tee.

Now as a journo freeloader I have been lucky to play many of the world’s finest courses but believe me when I say… if you can ever, ever get to Zimbabwe you absolutely must play Leopard Rock. As a course it ranks alongside any but when you add in the scenery and magnificent views there are few better places to tee it up.

Every hole was a test but the 17th stands out in my mind. A par three with the green seemingly set on a precipice. The views from the putting surface into neighbouring Mozambique were mind-blowing even if I had long since given up caring about my score.

After getting my arse kicked 6&4, I handed over several sizeable bricks of cash to the newly crowned Zimbabwe Matchplay champ before retiring to the bar and finally the casino.

But that’s a story for another time…

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