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Ernesto "Che" Guevara plays golf as Fidel Castro stands behind him at Colina Villareal in Havana in this undated file picture. Now that Fidel Castro has handed over power to his brother, Raul, Communist Cuba is setting aside any ideological objections and is embracing golf, the most capitalist of sports, in a move to boost tourism. (Prensa Latina/Reuters/Prensa Latina/Reuters)
Ernesto "Che" Guevara plays golf as Fidel Castro stands behind him at Colina Villareal in Havana in this undated file picture. Now that Fidel Castro has handed over power to his brother, Raul, Communist Cuba is setting aside any ideological objections and is embracing golf, the most capitalist of sports, in a move to boost tourism. (Prensa Latina/Reuters/Prensa Latina/Reuters)

Landing on the green in Castro's Cuba Add to ...

As a boy growing up on the Kahnawake Mohawk reserve outside Montreal, Vincent McComber developed a passion for golf at a nearby private course, caddying for duffers such as Jean Chrétien. But he could never afford to join a club like that.

Four decades later, Mr. McComber is making up for it: He wants to build a $410-million golf resort in Cuba.

Hoping to finalize a deal this August to create a joint venture with the communist country, Mr. McComber is proposing a 36-hole course, a beachfront hotel, spas, shopping centres - and, in a first for the island, villas owned privately by foreigners.

His company, Standing Feather International, is one of several foreign concerns - including Vancouver real estate developer Leisure Canada - bringing golf back to a country desperate for foreign capital and tourism dollars.

Cuba has not been much of a golf destination since the early days of the revolution, when Fidel Castro and Che Guevara famously donned military fatigues and combat boots to play a round at a Havana course and thumb their noses at the elites their insurrection had defeated.

But this month in Havana, Tourism Minister Manuel Marrero Cruz said the government plans to partner with foreign investors to lure those elites back to the Caribbean country, building luxury golf resorts as part of what the Communist official delicately called "a strategy of diversification."

The prospect of opening Cuba's greens to gringos has foundered more than once before, but Mr. McComber is confident he will be luckier, in part because of his aboriginal roots.

"The Cubans and first nations people view things in the same light," said Mr. McComber, who ran a licensed tobacco retail outlet on a native reserve for years. "We're do-it-yourselfers. Life is hard, but not impossible."

Chris Nicolas, the managing director of Standing Feather, recalls securing his first business contracts with the Cubans two decades ago by waving around Mr. Castro's 1992 speech about native rights on the 500th anniversary of Columbus's "extermination" of the Indians.

"So start buying our stuff," he told them as he marketed native-made software - and it worked.

When the Cubans asked Mr. Nicolas if he knew anything about developing golf courses, he and Mr. McComber reached out to Graham Cooke, a world-renowned architect from Quebec who has built several courses on native land across the country.

Mr. Cooke - an avid amateur golfer who was inducted into the Canadian Golf Hall of Fame last year - was intrigued by the sharp cliffs and panoramic views he saw on trips to the proposed location, near Guardalavaca Beach in eastern Holguin province where Mr. Castro was born.

"It's a great site that has drama with the land itself," he said. "There is still a mystique to Cuba - and this is like a new beginning for a country that needs a tourism boost."

Standing Feather even recruited Mark Entwistle, a former Canadian ambassador to Havana, to promote the project.

Still, negotiations with the Cubans have been arduous and took almost a decade.

"There were many times we felt it would come apart at the seams," said Mr. McComber.

A major sticking point has been the prohibition against the private ownership of land. But last year Cuba instituted a flurry of free-market reforms, including one permitting foreign investors in partnership with Cubans to lease government land for up to 99 years.

That was important, because Standing Feather wants to go beyond resort-based tourism and expand into selling vacation properties to Westerners willing to plunk down capitalist dollars in the socialist paradise.

"We'll be able to offer Caribbean real estate for sale to foreigners in Cuba for the first time in over half a century," said Mr. Nicolas.

Meanwhile, Leisure Canada of Vancouver is also aiming for an upscale tourism market not usually associated with Cuba by building hotels, bungalows and villas linked to three championship golf courses on an oceanfront property between Havana and Varadero.

"We're moving ahead quickly," said president Robin Conners, reached in Havana where he is finalizing plans with his local partners. "The Cubans are very entrepreneurial and astute. They realize these higher-end consumers tend to be more loyal to a destination."

For his part, Mr. McComber, who recently placed second in an amateur tournament on Cuba's single and far-from-fancy existing golf course, has a more personal goal in mind.

He said he eventually expects to get away from Montreal's winter for six months of the year, living on a splendid Caribbean course he can not only play on, but that he partly owns.

"It's the ultimate golfer's dream," he said.

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THE DAY FIDEL LOST TO CHE

Novelist Jose Lorenzo Fuentes, who was Fidel Castro's personal correspondent, was ordered one morning in 1962 to a black sedan, where the Communist leader and his economic expert Ernesto (Che) Guevara awaited him. "Fidel looked at me and said, 'Today we're playing golf, and I'm going to give you the headline for your story,'" Mr. Fuentes told Golf.com in 2009. "It will say, 'I could easily beat Kennedy at this game.'"

Mr. Castro won the first hole and repeated his boast as the competitive pair moved to the second tee. Soon enough, though, Mr. Guevara overtook his comrade, and all went downhill. "They both tried hard, but Che played with a great passion," said Mr. Fuentes, a former war correspondent who covered some of Mr. Guevara's battles. "In the end, it wasn't very close."

After the round, the president asked Mr. Fuentes what he planned to write. "I said, 'The truth - that Che won.'"

"Make sure you note that Che had more experience [at the game]than me," El Jefe replied.

Mr. Fuentes ended up the real loser of the match. Two days after his story article ran in the national newspaper, Mr. Fuentes was demoted to a lower government post. Already persona non grata with the regime, he was imprisoned in 1969 and served a three-year sentence, falsely accused, he said, of working with the CIA.

"The day I was sent to prison was the day I lost faith in the revolution," said Mr. Fuentes, who later moved to Miami. "But looking back, the golf game was an early indication of the government's relationship to the truth."

The fateful day may also explain why golf is significantly less popular in Cuba than baseball. One Havana course was turned into a military academy, the other an art school.

Craig Offman

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LEADERBOARD

$2.2-billion (U.S.) - Revenue earned from tourism in Cuba in 2010

2.4 million - Number of tourists visiting Cuba annually

918,064 - Number of Canadian visitors to Cuba last year, a record high

16 - Number of golf courses the Cuban government plans to build with foreign partners

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