A hit in Iran
Observations on golf
Dressed in a brown jacket, faded blue jeans and a Paisley hijab, Tala addresses the tee, pauses, and hits another ball with military precision. "She's going to go a long way," beams Sam, her proud husband and coach. "Tala's just joined the Iranian national team and we're practising for a big sand tournament in the south. She's got a really smooth swing."
Golf, a symbol of the bourgeois west, is proving surprisingly popular in Iran, especially among young women in the capital, Tehran, home to the country's best - well, only - grass course at Enghelab, in the shadow of the Alborz mountains. It is the antithesis of Britain's immaculately kept, male-dominated courses. It has only 12 holes (the army commandeered most of the back nine 12 years ago to use as a parking lot for its tanks) and the clubhouse is a decrepit prefabricated cabin. But what really sets it apart is that nearly half of its 300-plus members are women.
The club wasn't always so egalitarian. According to Joe, an Afghan who plays off eight and tends to the tough, scrubby course, golf in Iran used to be the preserve of "famous wrestlers, TV actors, oil workers and ambassadors". With financial help from the government, however, the club has made efforts to get ordinary Tehranis on to the fairways by running mini-golf courses in the city's public parks and offering free tuition to beginners.
"We have three public classes on a Friday," Joe explains, walking me around the course. "You won't
find anywhere in any country where people teach golf for no money." Green fees are reasonable - roughly $4 for Iranians, against $55 for foreigners - and the dress code is relaxed: men don't have to wear a collar, although women must cover up. The hijab is, in fact, partly responsible for the popularity of golf, one of a handful of sports where a headscarf doesn't unduly hamper performance. But equally important are that women enjoy significant social freedom in Iran and sport is actively encouraged. The Enghelab scorecard bears Imam Khomeini's opinion on the subject: "Sport activity is part of our Islamic teaching."
Back on the driving range, Tala exhausts her bucket of balls and walks off to talk tactics with her team-mates, who recently won bronze at the Islamic Women's Games. It's a Thursday, the first day of the weekend, and women outnumber the men two to one. Iran may be an international pariah, but next to Royal St George's or St Andrews, Enghelab Golf Club can take the moral high ground.