There are some who take the road less travelled. And then there is Imran Ali, who believes in making his own roads.
The opening tee shot of the Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship had yet to be struck, but the 39-year-old (pictured) – the first player from Afghanistan to take part in the history of the event – was already feeling like a champion.
From Kabul to Shanghai, it has been a remarkable journey for Ali. Life hasn’t exactly been a smooth fairway for him and he has smelled more gunpowder than roses along the way.
However, that has not stopped him from keeping others out of the rough. Ali is single-handedly ushering a green revolution in his nation.
In the span of 12 years, he has helped grow the number of golfers in Afghanistan from less than a dozen to nearly 250 – all in a country that has just one nine-hole golf course, which once had more active landmines than grass in its fairways.
Born a year after his country was invaded by the Soviet army in 1979, Ali had barely started walking when his parents had to flee Kabul as the war began to escalate. They lived in Pakistani cities of Peshawar and Quetta as refugees for nearly two decades before moving back in 2003.
Those were tough times for Ali and his family, but he is thankful for several reasons – beginning with the fact he is still alive.
Ali managed to complete his education in Pakistan, where he fell in love with golf.
“I was in Quetta with my grandfather, who used to play some golf,” Ali said.
“He once gave me a very old fairway wood, which was actually made of wood, and I started hitting old balls with a few other kids in a bare patch of land next to our house. I used to cherish those moments. My grandfather saw the interest in me and taught me some of the basics of the game.
“We then moved back to Kabul in 2003 and I started working as a translator. We’d get many Americans who’d go and play a round at Kabul Golf Club. They’d find it intriguing that I could hit decent shots and would invite me to play with them.”
In 2007, Ali decided he needed to do something so his friends and fellow Afghanis could derive the same pleasure from golf that he did.
He formed and registered the Afghanistan Golf Federation that year. A guest at the club told him he should also request recognition from The R&A and he managed to get the world governing body’s nod in 2009.
“We were some eight to 10 players [mostly caddies who had picked up the game] when the Federation was formed,” said Ali, who is now the general secretary of the Federation.
“We then opened a chapter in the city of Herat, where we have about 100 players now, and in Bamiyan, where we have 40 players. We don’t have any golf courses in these two cities, but we get together and play in open fields. I started teaching as well and I love it. I am teaching a dozen young children, including a few girls, at the moment. A couple of them have very good swings and if I can get them to play at the Asian level, I’d think I have achieved something.”
These days, Ali is busy with his pet project – designing and building a driving range in the heart of Kabul city.
“The Kabul Golf Club is about 10km outside the city. And given that we have bomb blasts taking place on a weekly basis, the commute is made in constant fear that something might happen,” he said.
“I had a few ladies and kids who come to play at our golf course, but they were too afraid. So, I have been after the Ministry of Telecommunication who had a piece on land in the city – about 290 yards long and 30 yards wide.
“After pleading for years, they have finally given it to us.
“We want to make a driving range and a good-quality practice green there. I work as an IT professional in the Ministry of Finance, and I have managed to get a grant of 2.5 million afghani (local currency) for putting up a boundary wall and nets and to also create a good putting green. I think something like this in the heart of the city could be a game-changer.”
Ali did not believe he would be around for the weekend at the Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship, but that did not dampen his spirits. “Every time I go to play a tournament abroad, my biggest issue is my game on and around the greens,” he said.
“Forget the greens in world-class facilities like here in Sheshan, even sub-standard greens are way better than what we have at Kabul Golf Club. I can hit my driver and woods well, and I am good with my irons, but it takes me at least a few days to get used to greens when I go to play tournaments abroad. By the time I figure them out, it is already too late.
“But, for me, a tournament like the Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship is not about winning or losing … it is about taking part.
“I am proud that I am able to fly the Afghanistan flag here and that I will be able to play against such great players from established countries like Japan, Australia and South Korea.
“Just being here is an achievement for me and Afghanistan golf.”