After the unearthing of legendary Cuban photographer Alberto Korda's images of Fidel Castro and 'Che' Guevara playing golf, Dale Concannon takes a closer look at the round that could have triggered World War III. Photography by Alberto Korda, courtesy of Dominic Winter Auctioneers / BNPS / Old Golf Images
Taking aim: ‘Che’ Guevara (crouching) looks on as Fidel Castro attempts a short putt during their one and only round at Colinas de Villareal Golf Club in Havana
HK GOLFER・AUG 2013
HK GOLFER・AUG 2013
Castro (above) reportedly carded a round of 127, good enough for a 23-shot win over Guevara; after failing to get a game with President Eisenhower during a trip to the US, Castro (opposite) cut short his visit, returned to Cuba, and ordered the flattening of all the country’s courses 54
HK GOLFER・AUG 2013
s valuation expert to Dominic Winter Auction House in the heart of the English countryside, Chris Albury was used to receiving strange things through the post. Held together with brown tape and covered in brightly coloured Mexican stamps, the address on the package was scrawled in black marker pen substituting the Spanish word Reino Unido for the United Kingdom. “Looking it over the biggest surprise of all was that it arrived safely in the first place,” he admitted. The letter inside was not much better. Written in Spanish something told him that it might be worth getting it translated. Any lingering doubts he may have had were quickly dispelled after a group of black and white photographs spilled onto his desk when he finally managed to get it open. Instantly recognisable they were the work of legendary Cuban photographer Alberto Korda – the man behind the iconic portrait of Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara entitled El Guerrillero Heroico. Grabbing a magnifying glass from a drawer, he scanned his
way through the small but fascinating collection. Then almost without warning, four images drew a sharp intake of breath from the experienced auctioneer. “I spotted four photographs of what appeared a rather unusual golf match,” said Albury. “Somewhat unusually two men were dressed in Army fatigues and combat boots. Then I did a double take. One was Fidel Castro and the other was Che Guevara!” A few late evening phone calls to the mysterious consigner in Mexico and Chris Albury established the collection of 55 photographs belonged to Alberto Korda’s daughter, Norka. “We had sold some of her fathers’ photos in a previous sale and they had fetched a good price,” said Albury. “Somehow she found out about it on the internet and sent us the photographs to sell in our May (2013) Collectors Auction.” Now it was time to do some research ... At first glance the connection between two battle-hardened revolutionaries and the bourgeoisie game of golf is not instantly obvious. And while photos of the Castro-Guevara golf match are not unknown (they are regularly sold as postcards in souvenir shops throughout Cuba), the story behind it is mired in controversy and confusion. Born Alberto Diaz Gutierrez in Havana in 1928, Korda was employed as a photographer for the official State newspaper Revolucion. Ever present at Castro’s side, he was called upon to photograph a hastily arranged golf match at Colinas de Villareal Golf Club in Havana. Producing a collection of relaxed images of Fidel and Guevara going head-to-head on the links, Korda himself dated them “March 1961” though this has since been disputed. In an interview for Korda: A Revolutionary Lens by Mark Sanders, he did at least offer a brief background to the photos. “Fidel was in a meeting with El Che looking through the American newspapers when he stumbled across a headline about President Eisenhower playing a good round of golf. Fidel couldn’t believe that, in a world where children were dying of starvation and men were killing each other in war, the American newspapers would cover anything so trivial. Then he turned to Che Guevara and asked him, ‘Do you know how to play golf?’, and Che replied, ‘Yes’ – El Che had worked as a caddie in Argentina. Fidel said, ‘Okay, tomorrow you and I are going to play a round of golf.’ The following morning they both went to a golf course outside of Havana and Che played in such a way as to let Fidel win. Next day Revolucion published my photographs with the headline that said Fidel had made a better player than Eisenhower. In fact Fidel had never played golf before ...” In the 2007 biographical work Cuba by Korda, the photographer recalled being berated for the HKGOLFER.COM
way he looked during the match: “‘Chico, with your cameras around your neck you look like a Yankee!’ Che joked when I started to photograph him playing golf. ‘Do you realise how much we cost the country for all the films spilling out of your pockets?’ I didn’t reply, but thought to myself: ‘What’s the problem? I paid for all the film myself!’” Korda’s assertion that Che had somehow let Castro win was also disputed most notably by Castro’s personal biographer, José Lorenzo Fuentes. In a decision that reputedly cost him his job at the Cuban Granma newspaper, he reported how Guevara had beaten his Commander-in-Chief with a score of 127 against 150. Whatever the accuracy of the story, it so incensed Castro that he demanded that Fuentes be fired immediately. Fuentes also questioned the March, 1961 date given by Korda. Now living in Florida he gave an interview with the Independent newspaper in 2009 in which he suggested the match was played shortly after the Cuban Missile Crisis of November, 1962. “Castro told me that the headline of the story the next day would be 'President’ Castro challenges President Kennedy to a friendly game of golf,’” he recalled. With Cuban records unable to confirm an exact date, the idea that Castro responded to such a groundbreaking moment in history with a game of golf is an unlikely scenario. Equally if the match had taken place in the weeks before, the danger involved in such political posturing is obvious. Moreover, with the world on the edge of a nuclear holocaust could a game of golf really tipped it over the edge? Quite why Fuentes would offer such an inaccurate date is also unsure. He certainly harboured a grudge against the Castro regime having been (falsely in his opinion) accused of working for the CIA and imprisoned in Cuba in 1969. "The day I was sent to prison was the day I lost faith in the revolution," he is reported as saying. Serving a three-year sentence before fleeing to Miami, it is now generally accepted the famous golf match took place around in May, 1959. Barely three months after he ousted Cuban Dictator Fulgencio Batista in a military coup, Castro was invited to Washington DC by the American Society of Newspaper Editors to discuss his so-called ‘Peoples Revolution.’ Aware of United States President Eisenhower’s passion for golf it has been suggested that Castro wanted to show off his “golfing credentials” in preparation for a possible round with the American leader. Sadly no such game could be arranged. Viewed by the US Government as a Russian stooge, Castro was told the President was unavailable as he was playing golf alone at the Congressional Golf Club during his entire visit. Incensed at the snub, it was a furious Castro HKGOLFER.COM
"Fidel was in a meeting with El Che looking through the American newspapers when he stumbled across a headline about Eisenhower playing a good round of golf. He couldn’t believe that, in a world where children were dying of starvation, the newspapers would cover anything so trivial." who cut short his visit and returned home to Cuba. Within days he ordered that all Cuba’s golf courses be flattened and never used again for such a decadent Western game. Not surprisingly, Colinas de Villareal was among the first to be ploughed under and converted into a military barracks. Castro himself appeared to confirm this earlier date an interview with the Colombia-based website Camaguey.com.co in 2007. Asked about the famous match he said: “One day, Che and I went to play golf. The United States government had already decreed the suspension and the redistribution of Cuba's sugar quota, after the Revolution had passed the Agrarian Reform Law. The golf game was a photo opportunity. The real purpose was to make fun of Eisenhower ...” Someone else with an interest in the Guevara / Castro golf match is Alberto Korda’s son, Dante. “I have heard so many different stories about the day my father took those pictures,” he said from his home in Spain. “In truth, the “match” probably took place over a hole or two for the camera – not an entire round keeping score.” HK GOLFER・AUG 2013
Incensed at the snub, it was a furious Castro who cut short his visit and returned home to Cuba. Within days he ordered that all Cuba’s golf courses be flattened and never used again for such a decadent Western game.
Boasting his own valuable collection of ‘Korda’ images, his only regret is that he has no control over how or where they are exhibited. “Along with many other photographers work, the original negatives were commandeered by the Cuban State Archive (Archivo del Consejo de Estado) in March, 1968,” he explained. “This meant that if my father wanted to reproduce from them, he would have to apply like any other citizen.” Not that owning the copyright to their fathers’ work is of great importance to either of his children. “My father never exercised that (copy) right on any of his photos,” said Dante. “Now all his work is in the public domain and there is sufficient evidence this was always my father's position in life ... As his family we can only be proud that his work is now so widely appreciated.” It was a packed Gloucestershire saleroom that greeted the auction of the Korda photographs in May of this year. Interest in lot 815, Juego de Golf (Game of Golf), Club de Golf de la Habana, had been particularly strong during the viewing days and a high auction price was expected. “What makes these photos interesting is that both Castro and Guevara are smiling at their inability to play the game with any degree of skill,” said Graham Rowley, a golf memorabilia expert. “I also like the fact they are surrounded by Cuban peasants who appear totally bemused at what they are watching. This also adds value to the images.” With various news media covering the sale of the Korda images, Dominic Winter Auction House had done a good job in publicity terms: “We have had enquires from many different countries,” said Chris Albury at the time. “I only hope that translates into a high price for all concerned.” Neither he nor Norka Korda would be disappointed. The golf-related images were purchased by a private collector at the high end of the pre-sale estimate of £2,500-3,500 (approximately HK$28,850-40,350), while the total archive realised £33,000 (HK$380,000) including buyers' premium. The only question now is whether 86 year-old Fidel Castro, still alive and living in Cuba, would want his cut?
While Guevara (above) was better known for his love of rugby union, he did have knowledge of golf having served as a caddie in his Argentinean homeland; Alberto Korda (right) pictured here with his daughter, Norka 56
HK GOLFER・AUG 2013