That time golf saved the world from war
In his column revisiting past interviews, veteran journalist A. Craig Copetas describes how a celebrated golf course architect became a confidential diplomatic troubleshooter for four US presidents, defusing tension between brawling nations.
The International Code of Conduct against Ballistic Missile Proliferation fails to address advanced golf-ball launch technology.
“It’s a troubling deficiency,” reckons Robert Trent Jones Jr.
The little-known code, bureaucratised in 2002 with the acronym HCoC, is a voluntary covenant between 143 nations designed to curtail hypersonic boost-glide missiles and other nuclear-armed airborne thingamajigs that can kill the world’s 7.9 billion inhabitants faster than a sneeze of coronavirus through a screen door.
Golf is a game played by 60 million people. The 82-year-old Jones is a celebrated golf course architect, vocal campaigner for nuclear demobilisation and environmental awareness, and served as a confidential diplomatic troubleshooter for four United States presidents.
“There’s little difference between launching a golf ball with a prohibited Geek Golf Fail Safe 3 driver and launching any sort of weapon with an unstoppable hypersonic missile,” says Jones, who has built 280 golf courses around the world. “The linkage is evident.”
There is also ample proof why it would be rash to dismiss Jones’s observations as a far-fetched metaphor, particularly as HCoC signatories China, Russia and Iran at the disarmament group’s July meeting in Vienna murmured about cancelling their subscriptions to the agreement.
Fact is, when nations in the past were inching towards a brawl, belligerents on both sides frequently asked Jones to help defuse the tension.
“Bob is an influential voice, a good and trusted back channel,” former US Secretary of State George Shultz said a few years after Jones in 1986 helped the People Power movement defenestrate the Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos. “Bob is a really good golfer and very competitive in everything.”
Along the way, Jones also back-channelled messages to Soviet and Chinese officials while successfully constructing golf courses in their respective countries at a time when both foreign powers described golfers as running dog capitalists. US Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi in 2004 described Jones as “one of our most important operatives”.
“Bobby helped me become President of the Philippines,” Corazon Aquino added over lunch at her home in Manila shortly after she stepped down from office in 1992. “He put his life at risk for the Philippines more than once.”
Aquino’s brother Jose “Peping” Cojuangco vividly recalled one of those times.
Manila was under martial law. There were tanks rumbling the streets, tracer bullets flying in the air and Jones was walking off a plane from San Francisco with sensitive information from US President Ronald Reagan that could not be entrusted to official channels.
“Bobby gets in the car and I hand him an AK-47 assault rifle,” Cojuangco said. “I told him that Marcos will torture us for the information you’re carrying. We must not be taken alive.”
Reaching for one of the golf clubs piled on the backseat floor atop golf balls and ammunition clips, Jones selected a 3-iron and tapped Cojuangco on the shoulder. “Peping, you got a 7-iron back here?” Cojuangco recalls Jones asking. “I’d be much better with a 7-iron than an AK-47.”
Jones’s preferred weapon is poetry. Indeed, he never leaves home without a canvas tote bag stuffed with poetry anthologies and self-published copies of his poetry books. Many of Jones’s friends jest their only frustration is having to listen to him read verse.
The ribbing ended in January 2005, when then-Senator and Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee Joe Biden thanked Jones for deploying one of his poems to neutralise a percolating calamity with Iran at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland.
The WEF’s theme that year was “Taking Responsibility for Tough Choices” that few at the event wanted to acknowledge, and perhaps nowhere more so than at a dinner with Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharazi to answer the question, “Is Iran a supporter of civil and human rights, or a suspected friend of terrorists and a nuclear tiger?”
Jones and I were Kharazi’s dining companions at one of some eight tables filled with Iranian politicians and senior Western foreign policy officials. HCoC was on the menu, but it was never served because pandemonium arrived before the first course entered the room.
A waiter asked Kharazi if he preferred red or white wine. Jones told the young woman why the foreign minister did not drink alcohol. The master of ceremonies declared protocol had been breached and that all wine be removed from the room, triggering the other guests to gasp, groan and then grab the bottles before the waiters could confiscate them.
Kharazi said the wine could remain, explaining that only Muslims are forbidden from consuming alcohol. The MC refused to rescind his ukase. The guests refused to hand over their wine.
Another waiter arrived with the first dish. Jones, who has built 10 golf courses in Islamic countries, pointed to the prawns in front of the foreign minister.
“Makruh (strictly to be avoided as abominable)?” I recall Jones saying, hoping he had whispered the correct phrase and properly pronounced the word to Kharazi. Thanking Jones for his courtesy, the foreign minister’s shellfish were removed. But the other guests would not surrender their prawns.
All eyes were on Kharazi when the main course arrived. Whatever hopes WEF officials had for a coherent discussion about HCoC and Iran’s nuclear and human rights policies were about to be sacrificed on a plate of pork schnitzel.
Then Joe Biden showed up late. He went directly to Kharazi, who was eating a salad garnished with a loud chorus of global leaders railing against Iran for ruining their supper.
“Enough,” Jones roared. “I’m going to read a poem,” he said as the crowd roared back their displeasure – everyone, that is, except Biden, who, like Jones knew that Persians love poetry.
Above the hubbub and dodging two playfully launched bread rolls, Jones riffed one of his own poems into Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Ozymandias. Biden nodded his approval. The Iranians gave Jones a standing ovation and offers to meet with Iran’s leadership in Tehran.
Sixteen years of quarrelling over acronyms later, amid the fragility of the JCPOA accord and the coming maelstrom over HCoC, maybe now is the time for POTUS to ask Jones to RSVP the Iranian invite.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.