young girl spitting watermelon seeds in summertime

Kazakh Tales 6: Golf in the Gulag

Have you ever had a hole-in-one? Even non-golfers may have heard of an “ace,” a very rare feat where a player completes a hole in a single stroke.

While living in Kazakhstan, my wife helped lead an after-school program for at-risk kids. These children enjoyed a simple hot meal. More importantly, they were mentored by caring staff and volunteers. Each summer we held an English-language day camp. I usually ran the outdoor sports and games. The kids LOVED learning new sports like baseball and American football. We also enjoyed playing outdoor games like jump the creek, steal the bacon and spitting watermelon seeds. We even tried disc golf!

Though a relatively new sport, disc golf is now played in 40 countries worldwide. There are even professional tournaments! Players complete a hole by throwing a disc towards a target, counting the number of attempts until the target is reached. Scoring is the same as in regular golf, where “lower is better.”

Without a doubt the most amazing feat I ever saw (even more than when watching professional sports on TV) happened on our little vacant lot in Karaganda, a region that was once the site of a huge “gulag” labor camp in the former USSR.

One day during English camp I showed the kids how to play disc golf (aka frisbee golf). We started with some simple short holes, using a wall or big tree as the target, so they could learn the basic idea. We then tried some longer holes, not only to make it more challenging but also to learn English numbers by counting aloud each throw.

When we were finishing, I told them it was time for a REALLY hard golf hole. I went to the other side of the vacant lot, where a pine tree stood beside a tall stone wall. I put our plastic toy box under the tree, with a small opening of only 30 centimeters between it and the lower branches. The goal was to throw the flying disc actually INTO the box, not just hit it as we’d done on previous holes. I explained it would be a difficult “par four” hole, meaning it would take at least 4 throws to complete.

A tall girl, the fastest runner in the group, steps up first and says, “Let me try!” She flings that thing in a wide, sweeping arc completely across the field, perfectly judged, where it flies right under the branches and into the box for a HOLE-IN-ONE! I stood there dumbfounded, not believing my eyes.

Another girl who was really good at math and table tennis then says, “Now me!” I hand her a different frisbee and she, unbelievably, repeats the feat with ANOTHER hole-in-one! I was now completely awestruck. I’d heard of beginner’s luck before, but this had happened twice in a row!

The kids now hand me a disc saying, “Let’s see you do it!” I looked at them and said, “Honestly, I don’t think I can even throw it that far!” I tried. It went about three-fourths of the way there before crashing sideways into the dust.

I wish I had it on video. It really did happen. I was there and saw it.

By the way, the two young women who both got hole-in-ones have now graduated from college, which is even more wonderful than their athletic feats!

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