By Army Master Sgt. David Bennett
Special to American Forces Press Service
Dec. 10, 2009 - From the air, the basic outline of Camp Bucca appears as most military forward operating bases in Iraq, except for nine fluttering white flags affixed to poles jutting from the ground. The flags aren't tokens of surrender, but they often elicit cries of frustration from soldiers who have thrown their best at this opponent, only to be repelled.
Army Master Sgt. Brian Franzen, a platoon sergeant in "D" Company of the Wisconsin National Guard's 132nd Brigade Support Battalion, said it's just par for the course.
After a few minutes of speaking with him, it's easy to detect Franzen's passion for the Army, his Irish heritage and golf – not necessarily in that order. He said in his youth, he and his brothers created their own courses. Today, he rarely travels without his clubs, including his latest deployment to Iraq.
Franzen, an infantryman with the Wisconsin Army National Guard, can lay claim to designing what may be the only golf course in southern Iraq.
Until recently, Camp Bucca was home to the largest Theater Internment Facility in Iraq. The facility housed thousands of detainees before it closed in September. With guard towers providing a unique backdrop, Franzen recently explained how the golf course concept originated as he prepared for his second golf tournament for military members here – this one commemorating Thanksgiving.
After two representatives from the Professional Golfers Association of America made a morale visit last summer, Franzen suggested they hit a few balls. A brief conversation prompted Franzen to pitch the idea for a driving range to Marine Corps Col. Daniel Lund, Camp Bucca commander. The conversation turned to the feasibility of constructing a nine-hole course.
"It wasn't too hard," Franzen said. "It only took me two hours to lay it out on paper."
If the idea made sense on paper, finding the materials to begin work was another matter. Castaway parts were converted, such as old tent poles for flag sticks and carved-up 55-gallon plastic drums for the cups.
"One night I was digging the holes, and I was at hole No. 3, and a soldier who worked for law and order was walking by and asked me what I was digging for," Franzen said. "I said 'Hey, I'm making a golf course. What are you doing?'"
Tent poles could not substitute for putters, however. Due to a lack of necessary clubs and balls, Franzen contacted an acquaintance at Callaway Golf, who in turn sent out the word to other organizations that there was a fledging golf course in Iraq in need of equipment.
Soon, Franzen, who is from Dane, Wis., near Madison, began receiving donations of balls, drivers and irons from The PGA, Callaway, Nike Golf and even Arnold Palmer. However, when a representative of Legends Reno Tahoe Open Inc. set up a donations drive, sets of used clubs began arriving on pallets.
Carriers, including DHL, offered to ship the gear for free.
"The generosity of people has really blown me away," Franzen said.
For good players, the perpetual presence of hazards keeps it interesting, but it can be difficult any time when the weather turns abruptly, as when a recent wind storm blew in across the sandy soil, Franzen said. Though there are no bunkers or water hazards, the course sports its own challenges.
Twenty yards in front of the third hole is a large mound of dirt lined with a protective barrier. Shooters have no choice but to shoot up and over if they want to reach the pin 224 yards away.
A foursome can navigate the nine-hole course in about two and a half hours – barring any unforeseen obstacles. Actually, many can be heard from a distance, as trucks rumble down gravel roads that traverse part of the course, as well as Black Hawk helicopters that routinely land in the vicinity.
The 2,400-yard course was designed around the base's daily activities, Franzen said, and sometimes golfers have to halt play for assorted vehicles.
Explaining that he needed a par 5 as he walked toward the fifth hole, Franzen devised an approach challenging enough for most. Dubbed the "Bucca Monster," the 570-yard hole is framed by concertina wire on one side and is a straight shot from the tee.
The closing of the detainee complex has shifted work priorities, including the completion of a new water treatment plant capable of producing millions of gallons of drinking water monthly for local residents.
Still, when the time allows, the flags beckon.
"The nice part is that because everyone has different schedules, it affords people to come out here at different times," Franzen said.
Lund said missions still go on daily, and the grind of a year-long deployment, though winding down, goes on.
"It's been such a huge boost to morale," he said.
The commander is one of 52 people who tried their luck in the Nov. 20 tournament. In the inaugural event a month before, 40 people participated. The winning team recorded a final score of 4 under par – a total that, given the characteristics of the course, left Franzen understandably skeptical.
"In real life, if you're not lying, you're not playing really good golf," he said, laughing.
Army Spc. Robert Schmude, a truck driver with "D" Company and a Manawa, Wis., native, said that while the idea of a golf course seemed odd to him at first, he realized the value of the venture.
"It's not a bad idea, and it enables us to relax on our day off," Schmude said.
As a reminder, the unassuming 124-yard ninth hole bears a placard that says "Back to Work."
In two months, Franzen's unit will begin to return home. The golf course will stay, and the equipment will be handed over to another unit. But for now, the infantryman and amateur golf course architect practices whenever he can find a couple of hours.
"When I get home, I'm going to be really good," Franzen said, referring to his sand game.
(Army Master Sgt. David Bennett serves with the 367th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment.)