At noon last Sunday -- a typically scorching day in this tropical West African land -- Washington golfer Joe Whitfield was bent over a five-iron on the luxury 18-hole course that President Felix Houphouet-Boigny built to promote the sport in his country.
Dressed in vivid red-and-green golf wear, Whitfield was getting set for a practice round on one of the most spectacular courses he said he had seen in 30 years of golfing.
Whitfield, who is also a Seat Pleasant, Md. businessman, exuberantly discussed the first Ivory Coast pro tournament that brought him here.
His jubilation came from the prospect of seeing two Ivorian golfers whom he tutored in Washington compete on their home greens, and from his instrumental role in bringing the game he cherishes to one of Africa's most progressive nations.
"This is a chance to focus world attention on the Ivory Coast," said Whitfield, 48.
Five years ago when he met Ibrahim Keita, president of the fledgling National Federation of Golf of the Ivory Coast, Whitfield said ne "never dreamed I would have the opportunity to be here on this gratifying visit to the motherland."
In 19758 Whitfield gave Keita instruction at the Langston Golf Course in Northeast Washington where he was head pro until last November.
Last August, Keita sent Whitfield two Ivorian golfers to train. After three months of instruction, both Adje Djedji Blaise, 20, and Ahoule Jean Baptiste, 21, finished in the first 20 of last year's Lee Elder Pro-Am Celebrity Tournament at Langston. Both now work as pros on the Ivory Coast's two courses -- one at the coastal capital, Abidjan, and the other here.
Whitfield is openly pleased with his former pupils, both of whom are billed as promising among the 30 professionals scheduled to play here during this week's match.
Professionals including Whitfield are playing with three amateurs each in the four-day 72-hole competition that carries purses of $50,000 for the Felix Houphouet-Boigny trophy and $2,500 for the Pro-Am.
Yamoussoukro, about 150 miles from Abidjan, is the birthplace of Houphouet-Boigny and home territory of his ethnic group, the Baoule.It is a grandly designed city that still exists largely in blueprints. Building is everywhere underway along the vast, empty streets.
Whitfield, who arrived early to help put the finishing touches on the tournament, talked of his religious beliefs, his delight in hearty African dishes and his awe of the "architectural splendor" and modern character of Abidjan. When the conversation turned to golf, he became quietly passionate.
"There's nothing like being out on the course early in the morning when the maintenance crew is cutting the grass -- the small, the fresh air, birds singing. It's just you, your thoughts and the game. It's a degree of solitude you rarely find in sports. You leave the course rejuvenated and ready to go back to the jungle," said Whitfield.
Whitfield, owner of a Seat Pleasant exterminating business and an import firm, is equally earnest when he says that golf can provide avenues to a better life, especially for blacks who until recently were virtually excluded from the sport by segregation and the prohibitive costs of green fees and equipment. t
"It can be a vehicle for education through scholarship funds, to develop role models and for business contacts with the professional types -- we won't say wealthy or elite -- that you usually find playing golf," he said.
"Blacks have not been able to capitalize on this because until about 15 years ago it was a segregated sport, but with development of more public courses and integration, we have more access."
It was at an all-white club in Farmville, N.C., near his native Fountain, N.C. -- "population 300" -- that Whitfield discovered golf when trying to earn money as a caddy while he attended high school: "They didn't pay anything -- maybe 75 cents or $1 for 18 holes -- so I decided that caddying wasn't for me."
While serving in the Air Force in San Antonio, where he met his wife Jerline, he took up the sport. He has been playing at clubs around Washington since 1953, and has played "all over the States and in the Bahamas." He was also "one of the first black assistant pros at a country club," -- the Newbridge Country Club in Largo, Md., then known as the Northampton Club.
Whitfield has for several years taught golf to Washington-area youngsters at the Anthony Bowen branch of the YMCA at 1818 12th Street NW and in clubs where he worked around the city.
He formalized his education effort with a junior golf program at Langston, which gave birth to the Joe Whitfield Scholarship Fund. Money from his Capitol Pro-Am Tournament has helped three inner-city youths go to college, and Whitfield is anxious to expand the program.
If golf can give a hand up to black youngsters, Whitfield reasons, it can also benefit young black African nations such as the Ivory Coast. "If they attract international figures and attention, it should enhance the possibilities of trade, tourism and the spreading of goodwill."
After a week in the Ivory Coast, Whitfield was still "overwhelmed" to find himself in this French-speaking country.
"I'm eating everything in sight. I could have that fish stew every day and we even tried the kedjenou," a hearty meat or chicken specialty cooked in a small-necked pottery jar.
In his room at the Hotel President, which looks out over the course, Whitfield went over and over the speech he was to deliver to President Houphouet-Boigny when presenting him with a U.S. flag sent by Rep. Gladys Spellman (D-Md.).
"Who would even have believed it? Lowly Joe Whitfield from Fountain, N.C.," he mused aloud.