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-hold 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.
It was not the array of celebrities invited for the extraordinary spectacle -- Richard Nixon, Brigitte Bardot, golfers Gary Player, Calvin Peete and Peter Townsend and entertainers Greg Morris and Barry White among them -- that sparked Whitfield's excitement.
His jubilation came rather 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.
"The elite, the VIPs are always around when we play, but 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 he "never dreamed I would have the opportunity to be here on this gratifying visit to the motherland."
In 1975, Whitfield gave Keita instruction at the Langston Golf Course in Northeast Washington where he was head pro until last November. The two talked of bringing golf to the Ivory Coast.
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-hold competition that carries purses of $50,000 for the Felix Houphouet-Boigny trophy and $2,500 for the Pro-Am.
Tons of topsoil have been laid over the rocky terrain of this sloping, sparsely vegetated savannah area to build what Whitfield declared was "a championship course, just like the American ones."
Whitfield, who arrived early to help put the finishing touches on the tournament, talked animatedly about other matters -- 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 smell, 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.
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.
Whitfield idolized the late Teddy lRhodes -- "one of the premier players of his time but he was born too early; he was black" -- and emulated his "special knack for imparting the concept of the game to others." 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 gold 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.
After a week in the Ivory Coast, Whitfield was still "overwhelmed" to find himself here.
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 ever have believed it? Lowly Joe Whitfield from Fountain, N.C.," he mused aloud.