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High Stakes Golf in Cambodia

This golf story takes place in a faraway and unlikely locale: Phnom Penh, Cambodia. I ended up there after visiting Vietnam in 2000 to assist a group of surgeons who had received laparoscopic equipment but had not been trained to use it. On that trip, I stopped by an orphanage outside Ho Chi Minh City. That experience changed my life. The children were starving for human contact. When I entered they ran up to me and hugged my legs, refusing to let go. When it was time to leave, the nuns had to pry them off me.

Two years later I moved to Phnom Penh and opened a clinic with a charity arm, Operation Kids. We perform free reconstructive surgery on burned and disfigured children.

A year after arriving, someone told me a golf course was being built on the outskirts of town, so I rode over to check it out. The Royal Cambodia Phnom Penh Golf Club hadn’t matured yet, but it didn’t matter. I took one look at the grass, the palm trees and the flags flapping in the wind and returned to the taxi. On my next trip to Thailand I bought a set of clubs, and I began playing every week.

The course was built next to the infamous Phnom Penh firing range, where for only a few dollars you could stop after your round and shoot an AK-47. Watching tracer fire against the twilight sky was victory regardless of how you’d played. If so inclined, for two hundred dollars you could fire a rocket-propelled grenade or a shoulder-mounted surface-to-air missile. Shooting at aircraft was out of the question, of course. Hence the term “surface to cow.”

Hanging around the course back then could be hazardous, as a nation of golfers took to the links without the slightest idea how to play. Balls flew in all directions. Carts went everywhere, up onto tees and even greens. Naturally the course was in poor condition. The fairways were half dirt, half grass, rock hard in the dry season and muddy in the rainy one. The greens were slow and bumpy.

In January 2004 I entered a single-day tournament and won. I had been paired with Kim Vannak, a four-star general and the defense minister of Cambodia, who invited me to lunch afterward. We got along well enough, and midway through the main course he invited me to join a money game with some other generals. I accepted, with little idea of what I was getting into.

I Met the group a few weeks later on the first tee. General Kim Vannak was of medium build. His shoulders were broad and his hair retained the rich black pigment of youth despite his being around fifty years of age. His dark brown complexion accentuated the hardened appearance of a man who had little time for conversation. His voice was authoritative, befitting a man of his rank.

As the natural leader of our group, he kept our scores and assigned us strokes and tees. We played as a ninesome. The general told me we’d be playing off my ball and that I’d be hitting from the back tees along with his younger brother Kim Vuthy, head of the Cambodian air force, a legitimate one- or two-handicapper with a reliable left-to-right ball flight. Also playing from the back tees were a left-handed general I called Mickelson and General Sim Sokha, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, who hit a twenty-yard slice off every tee, starting his ball over the left rough and curving it into the fairway. Everyone else played from the men’s tees.

The game was for thirty dollars per person per hole. Because there were nine players, each hole was potentially worth a minimum of $240 to each player. I say minimum because birdies counted double, eagles on par fives counted triple, eagles on par fours counted ten times, etc.

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