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High Stakes Golf in Cambodia

“It can get to be fairly serious money,” one of the general’s secretaries said to me on the tee. “More often than not, thousands of dollars change hands.” Before this sunk in, General Kim Vannak stepped up and started pointing at players. “He gets three per side,” he said to the first one.

“Hey, wait a minute, General-Sir,” I said. “Could Your Excellency be overlooking the fact that I’ll be playing from the championship tees while our friend here gets to tee off forty yards in front of me on every hole, sir?”

“Fine,” responded the general. “He gets four per side.”

“Yes, sir. Thank you, General. Your Excellency, sir.”

“If you don’t shut up, I’ll give him five per side.”

I nodded and did as I was told. You don’t argue with the most powerful military man in Cambodia.

“He gets two per side,” the general continued. “He gets four per side. He gets six. He gets three. . . .

“And I get five per side,” he concluded, licking his lips.

Instead of protesting, I thanked him for his generosity. “Yes, sir. Thank you, Your Excellency, sir.”

“Americans,” he mumbled.

General Kim Vuthy hit first, smacking a 265-yard power fade that would have made Mark Calcavecchia envious. Ditto General Sim. Mickelson hit a low frozen rope out there about 280. I looked at General Kim Vannak and said (to myself, of course), “And I’m giving them strokes?” He looked back at me and flashed the biggest smile I’ve ever seen. If he ever runs out of money—not likely—he and his dentist could make a fortune on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange going long on Novocain and short on precious metals.

I bogeyed the first hole. With strokes, everybody else parred. Wonderful. I was down $240.

The second is a short par four. I made par, but General Kim Vuthy holed out for a two. I lost three hundred dollars just to him on that hole. Someone with a net birdie took sixty from me.

I was down six hundred dollars after two.

Ever play in a ninesome?It’s slow and loud. I sat on the third tee looking down at the grass, waiting for everyone to tee off. At that point I was hitting dead last and getting seriously nervous, thinking of throwing in the towel—give them the two hundred dollars I had in my pocket and bring them the remaining four hundred the next day. When suddenly—ouch!—one of them jabbed me with either the butt end of a golf club or the barrel of an AK-47 and said, “Get up, American. Hit.”

In an instant, my mind-set changed. I wasn’t going to let anyone intimidate me. And for the next sixteen holes, I didn’t.

It wasn’t easy. The generals tried everything to rattle me. They stood in my line. They talked while I was hitting. They hurried me along. “Yankee cowboy play too slow. You hit now,” commanded the chief of military police as I trotted up to my ball. I should mention that while I was walking in the heat, they were all driving personal carts complete with cooler, caddie, bodyguard and firearms of choice. All the carts were spectacular but especially the prime minister’s, a miniature Mercedes outfitted with radio, headlights and a set of Goodyear Double Eagles.

The rules were stricter than those you’d find on any pro tour. No free drops were allowed. There was no such thing as casual water or ground under repair. Drainage ditches, drain pipes, sprinkler heads, metal grates and cart paths were considered integral parts of the course. You had to play your ball as you found it or take a one-stroke penalty.


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