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High Stakes Golf in Cambodia

With one exception. Bushes and tree branches could be mutilated to improve a lie. On one hole I saw the fronds of a thin palm tree shaking vigorously. At first I thought it was a signal for help—perhaps someone had collapsed. I ran to the top of the hill and watched as a general demolished the tree because it interfered with his swing. His bodyguard stood at attention, poised to cut it to ribbons with an AK-47 just as the general finished it off with a few swift kicks.

I’ll say one thing for the generals, though. They learned the game from God knows where and had some idiosyncratic swings and weren’t much good round the greens. But they were criminals with the putter—they never missed inside of ten feet. It didn’t matter how far away they were or how much break they had to play, they thought they could make anything. And they did, frequently. You couldn’t watch them stroke a forty-footer with money on the line—that thing was going in. Before we were halfway through I realized every one of them was a better putter than I was.

In the end I finished the day up three hundred dollars. And I was hooked. Over the next two months I played in thirteen games and won seven thousand dollars, which went to our charity work. And those generals who were bent on intimidating the new guy?They turned out to be some pretty solid people. General Kim Vannak, it turns out, knew exactly how many strokes to give everybody.

But one morning, the day after I had shot a very lucrative seventy, the general had seen enough. As we were teeing off, he walked up to me, stooped over, retrieved my ball off the tee and placed it in my hand. “You’re through,” he said.

“Can’t I play along, just for fun?” I asked.

“No.”

He wasn’t wearing his uniform, but there was no mistaking what was taking place. With all the generals lined up shoulder to shoulder on the tee, I had received an honorable discharge from an oddly honorable man.

Excerpted from Striking It Rich, Golf in the Kingdom With Generals, Patients and Pros (reidsheftall.com, $20) Some proper names and minor identifying details in the book and this excerpt have been changed.

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