He was an exceptional caddie, with the ultimate caddie's nickname. A five-foot-four South Asian man, skinny and sun-tanned and smiling, he wore blue cotton coveralls with the number "230" printed in yellow above his breast pocket. When I asked his name, he responded with another smile. "Call me Tonto," he said. "Everyone does."
Then he pulled a driver from my bag of rented clubs and offered me his first advice: "On this hole, don't swing away. An easy drive lays it up."
We were alone on the slightly elevated first tee of the Yangon Golf Club, the oldest golf course in the South Asian nation of Myanmar, better known by its colonial moniker of Burma. Constructed by the British in 1906 just outside their provincial capital of Rangoon (a city called Yangon today), the club—like so much in Burma—felt both sumptuously comfortable and eerily alien.
Ahead lay 435 yards of perfectly tended fairway. To my left, the golden spire of a Buddhist pagoda glinted beneath a cloudless sky. Beyond it a rice paddy glistened, its green stalks waving in the warm breeze.
I teed up, took a few practice swings and addressed the ball. The fairway looked hugely broad, like a grassy interstate. I reconsidered Tonto's counsel. Nah, I thought. Knock it hard and straight. Go long.
As my tee shot departed, I was in trouble. My Maxfli was peeling up and left, sailing directly toward the temple spire, 150 yards distant. The ball skidded on the thick afternoon air, barely missing the pagoda and splashing down in five inches of ricepaddy mud. A 215-yard hook.
Tonto shook his head and grinned. "Too much," he said.
I smiled too. Already I could tell that playing golf in Burma would be an experience like no other. In the distance, above the encircling rainforest trees, several other pagodas sparkled gold in the sky. My ball was out of bounds in a rice paddy.
Well, at least I had my usual game.
Judging by international opinion, to play golf in Myanmar today is a subversive and outlaw act.
Myanmar, after all, is a military dictatorship that's been ruled by the same junta since 1962 (the British granted the country freedom in 1948). In 1990, when national elections were finally permitted due to pro-democracy pressure led by Aung San Suu Kyi, the results were nullified after Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) won by a landslide. Since then, Suu Kyi has lived largely under house arrest (she was not even allowed to pick up her Nobel Peace Prize in 1991), while more than eight hundred of her NLD associates have either been exiled or imprisoned.
Consequently, and citing humanrights violations that often accompany such repressive regimes, the world's governments have largely shut Myanmar out. Little in the way of diplomacy is extended to its government, and since May 2003—hoping to squeeze the dictatorship further—the world (other than Japan and several South Asian nations) halted all finance with Myanmar. This means, among other things, that non-Japanese credit cards are useless there, and that every transaction—from hotel bills to greens fees—must be paid in cash.
As might be imagined, this strangulation has done little to harm those in power, who feathered their nests long ago. It has, however, crimped Myanmar's private tourism industry, creating a bargain golfer's paradise of forty-dollar luxury hotel rooms, twenty-dollar greens fees and twodollar club rentals—all tended by a nation of private workers grateful for the opportunity to get an average dollar-a-day wage.
Still, I was not in Myanmar to grapple with politics or finance—or to play golf, for that matter. I was there researching a book about World War II in Burma, a fascinating, gory and nearly forgotten corner of history. Because I was asking a lot of dated questions and requesting visits to areas generally off-limits to outsiders, the government (while gracious toward me) was slow in granting me permissions. This left me with plenty of time to enjoy Myanmar's glories, which are often left out of its isolationist propaganda. From the Britishcolonial elegance of Yangon's waterfront markets to the nation's panoply of tasty local beers to its full complement of more than a dozen links-style courses, Myanmar has a lot to offer a visiting golfer.
And the people are wonderful. Everywhere I visited, intelligent, friendly locals treated me like the leading edge of their long-awaited tourism renaissance. I stayed in privately owned hotels, avoided government-sponsored shops and events, and reassured myself that—as tourism is one of the few industries in Myanmar where ordinary citizens can be self-determined—by enjoying myself in their country I was helping them to prosper.
Despite its international status as a human-rights punching bag, Burma was showing me a fantastic time.
Which doesn't mean the golf was easy. Or, for me at the Yangon Golf Club, that hardship and danger were ever far away. By the sixth hole—a 501-yard par five—I'd already made three bogeys. I also understood why, in the middle of the scorecard, the club had felt compelled to print its "Monsoon Rule," giving clean-anddrop liberties without penalty.
Owing to more than three hundred inches of rain falling on the course every year, water, mud and drainage are issues of necessity. Ditches line most outer edges of the rough, with creeks and canals often crossing the fairways as well. Along every hole, there also waited a man in a T-shirt and a sarong, which the locals call a longyi.