High Stakes Golf in Cambodia
It was me against the army. Guess who won?
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.
“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.
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.
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.