Hole in one or money pit?

As the top people’s game and a possible tourism money spinner, foreign investorsare turning Cambodia’s rice paddies into golf courses in search of local treasures.

Golf people
August 1, 2009
Hole in one or money pit?
Adam Robertson, operations manager at the Angkor Golf Resort in Siem Reap

Bunkers of fine-grain sand rather than bomb craters. The ripple of applause not the deadly crackle of small-arms fire. Golf is becoming a force for change and peacetime recognition in Cambodia, but is its future as rosy as many suggest? On the eve of the Angkor Amateur Open in Siem Reap we asked four people in the know if the kingdom’s younger generation will ever be ready to challenge the world…

The management

Adam Robertson is the operations manager at the Angkor Golf Resort.

Start ’em young and keep ’em practicing was the mantra when I was a lad at home near St Andrews golf course in Scotland. In those far-off days, golf was taught in most schools and tuition was arranged by parents and golf professionals during the school holidays.

Perhaps my most enduring image from those early days was when Severiano Ballesteros won the 1979 British Open at St Andrews. I was just 10 years old. He was a young man of 22 who had worked his way up the golfing ladder, having been a caddy at his home club in Spain, to win one of golf’s greatest tournaments: the Open.

Grass-roots development is important and the formation of the Cambodia Golf Federation is one small step on the route to possible golfing greatness. It also ensures the sport gets the recognition it deserves and features heavily in the ministry of tourism’s portfolio when presenting Cambodia at travel markets.

The Angkor Amateur Open (August 14-16) at my course is one way of promoting golf in the country. It will target golfers from abroad and is expected to attract a truly international field from Europe, Australia and several southeast Asian countries. Amateurs are the lifeblood of the game, which is why at Angkor we offer Cambodia players reduced rates and hope, one day, to open a golf academy to bring on indigenous talent.

Since my arrival at Angkor Golf Resort two years ago I have seen many changes in the development of the game in the kingdom. My first challenge was to train 100 young female caddies on the rudiments of the game of golf, which went from explaining the different designs of each club and their use to reading the line of a putt on the green.

Although they will never be a Steve Williams (Tiger Woods’s caddy), they do offer general guidance on how to tackle each hole. Unlike Williams, crass comments on a player’s character do not feature in their repertoire.

The delights of working with my team of Khmers is their abundant enthusiasm, sense of humour and endearing smiles. Quite a contrast to what I experienced when I was growing up, where a steely eyed, craggy faced, whisky drinking caddy welcomed me to the first tee with a nose turned purple due to overexposure from the rough Scottish climate.

From day one at Angkor I was amazed at the appetite the caddies had for information and how their English improved as a result of hours learning the vocabulary of golf. A birdie was now no longer a source of food, but something to be applauded. A driver was not a mallet to be used to kill snakes, but given to the golfer when he needed to hit the ball a long distance. A thunder and lightning storm was a danger and the caddy’s duty was to direct their golfers to the nearest drinks hut to take shelter.

More recently I have sensed a spring in their step and an eagerness to hold a golf club and swing. Therefore, in groups of 20 we set off to the driving range to tackle this sport called golf. Given the excitement each girl displayed on that first golf lesson and the natural way they held a golf club, I was assured that golf would become a very big sport in Cambodia.

Cambodia will take time to become a fully fledged golf destination to rival the likes of Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, but all the components are here to ensure a worthwhile visit for those who do come.

In 2006, Vietnam was named Best Undiscovered Country in the prestigious International Golf Travel Mart awards. Given the fact that 15 years prior there were so few golf courses in Vietnam that was quite some achievement. Although no golfer from Vietnam features regularly on the Asian Tour, there are devoted golf professionals dedicating themselves to teaching the Vietnam golf team to compete on an international stage.

As our caddies line up to drive their golf balls 150yd on the Angkor Golf Resort’s driving range it is possible that in a few years the Amateur Open’s entry list will feature some promising Cambodian swingers. And, mark my words, the way our caddies strike the ball, one of ‘em could be a woman. Maybe one day even the Open will be won by…

The organiser

Roger Hunt is an official adviser to the Cambodian Golf Federation and a member of its executive committee.

It’s an exciting prospect. To take the young men and women of a country with no history or understanding of golf and turn them into a championship winning team. That was the prospect offered to me by the Cambodian Golf Federation.

As a country Cambodia has several world-class courses, with more planned, and has already hosted two prestigious professional tour events. Now the CGF has the task of building a viable golfing fraternity and increasing the popularity of the game, so it has been busy making the necessary arrangements to join the universal golfing community.

It is now affiliated by the Royal & Ancient, is a member of the International Golf Federation and membership of the Asia Pacific Golf Confederation will be received later this year. It has also been appointed by the national Olympic committee of Cambodia as the sole governing body for golf in the kingdom.

Currently, arrangements are proceeding with the United States Golf Association to enable the CGF to become a licensee for its handicapping and course-rating systems. A website is being established and apart from providing up-to-date information about rules, etiquette, coaching opportunities and the like will handle national handicapping, which it hopes will be operational this year.

Although the task ahead is onerous and development funding is limited, the members of the CGF executive are looking for commercial partners prepared to invest in the future of golf in the kingdom.

One vital area that needs to be addressed by the managements of all the courses in the kingdom is the need to help, promote and encourage the young, whether it’s at weekends and school holidays or to arrange local schools to visit a course and bask in the satisfaction of hitting a golf ball “straight down the middle”. As that youth comes through the ranks and achieves status in a highly competitive world, the investment will be repaid in financial as well as prestige terms.

Increasing Khmer participation and popularity will be a long and slow process. I believe the best method is to include as many people of all ages in the promotion of the game. Some voluntary assistance with part-time coaching has already been offered b
y two professional golfers. The CGF is planning to conduct clinics/coaching for newcomers to the game in the near future and invites interested persons of all ages to e-mail their name, age and contact details to

The introduction of more people to the game is the exciting prospect posed by the future.

The star

Sir Nick Faldo, has won three Open Championships, three US Masters and is now a successful golf course designer.

Golf development in Asia is something that I have a close affiliation with through the Faldo Series Asia, my youth golf development programme that is now active in 12 countries throughout the region – including Thailand and Vietnam.

There is real golfing potential in the region and it is my hope that we can expand this to include even more countries across the continent and potentially unearth some golfing stars of the future. Our initiative works on a combination of top-level competition and golf-specific education, offering young players the tools that we believe they require to develop into young golfers with a well-rounded understanding of the sport.

I believe that through the Faldo Series we can help to bridge the gap between the amateur and the professional ranks and give young players the knowledge they need to succeed in the modern game.

The professional

Reid Sheftall MD, the author of the best-selling Striking It Rich, plays on the Asian Senior Masters tour.

Until a few years ago there were no places in Cambodia to play golf. Then, in the late 1990s, some Taiwanese investors built a course in Kampong Speu. A few years later the Royal Phnom Penh Golf Club was built.

The new course was 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 had played. If so inclined – and willing to fork over $200 per shot – 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.

Hanging around the golf course back then was even more dangerous – at least for people. An entire nation of golfers took to the links without the slightest idea how to play. Balls flew in all directions and carts went everywhere up on to the tees and the greens.

My introduction to the course was mostly brought about by boredom. There’s plenty to do in Phnom Penh at night, but working seven days a week can get a little boring. So I rode out to take a look. The Royal hadn’t matured yet but it didn’t matter. I took one look at the grass and the palm trees and the flags flapping in the wind and returned to my moto. I bought a set of clubs on my next trip to Thailand and started to play two or three times a week.

The course was in poor condition. The soil was loamy and grass struggled to grow so the fairways were 50% dirt – a gravelly sand and clay mixture – and 50% grass; rock hard in the dry season and soft and muddy in the rainy season. The rough was equally sparse and there were few trees to mitigate the wind, which sometimes gusted to 30mph or 40mph. The greens were never rolled or cross cut. They were slow and bumpy; it was like putting on the fairways of a championship course.

From the start I could shoot in the mid-70s from the regular tees – the level I reached at the age of 15.

The courses in Phnom Penh had deteriorated to such a degree that few people played them. So I had to find myself a place to practice and I started to go to a driving range near my clinic. The range employs five or six kids who climb up the sides and on to the ceiling netting to repair the holes that develop. There’s nothing to catch them if they fall through and all for just a dollar or two a day.

In Cambodia there is no compulsory education, so many kids either never go to school or make it through only two or three years. Public schooling is not free and some families cannot afford the fees. So it is not surprising that there is an enormous pent up thirst for education among young adults. If they earn $200 a month, $100 of it will be spent on English lessons.

On the course I usually invite the caddies to play along. Even though it’s more than 110F in the shade, these young ladies cover their entire bodies with clothing for fear of their skin turning black in the sun. Some of them can play pretty well too and, after a quick lesson from me, shoot in the low 60s for nine holes.

Golf in Cambodia draws big galleries of spectators. Among them are 30-40 children, some as young as three and four years old, who are always present a few yards behind me and applaud long straight drivers and iron shots that find the green. The youngest will applaud any shot but not the older, more seasoned observers. Their knowledge of the game could well be converted to practical skills with club and ball.

The game has a long way to go to catch the public eye as it has in Malaysia where the PGA tour qualifying school attracts a few hundred, fresh-faced and talented hopefuls. Watching these kids hitting ball after ball on the practice tee or slaving over hundreds of 4ft putts makes you hope they find a place to play.

I certainly found myself doing so more and more, when failure means a year on the sidelines where it’s easy to lose the competitive desire to win. You can’t help but think you’re keeping someone out who needs it a lot more than you.

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