YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Enjoying golf and greener pastures in Cambodia

Cambodia, seeking to escape darker times, is experiencing a golf boom. The courses are magnificent, challenging and full of surprises.

November 17, 2013|By Geoffrey Dean-Smith

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — It was just before 9 a.m. on a Monday as I stepped out of the luxurious, air-conditioned changing rooms of the Garden City Golf Club and onto the first tee. The temperature was already in the 90s and rising.

But the heat didn't concern me as much as the design of this beast of a golf course.

It runs 7,361 yards from the black tees, through narrow, winding fairways, between bunkers you could get lost in, with water everywhere and, finally, into huge undulating greens that look big enough to hold a game of five-a-side touch football.

This championship layout, about 12 miles from downtown Phnom Penh, is the brainchild of Maj. Gen. Weerayudth Phetbuasak, its Cambodian owner. To my relief, it became apparent, that in golfing terms, the quality of mercy was not lost on the good general.

He designed five sets of tees for each hole to accommodate golfers of more modest talents. I fit into that "more modest" category, so I didn't hesitate in choosing the blue tees, which made the course for me a mere 6,213 yards.

My caddy handed me the driver. I had come a long way for this moment, as others are doing as well.

"The situation here in Cambodia is similar to Vietnam in 2000," Glenn Cassells, general manager of Garden City said, referring to the golf boom that made people lust after golf in Vietnam. Cambodia isn't yet quite as up to par with other golf-obsessed destinations in Asia, but it's on the upswing.

During my trip in May, I played about a quarter or more of the country's golf courses. That's slightly misleading — there are fewer than a dozen, although more are in the works. I played two in Phnom Penh, one in Siem Reap. And I played a fourth, a very special, private course, by invitation only, that is not open to the public but speaks volumes about the rise of golf in Cambodia and golf in general.

For now, though, my attention was on the challenges of Garden City. Some practice swings to loosen up. Then — thwack! — a perfect drive about 260 yards down the right side of the fairway. A pitching wedge into the green and two putts for par.

How good it is to be alive when the golfing gods are with you. Where they went a few holes later the devil only knows. But that's golf.

And this, almost unbelievably to me, was golf in Cambodia, a country of 15 million that seeks to escape the long shadows of darker times. Such a pursuit on my last visit two decades ago was unthinkable. The kingdom has come a long way since the days of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge when more than 1.5 million people died; some starved to death or were overworked; others died of disease; still others were executed for crimes that weren't crimes at all.

The Khmer Rouge was driven out by the Vietnamese in January 1979. Still, even when I was last here 20 years ago we were shot at, and some of the things I saw still wake me up at night.

But in this gentler Cambodia, the fusion of amazing golf, fantastic temples and exotic foods that bring dormant taste buds to life makes a visit here almost irresistible. And it's just the beginning.

"I would hope that before two years are up we shall have ... 36 holes finished," Cassells said. "It's going to be a whole satellite city."

On this day my golf was mixed, but all in all, Garden City is a fine test of golf.

I wanted more. I knew that Nick Faldo had designed a course in Siem Reap, not far from Angkor Wat. The combination of golf and temples fired my imagination, so I hopped a ride from Phnom Penh to find out what I was missing.

Turns out that if I hadn't come, I would have missed out on one of the better courses I've played. The Angkor golf course has 18 holes. A 7,279-yard par 72. Beautiful layout. From the grass driving range to the golf shop to the air-conditioned locker rooms to the restaurant, everything is just about perfect, all you could ask for in a golf resort.

My caddy, So Pheap, had the eyes of a hawk and the sense of a bird dog when it came to finding my wayward shots. Water was my nemesis this day. I pushed my ball out right with my second shot on the par-four eighth hole and finished with a triple. So Pheap scored me 86 for the round. I knew I liked her.

David Baron, director of golf for this resort, told me after my fine morning that a Faldo course was in the making near Phnom Penh that should be ready around November 2014. "Cambodia is the third fastest-growing Asian golf destination in the region," he said.

After my round, the nearby Angkor Wat temples beckoned. This UNESCO World Heritage Site was once the capital of the Khmer Empire, and the ruins of its structures, which date to the 9th century, speak to the rich history of the country.

Angkor can be mesmerizing, almost hypnotic. I found a deserted spot and climbed the steep steps up to the sanctuary of one of the temples and sat alone for a while, letting my imagination fly.

Los Angeles Times Articles