It was 1997 and Cambodia was desperate to join Asean after its induction into the group was delayed because of factional fighting that broke out in July of that year.
There were various official criteria that Cambodia still had to meet to join the regional alliance—and then there were the informal preconditions: knowing how to play golf, sing karaoke and eat durian.
“We already knew how to sing karaoke and eat durian,” Commerce Minister Cham Prasidh said. “The only thing we couldn’t do was play golf, so we had to learn.”
Cambodia became a member of Asean in 1999 and golf has now become a popular sport among Cambodia’s elite, with Prime Minister Hun Sen leading his own golf league, the Dragon Team.
The prime minister even wrote a poem about golf, which was sent to Senate President Chea Sim, who is also the president of the CPP.
The Dragon Team, if not a sporting powerhouse, is definitely a political force. It includes Deputy Prime Minister Sar Kheng, CPP Cabinet Chief Tep Ngorn, National Police Chief Hok Lundy, RCAF Deputy Commander-in-Chief Pol Saroeun, Cham Prasidh, Phnom Penh Governor Chea Sophara, Customs Chief Pen Siman, Finance Ministry Secretary of State Ouk Rabun and Hun Sen adviser Suos Yara.
Hun Sen’s team will be competing against ambassadors and guests from Asean countries, who are scheduled to participate in the Hun Sen Golf Premier Open this weekend at the Royal Phnom Penh Golf Club. The event is sponsored by mobile phone companies Mobitel and Alcatel CIT.
Participants will compete for two days, starting Saturday, on the 18-hole course. The top prize is $1,300, with a second-place prize of $789 and a third-place prize of $526.
“This tournament presents the strength of solidarity and peace in the Kingdom of Cambodia,” Hun Sen said in the Souvenir Golf Magazine, which will be given to participants.
In a country with virtually no sporting facilities, save for dusty football fields, the lush green expanses of a golf course may seem eccentric.
The game is simple but difficult: players use a set of clubs to hit a small ball from a starting point, called a tee, into a hole. Royal Phnom Penn Golf Club has 18 holes, with the distances from tee to hole ranging from 120 meters to 452 meters.
The goal is to take as few strokes as possible to put the ball in the hole. A golf course lists a suggested number of strokes a player should need to complete each hole, called a “par” score. In reality, only a very good golfer consistently shoots a par score. The Royal Phnom Penh Golf Club is a par-72 course.
“You learn how to keep your cool down and strategize,” Cham Prasidh said. “It also helps relieve stress. I bring my golf clubs wherever I go.”
The game also brings out the competitiveness in everyone, Cham Prasidh added, even when you are playing against Hun Sen himself.
“This is not diplomacy,” said Cham Prasidh, who usually scores about a 90. “The competition is teeth to teeth. We don’t let Hun Sen win, but he is very smart and has a very good memory. So sometimes I lose and sometimes I win.”
Hun Sen reports obtaining 2,295 pars and 375 birdies over 4,616 holes played, according to the Souvenir Golf Magazine. A birdie is one shot under par. He has played courses in Cuba, France, Malaysia, Switzerland, Brunei, Thailand and the Philippines.
Pol Saroeun, who plays golf about once a week and averages a 76, said playing the game helps him improve his English when he plays against friends from Australia, South Korea and other countries.
“I want to pick up my language,” he said. “And after work, we can play golf and relax.”
The game isn’t cheap, as reflected by the $4,000 annual membership fee for the Taiwanese-owned Royal Phnom Penh club. A permanent membership costs $25,000, although government officials do not have to pay any fees. There are also individual daily fees.
“Golf is expensive and the only way I can play is because I don’t have to pay,” Cham Prasidh said.
Chea Sophara, who shoots about 90, considers himself to be a beginner after having played golf for only seven months. But he is trying to improve his game by playing twice a week, usually on the weekends.
“Golf helps us make friendships with other people and it takes care of our health, especially for the old people,” he said “I think more Cambodian people will play golf.”
(Additional reporting by Van Roeun)