As professional golfers from around the world take to the course this morning for the second Johnny Walker Cambodia Open at Siem Reap’s Phokeethra Country Club, all eyes will be on last year’s winner, American Bryan Saltus. After the 37-year-old golfer, a self-professed “Dead Head” from the state of California, won the four-day event with a score of 17 under par, he surprised fans by diving into the water hazard just off the 18th green. As he accepted his trophy last year, he dedicated his win to US cult band The Grateful Dead, which he claims to have seen perform live 153 times.
In a recent e-mail interview with The Cambodia Daily’s James Welsh, Saltus discussed this year’s tournament, his lackluster performance on the 2008 Asian Tour, and offered some advice to aspiring Cambodian golfers.
Q: Last year’s victory in Siem Reap guaranteed you a spot in sport history books as being the first champion of a professional international golf tournament in Cambodia. Looking back on the victory, how does this feel a year later?
A: Well, it is an accomplishment of a lifetime. Being the first winner of any sporting event in the history of the country is something I don’t think anyone can say but the Salty Dog. Doesn’t happen these days. Definitely something very special.
Q: Did last year’s visit to Cambodia leave any lasting impressions? Is there anything specific you’re looking forward to seeing in December besides the golf course?
A: Yes, I have been looking forward to seeing the friends I have made the most! My caddie, first of all, and then my private limo driver—I mean tuk-tuk driver, Lucky—he is the best in the land! And I have another friend named Tola who also drives, but also is involved with some local disabled performers.
Q: Are you looking forward to defending your title? What do you think your chances are of a repeat of last year’s performance?
A: Well I have had misfortune and some injuries the past five months and right now I am still getting over a dislocated kneecap from the Singapore Open [in November]. So I will not be ready to defend the way I was hoping, but I will give it 125 percent.
Q: Last year you finished with a ranking of 33 on the Asia Tour’s Order of Merit. As of the Siem Reap tournament, you’re ranked 111. How has this year’s effort been different from last year?
A: Injuries, first of all. And at the beginning of the year I took some time off and missed some big tournaments in order to go to Maui for a wedding and some rest. So it has been a very uneventful year. But that two-year exemption [granted to players who win a tournament on the Asian Tour] is a blessing in disguise, not needing to be in the top 60 in the order of merit [to enter].
Q: According to the Phokeethra Country Club Web site, you’re interested in helping young Cambodians “learn the fine art of golf.” What do you have in mind?
A: I have been wanting to do a clinic for the kids of Cambodia. It’s all about the children of Cambodia. It will happen soon—not sure when—but I promise it will happen. You have my word.
Q: You’ve been described as having a unique but trusty self-taught golf swing. How would you describe your swing?
A: I have always considered my swing as a caddie swing. Never had a teacher—self-taught—and now that I have won a national open, I know lessons are not for me. Not too many people have accomplished that. Very, very satisfying. And everyone I know who really knows golf has always told me “never take a lesson Salty.”
Q: What’s your favorite golf club? Why?
A: I love chipping the ball the most. It involves the ball in the air, and rolling on the ground. My imagination really helps with my short game.
Q: It’s been said that in 1993 you had a “religious experience” at a Grateful Dead concert in Las Vegas that led you to your golf career. What happened?
A: I was granted a wish. Like a genie in a bottle, and I chose to win the Masters! If it never happens, well I can safely say, “Sometimes the light all shinin’ on me, other times I can barely see, lately it occurs to me, What a long strange trip its been.” And last but not least “without love in the dream, it will never come true.” Words to live by. Some good [Grateful Dead] lyrics, yeah!
Q: What advice can you give young Cambodians interested in learning golf?
A: My best advice to the youngsters is most importantly, “Have fun, it’s a game!” Cambodia will always be a special part of my life forever, and I will return time and time again. That’s for sure. Righteousness must prevail! See you at Phokeethra.