Luang Prabang, Laos. It’s 7:00 am in Luang Prabang and beneath a jagged line of mountain peaks, high-ranking communist party officials are among a small but powerful crowd gathered silently at the first tee.
One swish of the driver and a white ball fizzes down the fairway, prompting warm applause as professional golf finally arrives in secluded, poverty-stricken Laos, long isolated behind the “bamboo curtain.”
It’s a small but important step for the Southeast Asian backwater, which has watched as growing neighbors China, Thailand, Vietnam, Burma and even Cambodia embraced the game.
Last week’s Luang Prabang Laos Open, at a UNESCO world heritage site on the banks of the Mekong, offered total prize money of $80,000, loose change in a sport where the best players can command $1 million just to turn up and play.
But such a purse had never been offered for any sport in the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, a one-party state whose only other big sporting event, the 2009 Southeast Asian Games, was held in reduced form due to lack of facilities.
While golf has penetrated nearly every corner of upwardly mobile Asia, it had barely registered in land-locked, hilly Laos, where a bloody civil war ended in 1975 but left it behind the “bamboo curtain” dividing Communist and free-market parts of the continent.
Even military-run Burma enjoys a healthy golf scene inherited from British colonialists. North Korea’s affinity with the game is underlined by its claim that the late Kim Jong-Il shot 11 holes-in-one on his first round.
However, times change and with Laos’s gradual introduction of free-market economics in the 1980s, and the arrival of its two-company stock exchange last year, golf was an inevitable consequence of the drive for prosperity — at least for the elite.
“Golf is necessary for the country, and also the high-ranking people play golf,” says Khampeng Vongkhanty, vice chairman of the Lao National Golf Federation (LNGF), a body overseen by the Ministry of Education and Sport.
“Because when they have meetings outside the country, everybody plays golf. So now most of our staff or our high-ranking people play.”
Laos’s embryonic golfing community so far consists of only one professional, eight courses — five in the capital, Vientiane — no coaches and almost no pro shops, meaning clubs and other equipment have to be bought in Thailand.
Despite this, Khampeng says golf is now “booming” in aid-dependent Laos, one of the world’s poorest countries where roughly a quarter of the 6.5 million, mainly rural, inhabitants lives below the poverty line.
For decades Laos was known primarily for its “golden triangle” opium trade, and it remains deeply agricultural, with low scores on many development indicators.
But Luang Prabang Golf Club, the South Korean-funded resort venture which hosted the tournament in Laos, opened the doors on its marbled clubhouse last year, while Vietnamese money is behind a plush course being built in Vientiane.
While golf is plainly in the sights of the ruling Lao People’s Revolutionary Party, the national federation says money for tournaments, new courses, coaching and equipment must all come from sponsors and investors.
“We have no golf school. We have no PGA (professional golf association) in Lao PDR. So our players must be trained by pros from neighboring countries,” says Khampeng.
“The policy of our government is waiting for investors to build golf courses,” he adds.
This strategy has paid off in Luang Prabang, where tuna tycoon Lee Gang-Pil has gambled $30 million on a 7,443-yard course minutes from the provincial city’s elegant French colonial architecture and Buddhist temples.
Tourism officials were quick to see the marketing potential of a televised golf tournament, and the LNGF is already eyeing a spot on the bigger, richer Asian Tour.
“Golf can take off — it will be led by the tourism,” says Chris Jordan, senior vice-president, golf, at World Sport Group, which runs the ASEAN PGA Tour.
“Your middle and upper middle class will see this on the TV and think, it’s a decent-looking golf course, it’s in the middle of a UNESCO world heritage site, let’s go up there for the weekend.”
Although this approach may work for Luang Prabang, success appears much more distant for Laos’s players, whose shortcomings were brutally laid bare at their first national open.
Spearheaded by Daliya Saidara, the country’s lone professional and a regular on Thailand’s domestic tour, all 16 Laotian players missed the cut in an inauspicious outing for the home contingent.
“I’ve played on the Thai tour for many years but playing in Laos, everybody is looking at me and looking up to me,” complained Daliya, 22, an archery enthusiast who has also played tennis for Laos.
“I’m the only pro, there’s so much pressure on me. It’s very tough.”
With just a handful of serious teenage players, all with well-to-do parents who can fund their training abroad, there is little reason to think Laos can soon make inroads even on Southeast Asian golf, let alone bigger tours.
“Most of the kids that are up and coming come from above-average families, where they send them to study overseas,” says Jason Lim, a Singaporean businessman who doubles as team manager for the LNGF.
“After high school, they go to Australia, Singapore, Thailand, the US and there they pick up sports… Very few kids can have this kind of luxury in Laos.”
Daliya said he was supported “100 percent” by his father, while 14-year-old amateur Vasin Manibanseng, who also struggled on the long, challenging Luang Prabang course, knows just two or three players his age in Vientiane.
This general indifference to golf is clear among local people at Luang Prabang — a bumpy eight-hour drive or a 30-minute flight from the capital — and bemusement has greeted the sport’s arrival in the Laotian hinterland.
As the hot sun dipped behind the mountains on day one, virtually the only spectators at the Laos Open were a rural family who appeared incongruously from bushes on the back nine and offered a smiling Buddhist greeting.
And as Nike-clad Daliya lined up his par putt on the 16th green, traditional life continued unhindered just yards away on the Mekong, as fishermen standing in the water cast their nets or puttered along in long, narrow boats.
Ask Laotian people what they think of golf, and the answer is either a shrug or a smile. Jordan admits the sport has “zero penetration” on the dusty, often unpaved streets where shaven-headed boys in Buddhist robes jostle with motorized rickshaws.
“I think they’ll be more intrigued than anything else. There’s never been a golf tournament here before, so there’ll be a level of ‘what’s golf?’” says the World Sport Group executive.
For anyone who was paying attention, it was Thailand’s Thaworn Wiratchant, the Laos Open’s biggest drawcard and the man who opened the tournament with that very first drive, who won by eight shots.
The 45-year-old veteran picked up a modest $13,000 for his efforts — 104 million kip in the local currency, or nearly 13 years’ income for the average Laotian.