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.
After my journey into the past, I once again had a chance to sample the new Cambodia. Navutu Dreams Resort & Spa is just a short drive from the center of Siem Reap, and then a bone-jarring 10 minutes over potholes into the countryside of sugar palm plantations and rice fields.
This family owned boutique establishment has 18 luxury rooms, a tropical spa with massages, a resident yoga teacher and a restaurant offering delectable Asian dishes and fine wines. The Imperial Sweet Curry with organic jasmine rice was sensational. I finished up with chocolate fondant with vanilla ice cream. Bliss.
Even great food couldn't tamp down my golf. Back in Phnom Penh, I played night golf at the nine-hole City Club, about 15 minutes from the city center and open to the public. We started our round when it was still light, but when the sun went down, so did the temperature and humidity, although it's never exactly cool in Cambodia.
With the longest hole at only 136 yards and the shortest just 60 yards, it was highly entertaining.
I also had a chance to practice my drives on the range at the Grand Phnom Penh Golf Club. The yardage signs on the tiny island greens set into a lake tell you how far you have hit the ball. It also has an 18-hole Jack Nicklaus-designed course, but I didn't have a chance to play it.
Besides, it would have paled compared with what might have been my most singular golf experience ever, and that includes the venerable St. Andrews in Scotland, the birthplace of the game.
I had met Thong Khon, Cambodia's minister of tourism, and the topic of golf came up. What had been a bit of a formal chat became a shared bond. "You must visit my home in the country," he said. "Golf, sweetest mango in the world. I will call them and arrange it."
The next morning, I sped past homes of thatched palm bamboo, and Buddhist monks in their bright, orange saffron robes, walking single file in and out of pagodas. Groves of banyan trees, with their shiny green leaves, offered protection from the sun.
After crossing the Cambodia China Friendship Bridge, over the muddy, brown waters of the mighty Mekong, I arrived at a gated compound.
The manager and an assistant greeted me formally — hands together as in prayer, heads slightly bowed. I was led to an outside dining area, a large, wooden structure where I was indeed served the sweetest mango I had ever tasted, washed down with fresh coconut juice from the husk, followed by the white flesh of the coconut itself. Pure nectar.
I was excited to see the golf course and perhaps play a few holes. I kept looking over my shoulder to spot a few flagsticks or bunkers. Nothing. I was puzzled. Then I was guided through some mango trees to a large area of dried, brown mud.
It was the first hole.
It was the last hole.
It was the only hole — a 150-yard par-three one-hole course. Two tee boxes were set into the dried mud, a back tee and a forward tee, both covered in grass. One had to hit a shot over the mud, over an overgrown stream, across a broken-down old wooden bridge, to get to a fairway — I use the term loosely — leading to a green, the surface of which was not much smoother than a baseball mound.
My heart surged with pure joy. I had come all this way to find this little golf hole in the middle of Kampong Thom Province in Cambodia that nobody had ever heard of but represented to me the essence of golf. A tee box, a flag and the challenge of getting a ball 1.68 inches in diameter into a hole 4.25 inches in diameter. Some primordial golfing urge was telling me I just had to play this hole.
But there wasn't a golf club to be found. I vowed to return with one, and a few days later, I did, with an ancient seven-iron bought from a second-hand shop.
The members of the staff took to their roles like seasoned actors. They sensed it was somehow important for this crazy foreigner to play this golf hole.
After the customary mango and coconut, I was escorted to the tee. The manager appeared looking very serious, just like a waiter, but with a plate full of golf balls rather than food. I hit a few practice shots, rather poorly.
Then I lined up for the real thing. I was determined to make par. The gallery of three sensed the tension. I hit my seven-iron and the ball landed just short of the green, rolling off the right edge. I chipped on, leaving me a tricky 3-footer.
The final shot. The ball hit a tuft of grass that diverted it into the hole. Par! Arms aloft. Applause and cheers from the gallery of three. Kampong Thom had a new champion. My trophy consisted of six green coconuts presented by the equally happy staff.
The feeling was pleasantly childlike. We grinned at one another as we sat down with our mango and coconut, silently absorbing the pleasures of existence, of shared humanity, in peace, in harmony, next to a one-hole golf course in a field in Cambodia. Vive le golf.