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Vol. 7, No. 3

Asian Tiger
by Ben Fountain

Asian Tiger

The Myanmar Peace and Enlightened Leadership Cup was a bush-league tournament by any standard, not even regular Asian Tour but a satellite, the dead-end fringe of professional golf. Which was where Sonny Grous made his living these days, when he wasn’t missing cuts on the Buy.com Tour or hustling $100 nassaus in America’s suburbs; as a twenty-three-year-old rookie on the PGA Tour he’d won two tournaments in nine months, which inspired Golf Digest to run a cover story entitled “Grous, As In Loose.” He’d come out of Linwood, Texas by way of Austin, a big smiling kid with personality and a long game his peers called howitzer-in-a-can. “Like a bouncer in a strip club” was how Fuzzy Zoeller described him, two hundred thirty malleable pounds on a six-three frame and an ample, full-bodied face to match, along with blond hair cut in floppy surfer-boy bangs. What impressed him most about being on Tour? “All the free stuff,” Sonny replied, “I can’t get over all the great free stuff they give us.” Balls, clubs, bags, clothes, the whole kit; he didn’t mention the free-flowing, practically gratis booze, nor the women who hung around the practice green in every town, auditioning for the players in hair-trigger halters and the kind of shorts that make men sweat. He was dreaming those first few years on Tour, lulled by success and the sexual buzz; by the time he woke up and realized that he was going to have to grind to make it, his slide had already dropped him off the money list.
          Everybody had to grind. Nicklaus, Watson, Norman, nobody could coast—once he understood how bloody the competition was it scared him, the lightning strikes of his rookie wins. Those trophies gradually morphed into weights around his neck, but at this, the quiet-desperation stage of his life, they were his meal ticket, an automatic entrée into every joke tournament and corporate junket in search of anything resembling a marquee name.
          Myanmar, his agent said, what they used to call Burma, down in the heat-rash crotch of the world. Not the most politically correct place you’ll ever see, they were on everybody’s shit list for human rights and most of the world’s heroin was grown there. It was your classic Third World basket case, complete with drug mafias, warlords, mind-bending poverty, and a regime that made the Chinese look carefree, plus a genuine martyr-saint they kept under house arrest, that sexy lady who won the Nobel Peace Prize—whatshername? On the other hand the Generals who ran the country were nuts for golf. After thirty years of incoherent isolation they were building resorts and courses by the dozen, leveraging the sport into hard foreign exchange. Now they were holding a tournament to boost the off-brand national image, but there was a problem: who in his right mind wanted to come? American pros of a certain stature were offered all expenses paid, plus a $10,000 guarantee, plus a shot at the $60,000 first prize against what promised to be enticingly tepid competition.
          “Do not talk politics,” said the agent.
          “It’s cool,” said Sonny, who hadn’t voted since the Dukakis tank episode.
          “Just get in, play your game, and get out. I’ve got you a spot in the Ozarks Open in two weeks.”
          Sonny stepped off the plane in Rangoon—Yangon in the official, post-imperialist nomenclature—got a whiff of the dense alluvial air and thought: home? No, he was about as far as he could get from Linwood and the ditchwater funk of the Gulf Coast, but Rangoon’s scruffy urban mass had a small-town feel, its streets shot through with a rural ethic. The smog harbored startling hits of orchids and manure. Rusting corrugated roofs and moss-streaked stucco seemed to mediate a timeless, more organic state of mind. Roosters could be heard at all hours of the day, and even rush hour lacked world-class conviction, a tinny whirr and chutter that teased his ear like the plinking of thousands of pinball machines.
          From the generic swank of his hotel room he could watch Chinese junks gliding by on the river, a wonder surpassed only by the locals themselves, slender, graceful people with cashew-colored skin and hair that flashed midnight-blue in the sun. And here was another wonder: They didn’t hate him! Poor people who bought their cigarettes by ones and twos, and yet they didn’t hold their hardship against him, this loud, lumbering, pink-skinned American whose sheer unsubtlety made the natives cringe and giggle. At Shwedagon Paya he created a stir, cries of bo gyi, big guy, pealing in his wake as he followed his guide around the temple complex. At the Wish-Fulfilling Place a shy, lovely girl dressed in yellow and white approached him and asked:
          “Do you love the Lord Buddha?”
          “Doll face,” Sonny answered, so lonely and touched that he could have scooped her up and carried her home, “I love everybody.”
          Shwedagon: he’d never seen or even imagined anything like it, a sprawling, technicolor theme park of the soul, ten acres of temples and statues and gem-encrusted shrines surrounding the bell-shaped spire of the towering central zedi. Sonny eyed the zedi’s dazzling golden mass, its bowl base and tapering vertical flow, and after a while realized that he was looking at the world’s largest, albeit upside-down, golf tee. An omen? Meanwhile his guide was intoning the Buddha’s main tenets, telling Sonny that life is dukkha, all pain and illusion; that the cycle of thanthaya, death and rebirth, will continue as long as desire remains; and that through bhavana, meditation, one might achieve the proper karma for enlightenment and nirvana. Yes, Sonny thought, yes yes all true––he felt something rising in him, a weepy and exhausted soulfulness, a surrender that felt like wisdom’s first glimmerings, and coming down off the plinth he acknowledged the moment by passing money to every monk he saw.
          Thursday morning there were more monks at the first tee, wizened old men in orange robes who stood off to the side quietly chanting. Sonny said a little prayer himself, teed it up, and played lights-out golf for the next four days, dissecting fairways with thunderous three-hundred-yard drives, sticking iron shots like the latest smart bombs, and wielding on the greens not his usual limp putter but a veritable stick of fire. His gallery swelled by the hour, a fun though basically clueless crowd yelling “Tigah numbah one!” for encouragement, and while the reference to Tiger slightly broke his heart he obliged by crushing their fancy new resort course. Sunday afternoon he acknowledged their cheers with a shameless Rocky Balboa salute, but the real prize came after the trophy and the check, when he was ushered into the hotel’s penthouse suite to find the council of Generals waiting for him. Ah, the Generals—after trying to chat them up at the nightly banquets Sonny had come away actually pitying them. What was the point of having power if you were comatose? They were weird little guys, homely men with pot bellies and wispy tinted hair and all the liquid charm of formaldehyde. Sonny took a seat amid the chill of their anti-charisma and listened to General Hla make the pitch: They wanted Sonny to become Myanmar’s ambassador of golf, their consultant on matters of tourism and sport and their host to visiting dignitaries and businessmen. As compensation he would be provided a car, a house, reasonable expense money, and a salary of $25,000 a month. “We also request,” Hla added as his colleagues came to the edges of their seats, “that you please be available to give us private instruction.”
          Sure, like he had something better to do? In Dallas his ex-wife was about to impound his car for nonpayment of child support. Back there lay failure and angst, the permanent hangover of a badly blown youth, whereas here he’d gone from zero to hero in a couple of days.
          “Gentlemen,” Sonny said, laying on his corniest Texas charm, “I would consider it an honor to be your golf ambassador. Just show me where to sign.”

 

By the Tuesday after his victory he had a Mercedes sedan, a fat U.S. dollar account at the Myawaddy Bank, and a rent-free bungalow at the National Golf Club, an antique gem left over from the days of the British Raj. It was a tight, slyly challenging links-style course with lots of blind approaches and tricky doglegs, while its emerald fairways and parklike woods suggested the moist, hushed intimacies of a tropical greenhouse. Only the military––the Tatmadaw––and their relatives and guests were allowed to enjoy the National’s sumptuous perks. Forecaddies chased wayward shots through the trees, while small boys in skivvies waited by the ponds, poised to dive after balls that found the water. In the clubhouse, a tatty but venerable gingerbread legacy, waiters in starched white jackets served up the best in Indian cuisine and premium liquors.
          “Dear Girls,” Sonny wrote to his daughters Kara and Christie, ages eight and ten. “Your Dad is still a golf bum”—this was their private, semi-facetious running joke, his feeble way of defusing his ex-wife’s more vicious criticisms—“but he is now making more money than President Bush. I am going to be sending most of it to your mother, so please tell her to stop scaring you about the homeless shelter.”
          His first day on the job he teed it up with the Generals and a delegation of Japanese steel tycoons. Happy face, he told himself, smile, smile, so what if it’s golf hell? He jump-started the good karma by thinking about his girls, and nuked a drive on Number One of such rare and aching profundity that everyone present—Generals, tycoons, bodyguards, toothless caddies—emitted an awed, transcendent “ahhh” like the dying chords of the world’s largest gong. So he was delivering—before they got to discussions about labor capacity and penetrative pricing, the big guys had to bond, and Sonny saw that as his job, supplying the positive vibes. The next day he walked into the pro shop and found a beautiful Oriental vase waiting for him.
          “It’s for you,” said Tommy Ng, the pro-shop pro. He was a slight, melancholy man in his late twenties who’d started life as a Vietnamese boat person and learned his golf caddying at Singapore’s Keppel Club. His English was so rushed and idiomatic that it sounded like change rattling out of a tube.
          “Get outta here. For me?” Sonny was afraid to touch it.
          “Those guys you played with yesterday, the Japanese. They sent it over.”
          “Why would they do that?”
          Tommy hesitated. “They want to be your friend. They want you to like them.”
           “Oh. Oh.” It wasn’t so much a bribe as a, ah, gesture, a little goodwill grease for the wheels. Before long Sonny realized that a giant corporate ratfuck was happening out on the course. If you wanted to do business in Burma you had to cozy up to the Generals, and the best place for that was the National’s elegant links. Which put Sonny in a classic trickle-down position: over the next few days he received a case of Bordeaux from Singaporean financiers, a carved elephant from Thai teakwood barons, a kangaroo-skin golf bag from Malaysian gem traders.
          “So popular,” said Tommy Ng in a voice like dry ice. “Two weeks in Myanmar, and look at all the wonderful friends you have.”
          But Sonny was troubled—these people thought he could pimp for them? He was just the pro, a performing human whose job was to stun them with his mighty swing and tell colorful stories on the veranda after the round. They were all, Generals included, relentless jock sniffers, eager for inside information about their favorite pros. Did you ever play with Palmer? they’d ask him over drinks. Was Nicklaus really the best? Tell us about Tiger, is he as good as they say? If Sonny didn’t have an actual personal anecdote he’d make one up, something dramatic or funny to make everybody feel good.
          “Don’t you find it strange,” said a voice behind his back one afternoon, “that a guy from Texas is Myanmar’s national champion?”
          Sonny was stroking ten-footers on the practice green. He turned to find a tall Caucasian watching him, a slender, well-constructed man with impressive teeth and a helmet of glistening, slicked-back hair. With his chiseled, Waspy features and minimal body fat he might have just stepped out of a Polo ad.
          “I guess,” Sonny said, more or less playing along; he didn’t much care for people sneaking up on him. “But I’d give it all for a couple of decent cheeseburgers.”
          The man laughed and introduced himself as Merrill Hayden. He added that they’d be playing together today.
          “I saw you at the Masters in ’87,” said Hayden. His voice had an airy William Buckley trill, the adenoid lilt of gentlemen sailors and champagne sippers. “The day you were paired with Crenshaw. My wife and I followed you through most of the back nine.”
          “Uh-huh,” Sonny said politely.
          “You were managing the course just beautifully that day. I think you had a seventy for the round?”
          Sonny blinked––who was this guy? “That’s right,” he said. “The next day it got a lot uglier, though.”
          Hayden laughed. “General Myint tells me you were a tremendous hit at the tournament. The council couldn’t have been more pleased that you won.”
          Sonny assumed that he was being schmoozed again. “Well, I was just playing my game.” He crouched over his putt. “So you know Myint?”
          Hayden returned a smooth laugh. “Well, you might say that. He’s the godfather of my youngest son.”
          Sonny double-clutched his putt, the ball rolling three feet wide of the hole.
          “So how about if you and I partner up today?” Hayden proposed. “Civilians versus the military. Let’s see how much damage we can do.”
          “Sure,” Sonny answered in a neutral voice. “Why not.”
          They played six-ball that day, an old-fashioned Thai Crocodile: Sonny and Hayden took on two pairs of Generals, Hla and Zaw on one side and Tun and Myint on the other, the Americans giving both twosomes a stroke a hole. It was an elite, top-heavy group, the Council’s inner club, and yet the afternoon had a relaxed feel, more like going steady than a first date: there was the sense of things happening on an unspoken level, of an ease and mutual deference between Hayden and the Generals that made Sonny careful about what he said. In the five hours it took them to go around Sonny learned these things about Merrill Hayden: that he owned homes in Aspen and New York City; that he was an honors graduate of Princeton; that he had a high, possibly justified regard for himself and ran his own merchant banking firm, whatever that was. He was also a three-handicapper with a factory-perfect swing, but after several holes Sonny was laying silent bets that he was even better than he was playing. The man’s flubs were just too neat, too picturesque, and had a knack for coming when the press was on. More obvious was his habit of giving the Generals every putt within four feet.
          “Something stinks,” Sonny said. He and Hayden were poking around a monsoon drain on Number Thirteen, searching for Hayden’s errant drive. The grass was nasty, glutinous, snaky-looking stuff, nature’s nightclub for horny cobras. Sonny swagged his three-wood to and fro like a minesweeper.
          “I don’t smell anything,” remarked Hayden.
          “I’m talking about the game,” said Sonny. “If you’re gonna roll over for these guys, do it on your own dime.”
          Hayden was calm. “Come on Sonny, you know how this works.”
          “I know we’re down eight hundred bucks and we shouldn’t be.”
          “Power has its privileges. They expect to win.”
          “Then they should play better. There’s your ball.” Sonny turned and walked away. “Hit.”
          Sonny was out $1,200 by the end of the day––a month of private school tuition for Kara and Christie, or tennis camp, or a new computer with light-speed Internet. He numbed the pain with a couple of quick Tsingtaos while Hayden briefed the Generals on drilling activity in the Mekong Delta. Unocal and Royal Dutch were going in hard; British Petroleum was sniffing for prospects down the peninsula. By the time Sonny finished his third beer, Hayden had moved into a silky pitch for Tesco Energy.
          “They’ll pay five million for the seismic data on Block Eight, plus a ten-million drilling fee per well up front. Myanmar Oil and Gas would have a five-year option to buy in, up to twenty-five percent at the market rate. And if MOGE doesn’t exercise the option it still gets the standard royalty.”
          “We have never done business with Tesco,” said General Tun, fondling his ivory cigarette holder.
          “No, but you know my standards, and I can tell you they’re as solid as any company I’ve ever brought to you. With a field this size you want the strongest player you can possibly get.”
          “Delivery,” said General Zaw, who was chewing ice. This was a long sentence for General Zaw.
          “Delivery’s going to follow the Yadana pipeline, Unocal’s agreed in principle to let us track their infrastructure. And Tesco’s fully aware of the security situation down there. They’re willing to wait for the rebels to come to terms.”
          Sonny sipped beer and watched his fellow American give a seminar in low-pressure sales tactics. Hayden was one of those people who seemed to project a glow, a kind of golden, airbrushed aura that sucked all the money and love to themselves. Never an awkward word, never a misplaced pause; the man fairly crackled with discipline and style. “The company thinks there might be four trillion cubic feet of gas in that block,” he was saying. Four trillion cubic feet, worth how many billions? Sonny’s mind scrambled zeros like eggs. The Generals listened but made no commitment, which didn’t seem to faze Hayden. When the party broke up he lingered with Sonny on the pretext of finishing his drink.
          “This deal is reaching a critical point,” he confided. “I need your help.”
          Sonny laughed. “Looks to me like you’re doing just fine.”
          Hayden favored him with a patient smile. “Let me put it this way, Sonny—I’m covering your losses today. Whenever we’re paired together I’ll take care of you.”
          Sonny despaired; was he about to hit a new low? And yet it didn’t seem like so much to ask.
          “I’m a pro, Merrill. Maybe I’m not so much of a pro anymore, but I’ve never . . .” He felt fluttery inside, vaguely airsick. “That’s just a bad habit to get into.”
          “And I’d never ask you to.” When Hayden smiled, Sonny thought, he looked like a man flossing his teeth—it had no meaning except as hygiene. “Just humor me. You understand what’s at stake here.”
          “I guess I have an idea.”
          Hayden pushed back his chair and stood. “We’re talking about five billion dollars’ worth of natural gas—does that help clarify your thinking, Sonny?  A lot of people want to see this deal happen.”
          Sonny did a quick mental calculation, five billion dollars stacked against whatever measly star power he brought to the table. And what was the point of pissing people off, powerful people? He tried to remember that point, though he was distracted by the sense that Hayden could probably get him fired about as easily as he ordered room service.
          “Right,” Sonny said, as grudgingly as he could. If he blew this gig he might as well go back to Linwood and cut grass. “I won’t get in your way, if that’s what you mean,” he added, which seemed good enough for Hayden.

 

To read the rest of this story and others from the Fall 2003 issue, click here to purchase it from our online store.

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