Golfing on the Roof of the World

Golfing on the Roof of the World


I knew the Bhutan Open was going to be, well, different from the U.S. Open. But this different?

As I drove up to the Royal Thimphu clubhouse at seven-fifteen a.m., it was chilly and drizzling. The parking lot was empty except for a small huddle of people by the clubhouse. They were the cooks (all men) and waiters (all women), and they were sipping tea and rubbing their hands to stay warm. The course, too, was deserted. There were no big white corporate tents, no electronic scoreboards, no gallery ropes.

The practice tee also was dead. None of the other one hundred competitors were honing their swings, practicing their wedges, or grooving their rhythm. I suppose they were all asleep or having breakfast. Carrie (my wife) had gone out to a couple of bars last night, and when she came home at about eleven, she told me that she’d seen many of the club members reveling. By the first tee, Shayam, the starter, and Tshering, the super, were hanging a small banner on two bamboo poles. The banner said, 2002 BHUTAN OPEN.

There was, however, one sign of life. Benji was standing on the clubhouse steps, gazing out over the course. As I stood next to him, he began talking, but not to me. He continued looking out over the course. It was as if he were delivering a soliloquy. “I feel great,” said Benji, his voice raspy but full of life. “A bit tired, because I was out all night and didn’t sleep a wink, but maybe that’ll play to my advantage.”

As we stood there chatting, players began arriving, but they didn’t resemble contenders for a national championship. Potbellied and middle-aged men with dirty golf shoes, spotted khakis, and argyle sweaters were dragging huge staff bags, the ones tour players use, on pull carts. Golf bags in the rest of the world have gotten dramatically smaller over the past decade, because people have finally begun to realize that having a 75-pound leather behemoth for a golf bag is not only impractical but also a big chore. But the opposite has happened in Bhutan, where bigger bags are the rage. The Bhutanese want to emulate professionals as much as possible, and the tour player bags are one way they can do that. Size doesn’t matter in Bhutan, because everybody uses a pull cart.

The Bhutanese love gadgets, too. So hanging from the bags were steel bristled-groove cleaning brushes and plastic teeholders, things that no professional would be caught dead with on his bag. As for hitting practice balls, that was not a priority this morning for most players, either. “We don’t practice before competitions” said I. J., a diminutive Indian Army officer. I. J. was wearing a small straw hat, the same kind that was Chi Chi Rodriguez’s trademark. “Practice will make our handicaps too low, and then we won’t get enough strokes in the tournament. But I would like to begin coaching with you after the tournament, okay?”

I was shaking when I reached the first tee at eight a.m. Never mind that most of the players in the field were everyday hackers playing with the same expectations as somebody buying a lottery ticket, and that only a few of the entrants could break 80. I was as nervous as I’d ever been in an amateur or college tournament. My problem wasn’t that since arriving in Bhutan I’d played only a few nine-hole rounds. No, I hadn’t played in a real tournament in several years, so my mind was awash with uncertainty, which is a sure recipe for disaster in competitive golf. My three playing partners, however, were as calm as monks.

“Did you go out last night?” asked Dema, a short man whose teenage daughter attended my youth clinics.

“No. Having a baby doesn’t leave much free time,” I said.

“Don’t you have a babysitter?” asked Pema Tshering, another member of our foursome. Pema’s surprise that I had stayed home on a Friday night to take care of Claudia wasn’t surprising. The Bhutanese men at Royal Thimphu, like golfers everywhere else, don’t change many diapers.

My third partner was David Adair, a thirty-three-year-old Irishman with a thick brogue and a stocky rugby player’s build. David was the boys’ varsity soccer coach at Woodstock, a 148-year-old boarding school in Mussoorie, a hill station in the Himalayas in northeastern India. Many wealthy Bhutanese send their children to the plethora of boarding schools in northeastern India because they have much better academic standards than Bhutanese schools and the Indian schools offer athletics and other extracurricular activities, which are virtually nonexistent in the Bhutanese school system. Adair had brought his squad, which had a few Bhutanese players, to Bhutan for a series of matches against Bhutanese high-school teams.

I’d met Adair three days ago when he and his team were having breakfast in the clubhouse at Royal Thimphu. He had been reticent after I suggested that he play in the Bhutan Open, claiming that he hadn’t played much golf recently and that his handicap was 13. “That wouldn’t qualify for my village championship in Ireland,” he said. But after I explained that most of the Bhutan Open participants would also be double-digit handicappers, Adair capitulated and paid the 500-ngultrum ($11) entry fee. Perhaps I should have kept my mouth shut.
Adair’s tee shot on the first hole, a 115-yard downhill par 3, was a low screamer that zoomed left of the green into waist-high gorse. His caddie found the ball, but that was a mixed blessing. “This stuff is worse than what we have back home!” Adair yelled.
Adair took a few mad lashes to extricate his ball onto the green, and several putts later his ball, mercifully, plopped in the hole. I don’t recall his score on the hole, but I don’t think it was less than 10.

Things went downhill from there. Adair embarked on a series of hooks, slices, worm burners, and whiffs that left Dema, Pema, and me in shock. Adair, amazingly, remained positively jolly. Yet after four holes he had lost several balls and taken a few dozen strokes, so it wasn’t surprising when he announced, “I’m going to stop keeping score and play a friendly round with you all.” Nobody argued.

Adair continued playing horribly, but at least he was giving me something to be happy about. I, too, was playing horribly, but not that horribly, so I knew I’d beat at least one person. Still, Adair could take only so much suffering. After dribbling his drive into the marshy pond in front of the seventh tee, he was done. “I think I’ll stop playing and walk the rest of the way,” he said.

Again, nobody argued.

Adair wasn’t the only player withering in the weeds. While walking along the second fairway, I gazed to the right at the rough that served as a buffer between the second and third fairways. An Indian Army officer whom I’d taught and recognized by face but not name was playing the third hole and looking for his ball with his caddie in the rough. Suddenly I saw the caddie kick something again and again. After several kicks, I saw a golf ball trickle into the third fairway. Then the Indian Army officer hit that ball up the third fairway.
I looked at Dema, who was a few yards from me, to gauge his reaction. He was unfazed, even though it was the most flagrant cheating I’d ever seen in a tournament.

“Did you see that?” I asked.

Dema shrugged his shoulders. “Those Indian Army guys, they always cheat,” said Dema. “You have to look out for them.”

I didn’t know what to think or do. Dema had no intention of reporting the incident, and I definitely wasn’t going to say anything as the new kid on the block.

The day’s carnival atmosphere peaked when our group was waiting on the tee at the sixth hole, a flat, 180-yard par 3. Dema had just made an 8 at the fifth hole, but to my surprise he was happy. “That’s very good for me,” he said.

I was befuddled. “How can that be good?” I asked. “You’re not such a bad golfer.”

Dema smiled. “It’s good because my handicap will go up. So please, keep giving me higher scores.”

“Don’t you want to play well? Don’t you want to win?” I said.

Dema and Pema smiled, but I was just beginning to learn about the shady side of Bhutanese golfers, the same shady side that golfers everywhere seem to have. Dema wasn’t just a happy-go-lucky Bhutanese unfazed by some bad shots. I now realized why I. J. had told me earlier today that he wanted to begin taking lessons after the tournament.

“High scores are good for the Maruti,” Pema explained. “A higher handicap means a better chance to win the car.”

Dema was looking ahead to the crown jewel on the Bhutanese golf calendar-the India House tournament, a handicap-scoring event whose winner gets a new Maruti car worth $4,000.

In my mind, the Bhutan Open was the title to gun for. But the Bhutanese golfers didn’t care about prestige. The pinnacle of golf for them is to win the car, and India House was just two weeks away.

Standing in the fairway of the eighteenth hole of my first round, I looked at the sky. It was full of dark clouds that were dripping a light rain. I closed my weary eyes as drops dappled my face. I’d been playing golf for thirty-one years, since age four, but I’d never experienced such a maddening round. Finally I’d hit a straight drive and was laying one in the fairway.

Then I envisioned something unusual: Guru Rinpoche flying on a tiger, his big, round face looking down at me with a grin. I’m still not sure why I envisioned Rinpoche in the eighteenth fairway. I’m not Buddhist, and Rinpoche was not, by all accounts, a golfer. Perhaps, though, there’s some truth to the stories that my Bhutanese friends have told me about Rinpoche and his proclivity to fly around on his tiger and heal people. Maybe on this afternoon, thirteen hundred years after Rinpoche’s arrival, the revered lama had returned to sprinkle some of his positive karma on me? Heaven knows, I needed some.

I was eighteen over par and embarrassed. I had made a 10 on one hole and an 8 on another. I’d lost three balls, accrued nine penalty strokes, and fired my caddie on the eleventh hole. The little boy had been daydreaming for much of the round, and when he admitted that he hadn’t watched my drive careen into the rough at eleven, I lost my temper and asked him to give me my bag. I paid him 100 ngultrums and carried my bag the rest of the way.

When Adair left us after nine holes, I’d felt like packing it in, too, but I’m not a quitter. Now with one more approach, crazy thoughts were swirling. Would the Royal Thimphu members lose faith in me as their pro? Was I qualified to teach a game at which I had been so inept? How could I have the nerve to tell people to play golf one shot at a time, with no regard for the past or the future, when I’d been unable to do that?

Then something funny happened. After lofting a crisp shot at the flag and two putting for par, I signed my scorecard and gave it to Shayam, who was sitting inside his little hut outside the clubhouse. The final tally: I’d shot 84, Dema 83, and Pema 103.

Winning wasn’t in the cards for me because of my poor play on Saturday. But I think Guru Rinpoche sprinkled some good karma on me last night because things went much better on Sunday in my second round. I didn’t have a whiff of nervousness and shot a respectable six-over 72 while playing with a captain from the Bhutanese Army and a twenty-two-year-old student. The student, Tashi Dorji Jr., was especially entertaining. Not because of his golf, which was atrocious, but because he was a bon vivant whose casual attitude and sarcastic wit reminded me of Rodney Dangerfield.

During the first few holes, Tashi Dorji played as poorly as Adair had played yesterday, and Tashi Dorji’s final score was well north of 100. But a day of tops, yips, and skulls didn’t dampen Tashi Dorji’s good-natured cheer and smile, both of which were beaming from the first tee to the eighteenth green.

Early on, Tashi repeatedly asked me for swing tips, but each time I politely declined. “This isn’t the best place to take a lesson,” I’d say.

Midway through the round, Tashi asked me how I met my wife. When I said that we had lived in the same dormitory during our freshman year at Cornell University, Tashi decided to give me his dating status at Garden City College in Bangalore, India, where he studied computer science. “I have lots of friends who are girls, but I don’t like to get close,” he said. “The girls will say, ‘Come shopping with me’ or ‘Come over to my house.’ But I like to be free and single.”

“Will you ever get married?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” Tashi said. “But I like love, and I write poems about it. I have some poems on I write poems whenever I see love.”

“Have you ever seen love on the golf course?” I replied.

“No way,” Tashi said flatly. “Golf is fun, but it’s a loveless game.”

After finishing my second round at about noon, I returned to the course to watch the final group, which included Lotey and Randy, who were tied for first at twelve-over par when I found them on the fifteenth hole. About thirty men were following the leaders on this cool, sunny afternoon. Leading up to the tournament, Randy and Lotey had been among the mellowest Bhutanese I’d met, which isn’t surprising considering they’re the two best golfers in Bhutan. They both speak and walk gently and deliberately, and the cadences of their golf swings are rhythmic and smooth.

At fifteen, Lotey took a one-shot lead when he drained a 15- foot putt for par and Randy made a bogey. Lotey gave a mighty Tiger Woods-like fist pump and yelled
“Yes!” when his putt dropped, and I was surprised by the outburst. I could see that the veins in his neck and his face were much redder than normal, indicating that he was jacked up and nervous.

When the leaders reached the seventeenth tee, Lotey was ahead by two strokes. Randy hit the seventeenth green with his tee shot, while Lotey’s ball sailed 10 yards over the green into a shallow swale. It was a precarious position. Lotey didn’t have much green between the fringe and the flagstick; the green sloped away from him; and the wet turf was spongy, so there was a decent chance that Lotey would flub the shot. I walked over to watch Lotey. With the gaggle of onlookers and me standing 20 feet away, Lotey lifted his ball with his hand because it had been plugged. Following the rules, he dropped the ball a few feet from its original position on much drier grass that was no closer to the hole than his original position.

I’ll never forget what I saw next. Lotey stood behind his ball to line up the shot. Then as he walked toward the ball to go into the address position, he stopped just behind the ball and with one foot gently tamped down the grass directly behind the ball.
I was stunned. Lotey had cheated in plain view of his playing partners and the spectators. According to The Rules of Golf, “The ball must be played as it lies” and “A player must not improve or allow to be improved . . . the position or lie of his ball.” Clearly, Lotey had stepped behind the ball to mush down the grass and give himself a better chance of making clean contact.

My heart was racing, but everybody else was nonchalant, as if nothing had happened. But why? They, too, had seen Lotey improve his lie. I wondered whether the spectators knew the rules. Of course they did. Playing your ball as it lies is the game’s most basic rule. Lotey also had to know the rule. He’d been playing the game for eons, was an excellent player, and had competed in international competitions.
Lotey addressed his ball, swung, and made solid contact. The ball flew on a soft, low arc. It landed on the edge of the green, bounced a couple of times, rolled directly at the hole, clanked off the flagstick, and fell into the cup for a birdie. Lotey raised his arms in ecstasy. I shook my head in utter disbelief.

Cheating happens at every level of golf. How much it happens is hard to say, because evidence is largely anecdotal. At the 1985 Indonesian Open, Vijay Singh, then a fledgling tar pro altered his scorecard to improve his score by one shot, and for that tour officials suspended him for a year. A few years ago, the Starwood Hotels and Resorts company surveyed 410 business executives, and 82 percent of them admitted to cheating
at golf.

Bhutanese golfers cheat, too. How much they cheat is impossible to say, but it’s probably comparable to golfers in the rest of the world. Bhutanese have told me stories about cheating, mostly comical yarns involving guys cheerfully accusing their friends of rolling over balls to improve lies and taking gimmes on the greens. I’ve also heard more serious allegations. At the India House tournament a few years ago, the man who won the Maruti was accused by fellow competitors of recording doctored scores. Other players in the tournament suspected that this man had cheated and formally accused him.

The result was a heated debate among tournament officials about what to do. In the end, the accusers refused to testify to the tournament committee, so the cheating charges were dropped. “It was a very embarrassing situation, and we still don’t know what really happened,” a tournament official told me. Now I could see another ugly mess gathering right in front of me. Should I tell somebody about the cheating, or keep quiet and let the Bhutanese take care of their own tournament? If I didn’t say anything and Lotey won, would I have a guilty conscience?

Now Randy stepped up to a 15-foot birdie putt that had taken on a sudden urgency. Missing the putt would give Lotey a three-shot lead going to the final hole. Randy studied the putt from all angles and crouched down behind the ball to gauge the break. Alas, the putt rolled past the cup, and after making the short comebacker Randy’s title hopes were all but gone.

Next, Randy and Lotey walked side by side and in silence up the long, steep slope to the eighteenth tee. I watched them and wondered what was going through their heads. Was Lotey feeling guilty about having possibly cheated his way to the championship?

Was Randy wondering what he should do about the cheating incident? Had Randy even noticed? I pondered these things as the spectators and I walked through fescue grass toward the eighteenth fairway. My heart was thumping, and I couldn’t decide what to do. Finally I decided that I had to say something to somebody, so I approached Ugyen Dorji, aka Yougs, who was the tournament chairman.

“I saw it, Yougs,” I said.

“So did I,” he replied.

We were walking along the edge of the eighteenth fairway, almost parallel to where Lotey’s and Randy’s drives had landed. “What are you going to do about it?” I asked.

“I’m not the marshal. I’ll tell Tolly,” said Yougs. He was referring to the golfer who had finished playing and was now working as a marshal for the final group. I liked Yougs’s idea because Tolly, who was the chief of staff for His Majesty, was as fair and straightforward as anybody I’d met in Bhutan.

“Good,” I said. “And don’t let Lotey sign his scorecard until it’s resolved.”

If Lotey signed his card and was then determined to have cheated, he’d be disqualified. But if he didn’t sign and was deemed to have cheated, he could add two strokes to his score, sign the card, and not be disqualified. While Yougs and I talked, several spectators eavesdropped, and the subject of our discussion spread in a flash. Soon everybody was whispering about whether Lotey had cheated. I was relieved. The guilt was no longer on my shoulders, and the Bhutanese would determine the ruling.

After the players hit their approaches, they and the spectators began walking toward the green. Benji’s brother Tobgye was now walking beside me. I asked him if he’d seen the cheating.

“Sure,” Tobgye said. “Everybody was doing that today.”

“Don’t you guys play by the rules?” I said.

“We’re getting much better at the rules,” Tobgye said. “But it’s not only the good players who do things. People can’t seem to understand the concept of the ball in play.” As Tobgye spoke, we were approaching the green, and the spectators encircled the putting surface. Suddenly Lotey rushed toward me. Somebody had told him about my accusation, and he wasn’t happy.

Lotey got to within 3 feet of me before Tobgye and a few other men wrapped their arms around him and held him back.
As they held Lotey, his face red with anger, he yelled, “If you accuse me, do it to my face!”

The suddenness and intensity of Lotey’s aggression shocked me. I’d never seen anything like this in Bhutan, and his surge at me made me very afraid. Was I going to get punched? Hurt?

Would we be on the next plane out of Bhutan? Perhaps my fear was severely overblown. The chances of Lotey punching me and of my family getting expelled from Bhutan might have been remote, if not impossible, but at the moment I felt like they were very real possibilities.
While the men continued restraining Lotey, he flailed his arms and continued screaming. “Accuse me to my face!” he kept saying.

After a couple of moments, Lotey calmed down, and the men convinced him to putt out. He grudgingly went back to the green.

Visibly shaking, Lotey three-putted for a double bogey. That gave Randy a chance to tie him for the title and force a sudden-death playoff. Randy had hit his short-iron approach a little weakly and it had landed in the small and shallow bunker to the front and right of the green, leaving him a relatively simple 20-yard shot. Holing it for a birdie would have erased Randy’s three-shot deficit and sent the tournament into overtime. Randy hit a pure sand shot, nipping the ball cleanly, and it landed a few yards short of the flagstick and began trickling toward the hole. Alas, the ball stopped a few feet short.

Randy made the par putt, but it was for naught. He finished two shots back.

But all was not done. Randy hadn’t necessarily lost. If the tournament committee decided to penalize Lotey for tamping down the grass behind his ball when chipping from near the seventeenth green, Lotey would have been penalized two strokes, and that would have left him tied with Randy. Even worse, the committee might have decided to disqualify Lotey.

The tournament committee huddled for a few minutes behind the eighteenth green. After they broke up their meeting, Yougs came over to tell me that they had determined that because most, if not all, of the players in the field had probably been improving their lies, no penalty would be given to Lotey. Yougs’s explanation didn’t make sense. Because others cheated, Lotey would be exonerated? But I was in no mood to argue.

While I was walking back to the clubhouse, a Bhutanese brigadier who’d played in the tournament approached me and said, “Thanks for raising the issue. We have to put one severe rule into place.”

About ten minutes after Lotey and Randy finished playing, there was a brief awards ceremony outside the clubhouse. While watching Lotey clench the trophy as the hundred or so spectators gave him warm and rousing applause, I decided that I needed to speak to Lotey. I wanted to explain how I felt, that I had no grudge toward him but was simply following the moral code of golf that impels observers to report potential rule breaches.

After the ceremony, Lotey walked toward the parking lot toting his clubs and the trophy. I scurried up from behind and asked if he’d sit and talk. I wasn’t expecting Lotey to accept my request, and I was half expecting him to scream at me or even try to hit me.
Instead, Lotey was calm and polite. “Sure, let’s sit down and talk. I’m hungry, he said.”

“Can I get you something to eat, too?”

Minutes before, Lotey had tried to attack me, but now it was as if nothing had happened. I’d like to think that I could be so forgiving so quickly, but I’m not sure.

We sat down on the terrace surrounding the clubhouse. Lotey ordered hot tea and ema datse, a super spicy dish including white rice, boiled potatoes, melted cheese and tear-inducing red chillies, for both of us, and for the next thirty minutes candidly told me about the cheating incident and his life.

Now forty-three, Lotey had grown up wanting to be a movie star, which was unusual in a country that at the time didn’t have a film industry or a single actor. So at age twenty he took a bus to Bombay, checked into a cheap hotel, and spent the next several weeks wondering what to do. “I was so lonely, but I had my dream,” said Lotey.

After about a month, Lotey bumped into a friend, Danny Denzongpa, a Sikkimese who was a fairly famous actor in Bollywood.
“There is heavy competition, and you have no chance,” Denzongpa told Lotey.

“That was very hard to take, but I didn’t question it,” said Lotey, who promptly got on a bus back to Bhutan.

Once home, Lotey became one of the most sought-after tour guides in Bhutan. He specialized in hard-core trekking, specifically the Snowman trek, a grueling month-long odyssey that skirts the Bhutan-Tibet border while crossing several high passes, including three above 16,000 feet.

After seven years of guiding, Lotey became a flight attendant with Druk Air, a job he held from 1987 to 2002. “I got scared after September eleventh and didn’t want to fly anymore,” said Lotey, who then became the general manager of a construction materials company. Lotey’s face is taut and smooth, like a marathon runner’s, but he’s a different man below the neck, with a modest potbelly. “I used to be so physically fit,” he said.

“What happened?” I asked.

“The easy life is the lazy life,” Lotey replied. Over the past decade, Lotey supplemented his income through golf to help support his wife and three children (two boys and one girl). The prize for winning the Bhutan Open was a 21-inch Sony flat-screen TV worth about $600. “My wife doesn’t like it when I play so much golf, but she likes what I bring home,” Lotey said.

After speaking for twenty-five minutes, I was very confused. Lotey had been speaking calmly and without reservation, but it was as if nothing had happened. I wasn’t sure whether I should keep talking and wait for him to raise the cheating incident, but finally I took the plunge. “What happened out at seventeen when you stepped behind your ball?” I said.

Lotey didn’t blink or blush or have any reaction. He simply leaned forward and folded his arms on the table. “They call it a local rule, pushing down the grass. Now, since everybody is doing it in all the tournaments, our committee has not stood up on this,” Lotey said. “We know it’s not allowed (in the rules), but it’s been how we do it.”

“What do you do when you play outside Bhutan?” I asked.

“We can’t do that,” Lotey replied. “Outside, I never take a chance, because it’s your name.”

Lotey’s reply didn’t settle my mind. He admitted that he had cheated, but he didn’t express an ounce of regret or admit to feeling an iota unsettled about having cheated. I wanted to press him further, but I didn’t. I felt like a single question could cause Lotey to erupt, and I didn’t want to cause another, and perhaps more serious, scene. I was a visitor, and there was nothing to be gained by pressing the case.

“It’s kind of late, and I’m sure you want to get home,” I said.

“Yes, that is good,” Lotey said.

He rose from the table, slung his golf bag over his left shoulder, and began walking to the parking lot.
“What does being the Bhutan Open champion feel like?” I asked.

Lotey smiled. “This is an absolutely happy moment.”

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