SI Vault
The East succumbs to a Western craze
Alfred Wright
November 25, 1963
In Malaya a king shielded by an umbrella (above) turns golf into a daily rite, while in Japan 2 million novices are assailing more than 300 courses. Here is a report on the Orient's fastest-growing sport
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November 25, 1963

The East Succumbs To A Western Craze

In Malaya a king shielded by an umbrella (above) turns golf into a daily rite, while in Japan 2 million novices are assailing more than 300 courses. Here is a report on the Orient's fastest-growing sport

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On the day of a tournament such as the Captain's Cup, both of Selangor's 18-hole courses are alive with golfers as early as 7:30. To avoid any sticky matters of protocol, the King's foursome tees off first at one course and the Tunku's at the other.

Although they want to win as much as any Miami Beach hustler, the Malayans feign a kind of casual detachment, something they doubtless learned from the British. "I'm playing against the King this morning," said the Selangor Club president with a smile recently. "He's my enemy."

With the exception of the King, who is a competent left-hander playing to a 14 handicap, most of these men are new to golf and show it. The craze did not begin in earnest in Malaya until 1959, when the Tunku discovered the charms of the game during a visit to New Zealand and started hacking away soon after his return to K.L. The customary British club restrictions against Asian members had long since been lifted at Selangor. The more affluent members of Malayan, Indian and Chinese society joined the club by the hundreds. Before long the seldom-used polo field had to be converted into an additional 18-hole course to accommodate this crush of new golfers.

The seventh son of the Sultan of Kedah's sixth wife, the Tunku grew up in the British tradition, including a Cambridge education. In his younger days he was considered something of a playboy, taking 25 years to complete his law studies, captaining the Kedah state soccer team and becoming a first-class tennis player. But in time he abandoned this casual life and entered politics, eventually heading up the United Malay Nationalist party, which controled the Malayan House of Representatives. Now, at the age of 61, the Tunku is at the pinnacle of political power and prestige, a kindly father image who enjoys tremendous personal popularity. When he took up golf he gave the game the same kind of impetus in Malaya that Dwight Eisenhower gave it in the U.S.

"I used to despise golf," the Tunku explained recently. "Now the game despises me. But I like the friendliness of the game, the sociability. It makes it possible to get a couple of hours of not-too-strenuous exercise with your friends. You can even talk business, if it's not too serious business."

In deference to his years and station, the Tunku is allowed to use one of the only two golf carts in Asia. (The other, which was shipped to Japan for the visit that President Eisenhower canceled in 1960, now sits idle and forgotten in some warehouse.) When the Tunku plays, a caddie walks beside him for the first few holes, carrying a set of U.S.-made MacGregor clubs, but as the Tunku tires he drives the rest of the way in his cart and uses Australian-made Slazenger clubs, which are permanently installed on a shelf in the back. "I sometimes get mixed up and forget which clubs I'm using," the Tunku says with a big grin, but so far no one has had the temerity to challenge the prime minister on this absent-minded violation of the Rules of Golf.

The King of Malaya takes his golf a good deal more seriously than the Tunku, frequently playing in both the early morning and the late afternoon, whereas once a day is enough for the prime minister. Like everyone else in Malaya, the King would not think of playing without a fairly hefty bet on the match, always expressed in chits for golf balls, which cost about 50� apiece. When he has accumulated sufficient chits, the King will spend them in the Selangor golf shop, buying golf clubs for friends or numerous sets of cut-down and junior-size clubs for the 13 children in his family.

On an average day as many as 300 rounds of golf will be played on Selangor's two courses—all of which threatens to make a rich man out of Len Boozer, the new Australian pro at the club. It is not just that his teaching hours and those of his young Australian assistant are filled from dawn to dusk; his big bonanza comes from the sale of equipment. Selangor members, particularly the wealthier Chinese, cannot resist buying new clubs, and Boozer considers it a slow day when he does not sell at least four or five sets.

"It has something to do with the disposition of the golfers here," Boozer explains. "You'll never see one of our members throw a club when they play badly, but they never believe a bad shot is their own fault. They're never wrong; it's the clubs that are wrong. Some of these people will buy three or four new sets of clubs a year."

The fresh passion that is lavished on golf at K.L. is also the rule in such other Asian cities as Singapore, Manila, Bangkok and Hong Kong, although, quite naturally, each place has its own engaging eccentricities. At the Royal Bangkok Sports Club the golf course meanders through the infield of the racetrack and occasionally crosses the racing strip itself, but golfers get used to the pounding hoofs and the roar of the punters. Like the rest of Bangkok, the golf course is laced with drainage canals called klongs, so every foursome hires a klong caddie or two to dive after balls that fall in the water. At the Royal Hong Kong Golf Club at Fanling, newcomers are sometimes distracted by herds of grazing cattle, since the club rents out the rough as pastureland.

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