The commute is murder. He gets up at 6 a.m., drinks his coffee and then loads his bags into the trunk of his Ford Explorer. Twenty minutes later, at Phoenix's Sky Harbor Airport, he kisses his wife goodbye, buys some snacks and magazines, and boards the first of three flights that will carry him to the other side of the world. When he disembarks, 18 or 20 hours later, the air will smell of damp earth, coconut hulls and incense ... or of dust, diesel fumes, grilled meat and cow dung ... or, if he's fortunate in his choice of hotels, of night-blooming jasmine. "The over and back is the part that wears on you," says Mike Cunning. "When I come home, I'm fried."
If he returns on a Monday, it's usually Thursday or Friday before Cunning can sleep through the night. That's partly due to jet lag and partly due to midlife crisis. He's 46, and his principal source of income--prize money on the Asian tour--dwindled to $28,401 last year. "Some of his trips were a total loss," says his wife, Emelie, a Filipino whom Mike met in Dubai. "There were times when he thought he should give up, but Mike doesn't know any other job. It would be scary to start over at this stage."
It's not as if her husband ever had the Midas touch. In 1997, when he became only the second American, after John Jacobs, to top the Asian tour's money list, Cunning banked a relatively modest $170,619, and that nest egg evaporated when he and his first wife divorced. He earned $50,000 for winning the 2003 Indian Open, which sounds good until you compare it with the $936,000 that Phil Mickelson got for winning February's FBR Open in Scottsdale, 30 minutes from Cunning's house, or the $1.6 million that Cunning's pal Ted Purdy banked on the PGA Tour last year despite not winning a single tournament.
"Mike probably has $6,000 to his name, and Ted's making all that money," says a friend who played the Asian tour. "But that doesn't bother Mike. He simply hops on the plane." Purdy, who followed Cunning to Asia in 1996, calls him Mr. Asia and says, "Mike Cunning is the reason I'm playing golf for a living. He's a phenomenal player, and everybody in Asia respects him."
They should. Cunning, like a modern-day Marco Polo, discovered the East in 1981, when he was one of about 40 American golfers enlisted to play an 11-week schedule in Asia by de facto commissioner John Benda. The naive recruits included future and former PGA Tour players Tom Sieckmann, Payne Stewart and Rocky Thompson, and it's safe to say that few of them had ever glimpsed a world so different from their country-club upbringings. "Our first stop was the Philippines," Cunning says, "and to this day I remember the cab ride from the Manila airport. It was on a two- or three-lane road, but they made eight lanes out of three. Cars and bicycles and motorbikes were weaving in and out, guys were running lights, there was no such thing as a stop sign. When we got to the hotel, I said, 'Wow!'"
Some of the Americans found the wow factor overwhelming and flew home from Hong Kong after the second week. But those who stuck it out for that and subsequent seasons got to test their games against a surprisingly strong cast of native golfers--does the name Vijay Singh ring a bell?--and carpetbaggers like Seve Ballesteros and Bernhard Langer. They also got to test their stamina. Four a.m. wake-up calls and two-hour bus rides to remote courses were common, and in some countries simply taking a swig of bottled cola could lead to days of intestinal misery. Even payday held its perils. (A pokey bus carrying $100,000 in cash, guarded only by tired golfers in polyester slacks, seemed an inviting target for bandits.) "But nothing ever happened," says Cunning--unless you count the $35,000 that Sieckmann lost one year when his briefcase was stolen in an airport.
"If you weren't mentally tough, it could be exasperating," says teaching pro Ron Gring, a member of the '81 expedition. "Mike had the necessary patience and lots of game too. He was in the mold of Mike Reid--sneaky long, a good iron player, a guy who could score under any conditions." Any weaknesses? "Putting."
Cunning certainly didn't plan to make a career of Asia, but in the early '80s a player lacking a PGA Tour card had fewer options. There was no Nationwide tour on which to hone one's game between cracks at the semiannual Q school, and mini-tours like Florida's J.C. Goosie tour were meagerly funded. And Cunning, by his own admission, did not have the greatest golf pedigree. As a youngster he had spent more time on his backhand than his putting stroke, ultimately earning a spot on an American junior tennis team that toured Europe in the summer of 1975. (Asked how he fared against a young John McEnroe, he says, "I got my butt kicked.") Lacking the foot speed for singles, Cunning dropped tennis at 17 and put his energies into golf, joining the team at Thunderbird High during his senior year.
He was soon swept up in the family passion. (His father, Jim, a retired executive with the Del Webb Corporation, went from duffer to 10-handicapper after joining Moon Valley Country Club in 1964. His mother, Donna, a former reporter for the Phoenix Gazette, took up the game when her two children reached school age and became a crack amateur, winning six Southwest Amateur titles and five Arizona senior championships.) After two years at Glendale Junior College, Cunning moved on to Arizona, where he advanced from unheralded walk-on to No. 1 golfer. (His roommate, John Ashworth, would become a big success in the apparel industry, but Cunning's mother fondly remembers him as Messy John, a clothes strewer extraordinaire.) In summer 1980 Cunning turned pro, and a few months later he was catching catnaps under banyan trees in India.
Not that he ever turned his back on the States. After six failed attempts at Q school, Cunning made it through in '83, finishing 39th at the TPC at Sawgrass. Unfortunately that ranking didn't get him into many Tour fields his rookie season--not even into his hometown Phoenix Open. To this day the tournament, now the FBR, has never offered Cunning a sponsor's exemption, a slight that baffles him and prompts his father to say, "I still burn." When Cunning did play, he performed as if his passport were burning a hole in his pocket. "It was tremendously frustrating," he says, describing the year as "over before it began." Back to Asia.