We are at Royal Thimphu, perhaps the most remote golf course in the world, tucked away in a gentle fold of the Himalayas, just outside what is often called the only world capital with no stoplights (one was installed a few years ago, but no one liked it). We're 22 hours of flying time from New York, having arrived via London, Bangkok and Calcutta, plus a wild two-hour drive on a one-lane road that consists almost entirely of hairpins. Down the hill is the spectacular 17th-century Tashichhoe Dzong, the nation's palace, monastery, capitol and fortress all rolled into one. And beyond, past the clusters of prayer flags that cling to distant ridges, are the vivid, shocking edges of a high Himalaya covered in snow, the first of a crush of peaks that form the border with Tibet, including the sacred and spectacular Jhomolhari, and Gangkhar Puensum, the highest unclimbed summit in the world.
Right now, however, Dawa is much more interested in showing me the new Japanese 3-wood he picked up in Bangkok on his way home from a business trip (he owns a travel company). Bhutan has the world's two most populous nations for neighbors -- 1.3 billion Chinese live on one side, a billion Indians on the other -- yet the country is smaller than West Virginia, with fewer residents than Detroit. Bhutan has no golf pros or teachers, nowhere even to buy balls and tees (diplomatic bags arrive from the Bhutanese embassy in New York stuffed with discount-store golf goodies). The members at Royal Thimphu have a motley collection of homemade swings cobbled together from watching hand-me-down videos and reading Western golf magazines that arrive months late.
Golf tips and swing theories are traded feverishly, and a visiting 10-handicapper is made to feel like Arnold Palmer. The golf course is a raggedy 2,700 yards, par 33, with thick rough and hardpan fairways. Four holes have new greenside ponds that look like oversized sunken bathtubs made of concrete. "Every year they try to make it a bit harder," sighs Dawa. Yet despite its many imperfections, Royal Thimphu -- like golf itself -- is revered.
The day before, I had met Karma Lam, a wiry, scratch golfer who works for the Bhutan Olympic Committee and is a part-time basketball and tennis coach. He was supposed to be meeting some visiting Indian tennis dignitaries but had abandoned them in favor of getting in a quick nine. "I don't know what it's like in other countries," Karma had said, "but in Bhutan, golfers are completely addicted. We don't give much time to our families. Golf takes over everything." With an annual membership fee of 6,000 ngultrum, roughly $130, Bhutan's golfers are mostly limited to the upper echelons of society -- government officials and diplomats, plus a few stray Japanese tourists. (A junior program is now underway, however, thanks to Rick Lipsey, an American golf missionary who doubles as a sportswriter.) A handicap sheet taped to the clubhouse window shows about 100 members. At the top of the list is one whose number is 13.2. His name is displayed simply as "His Majesty."
A couple of days before my trip, in an atrocious breach of Bhutanese etiquette, I had sent a request asking if I could play a few holes with the nation's fourth monarch, 47-year-old King Jigme Singye Wangchuk, a man with four wives (all sisters), 10 children and a fondness for videotaped NBA games. I never found out if the request penetrated the palace walls, but the king, I was told,is a busy man. Instead, Dawa invited along the king's larger-than-life first cousin, Paljor Dorji, or Benji as he is known to all.We tee off under leaden, blustery skies. Some course maintenance is being performed by a couple of old ladies with scythes. Stray dogs, whose barking fills the chill night air all over Bhutan, sleep in piles in the rough. An unimpressed-looking cow roams beside one of the fairways. Ragamuffin children with merlot-colored cheeks tumble over the hills and hollows.
Benji is a jolly fellow with a large, round Buddha face, a monkish buzz cut beneath his Panama hat -- the national dress code, requiring all Bhutanese to wear a robelike costume in public, is relaxed for golf -- and the bearlike build of warrior. He had a privileged education, including a stint at the Royal Military Academy in Sandhurst, England, alongside the Sultan of Brunei, then he spent his career in a variety of high-ranking government posts, including Bhutan's Chief Justice. Now retired and twice divorced, he's a full-time golf addict.
But not a very accomplished one. Benji helped bring golf to Bhutan in the late '60s -- he and an Indian brigadier got permission from the then-king to lay out a few holes -- but today he seems to be taking the game quite casually. For a stretch of several holes, he's on his cell phone, fixing up an evening game of mah-jongg. He plays half the second hole one-handed, chipping the ball along the fairway with his right hand while cradling the phone to his ear with his left. In the middle of the course is a 16th-century chorten, a Buddhist monument of the kind that dots the landscape all over these parts. Benji and I pull open the rickety wooden doors. Aside from a startled pigeon, it's empty inside. Years ago, people would come to these shrines to leave offerings of turquoise, jade and silver for the gods. (Bhutan, "Land of the tells tales of Bangkok's notorious Patpong district involving ladies of the night, Ping-Pong balls and darts.
We discuss conspiracy theories about the 2001 massacre of the royal family in nearby Nepal, when Crown Prince Dipendra gunned down nine relatives, including his parents, Nepal's king and queen. But mostly we talk about Bhutan, and its universal struggle to stride boldly into the future while holding on to everything that's good from the past; to avoid getting drowned in a relentless tide of Western culture. (Broadcast TV and Internet access arrived in 1999, albeit in a heavily censored form.) "We came so late and so suddenly to the 21st century," explains Dawa. "It's difficult for a lot of people, especially my parents' generation. I came back from America and told my father that people had been on the moon. He didn't believe it. I took him to my office and tried to explain about e-mail. He didn't want to hear it.
The country has been criticized at times for strictures that to an outsider can carry the faint whiff of totalitarianism -- the decree to
be happy, the mandated dress code, the treatment of non-native Bhutanese (tens of thousands of ethnic Nepalis were exiled from the country in the early 1990s). "We're a small country, and we're so vulnerable that we cannot afford to have any division," Dawa explains.
"Indira Gandhi took over Sikkim in 1973. She just walked in and grabbed it. There was no opposition, because there was no unity, no identity. The indigenous people had become the minority. We must be very careful." The lunch plates have long since been cleared away, and the all-important mahjongg game beckons. The wind whips through the hills and the golf flags snap to attention. A putt is missed on the home green amid groans. Evening comes and cloaks the peaceful valley once more in darkness.
The Takstshang Monastery is the most sacred place in Bhutan, clinging improbably to the top of a sheer cliff face more than half a mile above the Paro valley floor. Taktshang means "tiger's nest" -- the story goes that Guru Rinpoche, the "second Buddha" who brought Buddhism to Bhutan in the eighth century, flew to the site on the back of a tiger and spent months meditating in a cave. One day in 1986, a 40-year-old American golf pro was lumbering up the grueling path to the top. Halfway up, Carl Marinello met a friendly monk in maroon robes.
When the monk found out what the stranger did for a living, he said: "Jack Nicklaus!" News of that year's Masters Tournament had somehow reached the remote monastery, and the monk offered Marinello a coin to give to the champion as a good luck charm. When Marinello returned home to Florida, months later, he mailed it to Nicklaus' office. "I never did find out if he got it," he says. "But he didn't need it. Nicklaus has always been an enlightened being."Marinello was in Bhutan because earlier that year, he had been sitting at home feeling restless. He picked up a news bulletin from the South Florida PGA and spotted a small item: "Spend a summer in Bhutan training a team for the Asian Games in Seoul." He was soon on a plane, leaving behind a wife who would become an ex-wife.
The Asian Games squad was a ragtag collection of the country's best players, mostly 80s and 90s shooters. Over the next several months, Marinello whipped them into shape. They didn't have the best swings, but their experience with Bhutan's national sport, archery, meant they had incredible visual gifts and a remarkable aptitude for concentration -- they would simply stand and fire the ball at the flag, like an arrow. They showed equanimity, too, in the face of golf's many frustrations,something Marinello attributed to their Buddhist beliefs. "Their discipline and self-control was amazing," he says.Before the final round, Bhutan lay in 11th place out of 15. But the team was determined to rally on the last day and beat its juggernaut neighbor, China, which was in 10th.
"They'd never played in a tournament before," says Marinello, "but they said: `We'll beat China for you -- and for the king.' And they did. They all had their best rounds of the week. Some had the best rounds of their lives." Bhutan slipped past China into 10th place. The team members returned home as national heroes (and in the absence of any subsequent international success, they remain Bhutan's only golf stars today). Marinello returned to Florida. "It was a fantastic experience," says Marinello, now a semiretired teaching pro. "They gave me so much. Even today, Bhutan is never far from my mind."
Dawa and I are in a restaurant in downtown Thimphu. Outside the window is the Changlimithang Stadium,home of the Bhutan Olympic Committee and the site of an important battle in 1885 that led to the establishment of the nation's first monarch, Ugyen Wangchuk, the current king's great-grandfather, whose kindly face can be seen in a photograph on the ground floor of the National Library. Dawa is telling me his life story. "When I was a boy, children were forced to go to school in other countries," he says in a whisper. "It was very unpopular -- the children were needed to work on the land.Some farmers bribed the government officers. Some hid their kids. But my father sent all seven of his children to school. Today he is very proud he did that."
A group of German hikers sits on the other side of the room. At the table behind us is an unconvincing transvestite, a middle-aged Japanese tourist in a pink camisole and flip-flops, slurping loudly on a bowl of soup."I went to a Jesuit school in India," continues Dawa. "I was put into a suit and tie. We had hardly even worn shoes before.
Birthdays were celebrated -- when I asked my mother what my birthday was, she said: `You were born in the Year of the Ox in the winter time.' " Dawa excelled, and later spent four years studying economics at Washington State University. When tourism was privatized in Bhutan in 1991, he set up shop.
Tourists weren't allowed into Bhutan until 1974, and their presence has been kept as a strictly high-yield, low-volume business ever since: A daily tariff of $200 per visitor keeps out invading hordes of backpackers and limits outsiders to a few thousand a year, mostly wealthy Japanese and Americans, including a smattering of predictable celebrities: Demi Moore had been in town a month earlier, Shirley MacLaine has visited, of course, as has Richard Gere, Keanu Reeves and Steven Seagal, who fancies himself to be a reincarnation of a 17th-century Buddhist master. Benji says he was once tour guide to Mick Jagger and Jerry Hall.
There's not yet much potential for golf tourism. Don't expect Jack Nicklaus or Tom Fazio to design some fabulous new Shangri-La Golf and Country Club here any time soon. Royal Thimphu is it for now, although there are a few other elementary Bhutanese courses, with sand greens, including one inside the grounds of the king's private retreat in Punakha. Driving up to the trailhead for the Tangu monastery a few days later to have tea with the 13th reincarnation of an important lama, soon to embark on a nine-year solitary retreat, we pass dusty hillside, part of the training grounds for the Royal Bodyguards. It appears to be dotted with a few patches of . . . could they be golf greens? Indeed they are. A primeval golf course in the making, a new, par-70 field of dreams, a fertile breeding ground for a little more Gross National Happiness. Another small step for Bhutan.
Later, we take a stroll through the streets of Thimphu. In the middle of the main intersection is a booth. A man stands inside it and directs the traffic. It was here that the famous stoplight experiment happened: The much-heralded modernization was rejected in favor of a more human, more Bhutanese solution. I didn't meet the king, but his handiwork is everywhere. The cars and trucks pull up and the man deftly sends them on their way. It is, as the Buddhists might say, auspicious.
For more information
The government tourism website is helpful (www.kingdomofbhutan.com), as are sites of individual tour operators such as www.bhutantravel.com and Dawa Penjore's company, www.bhutanyodsel.com. Rick Lipsey and Geographic Expeditions will be the hosts of Bhutan's first ever golf tour next spring (www.golfbhutan.com ). By John Barton