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A round on the road to remember

The caddies' golf knowledge and energy were impressive.
The caddies' golf knowledge and energy were impressive. (Larry Herscher)
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June 15, 2008

GUILIN - As our taxi driver slowly negotiated bone-jarring, potholed roads, my golf partners and I worried we were headed in the wrong direction or worse. Streetside vendors selling meat and vegetables only added to our concern. This stretch of poverty and humble dwellings on the outskirts of Guilin seemed no place for a golf resort.

But 35 minutes into the ride, a Callaway Golf storefront appeared and the surroundings felt much less foreign. Passing US-size luxury homes, we entered the Guilin Landscape Golf Club relieved and eager to play.

When our tour guide first mentioned the unexpected possibility of golf in China and our hotel arranged it, we put aside our fears that much would be lost in translation. The plan: My playing partners, Larry Herscher and David Novick, and I would pay the equivalent of $140 each for greens fees, rental clubs, and caddies, as well as $60 prepaid for the round-trip ride. Our driver spoke no English but we took on faith he would wait for us, labor still being the least expensive commodity in China.

With gestures, nods, and finger-pointing, we confirmed our early morning tee time and rented clubs. The mist-shrouded first tee could have been at any first-rate public course in the United States except for the 40 Asian faces peering curiously at us and two yellow-slickered female caddies handing us clubs. The first hole is a 475-yard par 5 with a generous downhill fairway. Not fully knowing what we had gotten into, never were three mediocre golfers more grateful to hit decent opening tee shots.

The caddies were the best part of the round. They knew just enough golf English. "OB [out of bounds] right, OB left, water there." After we hit, they would reassuringly call out "safe," when we avoided hazards. They'd say "good shot," when one of us truly did hit a good shot. No pandering here. They would use a club to point out the correct line off the tee and could read greens expertly.

On the 12th hole, a 145-yard par 3 across water, as I reached for my usual 8-iron, my caddie forcefully gave me a 7, sensing the difference the rental irons make. I took the 7 and hit the front of the green, smiling gratefully at her.

After replacing the flag on a hole, our caddies would turn and ceremoniously bow to those behind us in the fairway, signaling our departure. For pulling a double cart, the caddy shared by Novick and me received the equivalent of about $27, exclusive of tip. Herscher's single caddy received about $21.

Our round was not memorable, but there were memorable moments. With a slow-moving foursome ahead of us, we were held up on a tee. The threesome behind us caught up and one golfer from the group asked, "Can we shoot with you?" In the States I would have pointed to the foursome ahead and said, "They're the problem." In China, seeking to avert an international incident, I said, "Sure," and waved my hand toward the tee. We all hit and putted together. Then, they asked to go ahead. Same concern, same diplomatic response.

When our caddies gave us the go-ahead on a 307-yard downhill par 4, Herscher drove the green to 12 feet from the pin. With newfound respect, the threesome that had recently passed us departed the green yelling, "Eagle! Eagle!" Alas, only a birdie was made.

The course - a par 72, 6,100-yard layout from the white tees with a slope and rating I estimated at 128 and 70.2 - was nothing you would lust to play in the United States. But its elevation changes, variety in the layout of holes, and manicured grounds provided ample interest and challenge once we stopped pinching ourselves at playing golf in China.

FELIX SPRINGER

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