Now that the final putt has been sunk at the 2017 World Amateur Golfers Championship (WAGC) in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and my long journey back to the east coast of Florida is complete, I have time to reflect on my experience in Asia. I was in Malaysia for 10 days, but it seems like it all went by in a flash as is often the case when your schedule is packed full of activities.
I arrived in Kuala Lumpur (KL) on a Wednesday evening, a few days ahead of everyone else to give myself time to decompress and explore the city alone before the more than 400 golfers and tournament staff arrived on Saturday. Since the hotel doesn’t have an airport shuttle service, I used Uber Black for the hour-long ride at a cost of $51.30 USD. I’m told the same fare in the USA would have been more than double the price. For my first few days in town, the Renaissance Kuala Lumpur hotel near the city center was filled with mostly Chinese business men attending meetings and conferences. Once the golfers started arriving on Friday night and Saturday, the atmosphere would change dramatically.
The plan for my first day in KL was to explore the city and see the most popular tourist attractions, but as poet Robert Burns once wrote, “The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.” While I arrived in Malaysia on time, my luggage did not. China Southern Airlines wasn’t able to transfer my bags to the connecting flight from Guangzhou, China to Kuala Lumpur in the 40 minutes that was allotted. Without any fresh clothes or toiletries, I decided to stay in my room and avail myself of room service for breakfast, then relaxed by the pool until my luggage arrived later that afternoon.
With clean clothes and golf bag now in my possession and a good nights rest behind me, I started exploring. My first stop was the KL Tower, a communications tower that stands 421 meters (1,381 feet) tall and is the 7th tallest freestanding tower in the world. The views from the outdoor observation deck are spectacular and those that wish to challenge their acrophobia can stand in the glass-bottomed room that juts out from the observation deck and take pictures of the city beneath your feet. I stopped at a local 7-Eleven store on the short 25-minute walk back to the hotel to pick up some beverages and snacks for the room, before heading out to roam around Kuala Lumpur City Center. Known to the locals as KLCC, it’s the unofficial hub of Kuala Lumpur and home to the very recognizable Petronas Twin Towers, which were once the tallest buildings in the world and are still the tallest twin structures in the world. They stand 451.9 meters (1,483 ft) tall and are connected together by the skybridge on the 42nd floor. At the base of the towers is KLCC Park and Suria KLCC, one of the largest malls in Malaysia. This 1.5 million square-foot, seven-level mall has over 400 stores & restaurants and many of the world’s most renowned high-end luxury brands are represented. I saw a beautiful Patek-Philippe watch that I wanted, but the 346,500 MYR ($85,000 USD) price tag soon brought me back to reality. I won’t be selling my home to buy a watch anytime soon.
Arrival day. Most of the 35 nations scheduled to compete in the 2017 WAGC arrived at some point on Saturday, November 18. I noticed the hotel lobby filling up with golf bags throughout the day as the buses unloaded golfers from the airport. My Team USA teammates arrived in the afternoon, and after checking in we were meeting poolside for adult beverages and planning dinner.
Sunday’s schedule included the first of two optional practice rounds followed by the official opening & flag raising ceremony. Several of us decided to play the first practice round on Sunday and skip the Monday practice round in favor of sightseeing & shopping. For some unknown reason, our practice round was scheduled to take place at some other course, but we ended up instead at Kelab Golf Sultan Abdul Aziz Shah, a golf course with facilities so dated that it seemed lost in time. Not only that, but it had nothing to do with the WAGC. Even worst, we arrived for our 8:00am tee time with only 5 minutes to spare because the bus departed the hotel almost 45 minutes late. Naturally, the course staff rushed us to the tee. Not only was this course not part of the rotation for the tournament, but the playing conditions were disappointing. The tees, fairways and rough were in bad shape and infested with some kind of broadleaf grass or weed that made playing golf shots out of it difficult. While some of the greens rolled well, many were spotty. Right from the outset, I developed considerable apathy for playing this course. I didn’t fly almost 10,000 miles to play a half-ass muni track, and this “practice” round probably did more harm than good in preparing me for the tournament.
That evening, all the players were shuttled to a nearby convention center near KLCC and the Petronas Towers for the opening ceremonies. After some speeches from various sponsors and patrons, dinner was served and the flag ceremony started. Accompanied by music, each participating country was introduced and each country’s designated flag bearer paraded down the aisle with the nation’s flag to be placed on the main stage. The flag ceremony gives the event an Olympic feel and helps demonstrate that golf truly is a global game.
Several of us from Team USA planned to forgo the second practice round and go sightseeing instead. My negative experience with the first practice round only made the decision to skip golf easier for me. While non-golfers that made the trip can explore on their own or attend the scheduled activities each day, for golfers competing in the tournament, this is the only full day available on the schedule to explore. The WAGC tries to cram 6 rounds of golf and post-round activities into a week because they know that we all have regular lives to get back to, but this also robs golfers of the opportunity to discover the magnificent city of Kuala Lumpur. The event’s compressed schedule is the primary reason that drove my decision to arrive a few days early.
After a late breakfast, we walked to the monorail station on the corner and hopped on for the short trip to KL Sentral, the main ground transportation hub in Kuala Lumpur. From the monorail stop, we hopped on a train that took us to the edge of the city to visit the Batu Caves, one of the most popular Hindu shrines outside India. The limestone that forms the Batu Caves is said to be around 400 million years old. The statue of Murugan, a Hindu deity that stands at the base of the 272 steps leading to the caves, stands 140 feet high. The sight is also well known for its local inhabitants called macaques. These small monkeys love to steal food from unsuspecting victims and can get violent if you get too close as one Chinese tourist found out the hard way when the macaque swatted her sunglasses away when she approached for a selfie.
Returning to KL Sentral, we decided to walk through the large mall attached to the station, and we found a Nando’s Restaurant. This made our South African team member very happy because Nando’s was founded in Johannesburg, South Africa and is famous for Portuguese inspired PERi-PERi chicken, the marinade for which is made with the African Bird’s Eye Chili. Having eaten there twice on my trip, it’s safe to say I’m a big fan. I even brought home a bottle of the PERi-PERi sauce. What makes the Nando’s experience even better are the Malaysian prices. Two complete meals with sides and drinks came in at only 17.80 MYR (Malaysian Ringgit) which is equivalent to about $4.33 USD.
My sixth day in Kuala Lumpur was also the first day of the World Amateur Golfers Championship, the very reason I was there in the first place. Perhaps it is because I had already spent almost a week in Malaysia, but I wasn’t as motivated for the start of the tournament as I should have been. Once again the organizers dropped the ball and our bus arrived at the fantastic Kota Permai Golf & Country Club with only 20 minutes to spare before our tee time at 8:00am, the first of the day. After checking in and finding our golf carts, I had about 10 minutes to hit a few chips and roll some putts before heading out to play a course I’d never seen before. After a three-putt on the par five first hole, things didn’t get much better. The result was a disappointing 76, with most of the damage coming in the first 6 holes.
I was excited to get up and play golf because I knew that while a 76 wasn’t a good score, it also didn’t put me out of the tournament with three rounds to go. I also knew that I would play better in round two, and that made me optimistic. My optimism would be tested early, as I struck my first shot of the day on the par five first hole at the spectacular and scenic Templer Park Country Club. My tee shot was pulled left into the rough, but we didn’t see it bounce. Well aware that we’re playing golf in the middle of Malaysia’s monsoon season, there was no doubt in my mind that the ball was plugged. After seven people spent five minutes searching in the soggy, wet rough just a few feet off the fairway, I was left no choice but to declare a lost ball and make the drive of shame back to the tee box to hit another ball. A few wayward shots at the wrong time and more struggles on the greens led to another 4-over 76.
Round three of the tournament took place at Sungai Long Golf & Country Club, a beautiful Jack Nicklaus design with flawless putting greens. Despite my lackluster play over the first 36 holes, I was still in the top ten and a good round on “moving day” would give me a chance to make a run on the leaders. After blasting my opening tee shot 300+ down the middle, a 63-yard lob wedge shot set up a great birdie opportunity from just over four feet. Unfortunately, I struck my birdie putt a little too hard and it took a hard lip-out. I quickly forgot the missed putt on number one and made a great birdie on the second hole, only to give it back and then some on the 183-yard third with a blocked 7-iron that found the hazard. From then on, lip-out putts would become the theme of the day with 4 more birdie putts deflecting off the edge following my power-lip on the first hole. The mental game is a huge part of golf, and while I kept it together for the most part, ultimately it failed me on this day as I took a disastrous triple-bogey on the 17th hole, followed by yet another lip-out birdie putt on the 18th from 5 feet – the 6th lip-out of the day. The 6-over 78 left me well back in the pack after three rounds, my hopes of a top-three finish virtually gone.
The final round of the tournament for me would take place at The Mines Resort & Golf Club. The lake that borders several holes on the front nine was once the largest open cast tin mine in the world. In 1993, Robert Trent Jones used the natural topography to lay out this wonderful golf course that hosted the World Cup of Golf in 1999 won by Tiger Woods and Mark O’Meara of the USA. I was paired once again with my new friend from Denmark that I had played with the first two days along with great guys from Italy and Hungary. While I was in great company, I just couldn’t get anything going on the course. My game was just not there this week, and while I played solid on the back nine, I finished my round with a three-putt lip-out on the final green that summed up the week for me. Team USA’s embedded cameraman was perfectly positioned to capture my misery and he even added a little music to top it off…
That evening the individual and team awards were handed out at the awards dinner & closing ceremony held in the grand ball room at the Renaissance Hotel. With golf behind us, it was time to reflect on the week and enjoy the company of such a diverse group of people from all over the world. Being my second trip to the WAGC world finals, it was great catching up with old friends from 2015 while making new friends. This week I was fortunate to play golf on five unique, fun and challenging golf courses with great people from Slovenia, South Africa, Denmark, Malaysia, Brazil, Indonesia, Hungary, Netherlands & Italy. In all, 35 countries were represented this year in Kuala Lumpur.
Once a little time has passed I’m sure that I’ll remember my time in Malaysia more for the friends I made from Team USA and other countries and the time we spent exploring the city of Kuala Lumpur than for the scores we shot on the golf course. This was certainly the case in 2015 when I went to Turkey. I still remember the golf courses, the resort and the fun times we had, but even though I managed a 3rd place finish, I don’t remember the scores I shot.
Winning a trophy is great, but in the end, it really is secondary to the experience as a whole. That’s what the World Amateur Golfers Championship is all about. Giving golfers of all abilities an Olympic style experience in exotic locales, and an opportunity to share that experience with people from other countries and cultures. These really are trips of a lifetime, and I feel very lucky to have been a part of it twice in three years.
While the WAGC was officially over and most people were heading home, my Malaysia experience wasn’t done. Our flight was scheduled to depart Kuala Lumpur at 6:10pm local time on Saturday, so that left us the entire morning and early afternoon to make one final stop on the list of tourist attractions. That stop was Petaling Street in Chinatown. As it turns out, this outdoor market has plenty of options for name-brand shoppers that don’t want to pay name-brand prices. A sign warning against the sale of imitation goods provides a healthy dose of irony since the whole street is practically littered with fake branded items. Handbags, watches, sneakers, clothing – you name it, they’ve got it. There must be at least a dozen vendors selling Louis Vuitton bags and accessories, and nearly as many selling fake Rolex watches. You can even get the latest cinematic releases for less than 10 MYR each which is less than $3 US. For shoppers on a tight budget or those that don’t mind knockoffs, Petaling Street should be your first stop as it offers not just variety but also great value for money, as the prices can be drastically whittled down through patient bargaining.
After spending an amazing 10 days in Kuala Lumpur I’m stricken with a mini depression as I always am when returning to the reality of everyday life, work and paying bills. Every time I travel, my inner wanderlust grows stronger and I start looking for fresh opportunities to discover new places. In Early 2015, if you predicted that I would visit a different Muslim country to play golf in three consecutive years, I might have called the men in white coats to take you away. Some people reacted with textbook Islamophobia when I told them I was going to Turkey in 2015, and again when I went to Morocco in 2016. Malaysia didn’t get the same reaction from those people however, perhaps because they didn’t know it is a Muslim country? While the influence of Islam is prevalent in the history, architecture and laws, only about 40% of Malaysia’s inhabitants are Muslims. In a diverse, modern city like Kuala Lumpur people of all ethnicities and backgrounds blend together just like any other large city in the world.
In my daily adventures in and around the city of Kuala Lumpur, the one thing that stuck out the most for a westerner like me was the absence of pork on most menus. At breakfast in the hotel, substitutes for bacon included chicken sausage and thinly sliced strips of beef brisket. For me, the amazing diversity and scope of flavors in Malaysian cuisine more than made up for the lack of pork. Drawing influence from Indian, Chinese and Thai food, Kuala Lumpur’s reputation as one of the world’s most popular havens for foodies is well deserved.
My only regret on this trip is not having time to visit Jalan Alor, the famous night market where hawker stalls are a favorite on the city’s foodie scene. Fortunately, the WAGC announced that the 2018 World Amateur Golfers Championship will again be in Malaysia! This time the event will be hosted by the province of Johor, which is located at the southernmost tip of peninsular Malaysia, bordering the island nation of Singapore. One thing’s for sure – I’ll be doing everything I can in 2018 to qualify for Team USA for a third time and return to this wonderful corner of Asia.