Myanmar reforms reveal 'strong golf culture'

After decades in the shadows, Myanmar's sudden opening-up to the outside is shining a new light on the country -- and revealing, amongst other things, one of Asia's most vibrant golf communities.

Behind Myanmar's "bamboo curtain", golf, a relic of British colonialism, has been an enduring pastime with scores of public courses -- often with green fees as low as $5 -- and a dozen driving ranges in Yangon alone.

According to Asian Tour executive chairman Kyi Hla Han, a highly successful Myanmar golfer who first represented his country at the 1980 World Cup, many visitors are taken aback when they see the extent of the country's facilities.

"People don't realise how popular golf is in Myanmar. They don't know that we already have such a strong golf culture," Han told AFP.

"There are lots of public courses. It's like Scotland, or Australia. You don't have to be a member, you can just turn up and play."

Han estimated there were up to 80 courses in Myanmar, formerly called Burma, which borders Thailand and has an estimated population of 54 million. Its golf-playing history of 100 years is among the longest in Asia.

Now the relaxation of military-ruled Myanmar in politics and border controls is expected to bring an influx of investment including plush new golf resorts, greater prize money and more opportunities for the country's players.

"It's great news now that the country is opening up for business and I think once the economy gets better and a lot of middle class people are able to afford playing, I'm sure they're going to pick up golf," said Han.

"Because there's a lot of facilities. Most of the courses are actually public courses so you can just pay and play. So it's just a matter of the economy getting better and people being able to afford to play.

"But we've always had a good history of golf being played there so it's not like Vietnam, or Cambodia, or even China -- we've been playing golf for the last 100 years. So the potential is great."

Golf was first played in Myanmar by the British military, who left behind several courses when the country gained independence in 1948. Since then, it has remained mainly the preserve of the military and business elite.

But Han said it was just a matter of time before Myanmar's economy improves, swelling the middle class and leading more people to seek out golf, as has happened in other growing Asian countries.

Zaw Moe, another of Myanmar's golf exports, said the country already had lots of talented young players who were working with coaches and benefiting from modern training methods and facilities.

It's a far cry from Moe's early days, when he hit balls into the jungle and picked up tips from caddies after starting to play at the age of 13.

"In my home town we have a nine-hole golf course and my father and mother played so I went with them. Somebody taught me the grip and I just picked it up," he said.

"My course didn't have a driving range. We just hit our own balls and asked the caddie to pick them up. We'd hit it into the jungle or on the fairway.

"We'd go and practise when the members weren't playing, so I would play in the early mornings or sometimes at night. When the members had finished, I could hit balls on the fairway."

Moe was forced to leave Myanmar in 1990 to seek out playing opportunities, and he moved to Malaysia, before spending 11 years on the Japanese tour. But he believes the next generation of Myanmar golfers will have it easier.

"It will take time. At the moment only the politics has changed. Everything will have to settle down and afterwards they (players) will come up. But it's looking very good for the future in Myanmar at the moment," he said.

Han said he now expected more prize money for the Asian Tour's $300,000 Myanmar Open, currently backed by domestic companies, as multinationals become involved. There are also about eight domestic events.

"We have our Myanmar Open and we hope to make that a bigger and better tournament next year. I think it will grow more," said Han.

"The businessmen there have been supporting it to help Myanmar and if multinationals come in... and I'm sure it's well supported by government officials. We see a good future for golf in Myanmar.

"Hopefully they can get one more (international) tournament in Myanmar. That would be nice for Myanmar and all the players over there."

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