As a hard-up 10-year-old, Aung Win scrabbled for pocket money collecting balls on a parched Burmese golf course.
However, he never thought he would one day play professionally, let alone in his isolated and impoverished homeland, where golf has long been the reserve of military top brass and the super-rich.
Now 35, he is basking in his standout performance at the Leopalace21 Myanmar Open last month, where he was the highest finisher among the home players, winning admiration — and a few thousand US dollars.
With a purse of US$750,000, the Asian Tour event was billed as the nation’s richest sports tournament, as Myanmar targets a new era of achievement to banish decades of junta neglect that left sport in the doldrums.
Aung Win is one of a host of poor caddies-turned-professionals who are leading the way in golf, a sport that grabbed him during childhood.
He earned around US$0.05 per day as a caddie at the golf course where his parents both worked in his rural hometown of Monywa, near the central city of Mandalay.
At 13 he started cooking and cleaning for a local golf professional to earn his stripes before moving to Yangon a decade later.
“When I first arrived in Yangon ... sometimes I had nothing to eat,” he told reporters at the practice range of his Yangon golf club, where he teaches young players.
The caddie-to-player route into the game was pioneered by a clutch of international legends, including US golfers Byron Nelson and Ben Hogan, sons of a farmer and a blacksmith respectively.
They made ends meet as caddies during the precarious Great Depression before finding huge success as players the 1940s.
In Myanmar it remains the norm, as the country’s elite generally has little interest in professional golf, leaving the field open to the men who once carried their bags.
Eight of the country’s top 10 players are former bagmen, a group who are bonded together by the hardship they have shared.
“We play to beat each other, but off the field we are brothers. We all faced many difficulties to get here,” Aung Win said.
Myanmar Golf Federation chief coach Ko Ko Lay said almost all the country’s professional golfers are ex-caddies.
The 80-year-old, who has trained budding golfers for more than half a century, said the delayed graduation to the greens has its disadvantages.
“In every sport, the player needs to start learning when they are young. Golf is the same. Most Myanmar golfers had no chance to play systematically when they were children,” he told reporters.
However, his main concern is the decrepit state of the country’s fairways.
Golf was introduced to Myanmar during British colonial rule and several of the country’s courses date back more than a century.
The game has an eager following among the powerful military, which has dotted the landscape with the manicured sweep of fairways, catering to troops stationed in far-flung regions.
However, harsh tropical conditions and decades of poverty under junta rule have taken their toll on the aging greens.
“Building a golf course is not very difficult, but maintaining it in the best condition is really hard,” Ko Ko Lay said.
Even Myanmar’s most prestigious courses fall short of international standards, he said, urging the country to follow in the footsteps of neighboring Thailand, home to several successful players, by investing in the game.
Myanmar Professional Golf Association head Chan Han knows from personal experience the effect of Myanmar’s sporting neglect. He trained to play golf while studying in the US along with his brother Kyi Hla Han, who is now chairman of the Asian Tour.
“When we came back to Yangon, we felt confident we could play in any tournament — but there were no tournaments in Myanmar,” Chan Han told reporters.
He ended up building his career in professional golf by moving to Malaysia in the 1980s, returning to his homeland in 1995 with a mission to revamp the game.
And finally things are looking up.
Golf earned Myanmar three silver medals at the 2013 Southeast Asian Games on home soil, which was something of a coming-out party for the nation after decades of military rule.
However, Chan Han, who organized last month’s Myanmar Open, said there is a long way to go before the country can reach its full golfing potential.
“All sports need specialized strategies and government support. Without filling that blank, we cannot raise up any sport to world-class standards,” he said.
Aung Win was the only Burmese player to make the cut to the final rounds at the tournament last month, finishing tied for 54th place.
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