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Putting in Polynesia

Off the banyan tree, over the monkeypod, through the breadfruit—that's golf In Tonga.

By Philip Weiss

The only golf course in the Kingdom of Tonga is about the size of a postage stamp, but then as countries go the Kingdom of Tonga is barely a postage stamp: a scattering of islands in the South Pacific, the largest of which is the size of Martha's Vineyard. There isn't much land to go around, and from the dawn of time Tongans have battled each other over competing claims. It's remarkable there is a golf course at all.

Golfers can be thankful to a nobleman named Have'a who, in 1977, allowed six holes to be laid out on a former banana plantation on the main island, Tongatapu. The course, later expanded to nine holes, sits on a plateau that dips away on the north side toward the island's central lagoon. The ground is hard and bumpy. Balls tend to run or take crazy bounces. Most of the greens are that in name only.

"No one claims that it's the best course in the world—quite the contrary," my friend Dave Wyler, who lives in the Tongan capital of Nuku'alofa, explained. "I can remember when you had to wait for the horse races to end on Saturdays till you could play, and then you got a free drop if your ball landed on the road apples. The whole point is the social aspect of the thing."

That mix of high comedy and feudal sobriety is very Tongan. The country's remoteness has helped to preserve its remarkable traditions. Back in the Age of Discovery, when European sailors were buying the favors of Polynesian women, England's King George III managed to play one western power against another and thus maintain Tonga's independence. Today it is the only remaining Polynesian monarchy; there once were more than a dozen.

Westerners have used Tonga's remoteness to hide outrageous acts, most famously the mutiny on the Bounty, which began in the country's waters in 1789 and took years to come to light. But it was another hidden outrage that first brought me to Tonga: In 1976, one Peace Corps volunteer murdered another and essentially got away with it. The case piqued both my interest and my sense of justice, and as a journalist I decided to write a book about it.

It wasn't until my tenth trip to Tonga that I finally played the golf course, in a local tournament of sorts with Wyler and his in-law Steve, who was visiting from New Zealand. I paid the guest fee of $7.50 and, issuing a firm "No, thank you" to an urchin selling found balls at twenty-five cents a pop, I stepped to the first tee.

Hole number one is Tonga's only par five, replete with blind dogleg, pottery dig and the metal-roofed groundskeeper's cottage, which crowds the fairway and announces errant drives with embarrassing bangs that can be heard all over the plantation. At 420 yards, the hole is far and away the longest on the course.

I laid up at the edge of the dogleg so I could see the green on my third shot, while Wyler cut the corner. His ball sailed over a pottery dig (from which an archaelogist had, the year before, encouraged me to take reddish-brown potsherds as souvenirs) and slashed down through the soft, broad leaves of a breadfruit tree. The urchin took off to find the ball. As it turned out, it had rolled within thirty feet of the green. A couple of shots later and I was beside the green, too.

The next hole was the most beautiful, the only one you might think of exporting. Its 318 yards are tucked into the lowland and distinguished by two huge monkeypods, or rain trees, which barely meet over the fairway about 250 yards down, their leaves like delicate fingers. The trees are hard to hit over and impossible to hit through. The average golfer is forced to lay up. A short approach to a green as uneven and wide as a riverbed, a putt or two, and you move on to three, the most curious hole of all.

The green is just eighty-nine yards away, but it is balanced on the edge of the plateau and guarded on the far side by a banyan tree, whose octopuslike trunk sends wayward shots ricocheting in all directions.

"Not exactly the seventeenth at Sawgrass, but it will do," said Steve while bending over his wedge. He stopped his backswing at a strange cry. "I think that's a pig being killed."

No, not exactly the seventeenth at Sawgrass.

We had made it back to the old plantation portion of the course, where a series of crisscrossing par fours are all but indistinguishable. That is, except for the marks of wayward pigs (local posted rule: FREE DROP FROM TRACTOR TYRE MARKS AND PIGS ROOTINGS). The King's Road is frighteningly close, just on the other side of a low fence. "I reckon I have the longest drive on this course," Wyler said. "I hooked it into the road once and it landed on a bus and went to Mu'a."

As we came to number seven, I waved to a friend who was walking to the first tee in a stylish green suit, carrying a bright red bag and following her son as he learned the rudiments of the game. The course is like Tonga itself, a tiny stage on which it is hard to escape anyone's attention, except the world's.

As for my score, I WILL leave that in the South Seas. Suffice it to say that the boy selling used balls and I were on intimate terms by the time we made the short march back to the clubhouse. Back in the States this kind of structure would be called a pole barn. It was a slab floor and wire mesh walls with bare wooden studs. "It's like a church," Wyler said. "A church isn't a holy place. It's what the people do in it that makes it holy."

A barbecue was going on outside. We got some beers and some chips and sat down. Bottles of liquor were neatly wrapped in brown paper and set out on a card table, as were a few trays of eggs—prizes for best and worst score, nearest to the pin and straightest drive.

Wyler had had a bad day. He won the prize for "Most Golf," a euphemism for highest score, and then did something he hadn't done since his college days—chugged from a bottle of beer and poured out what he couldn't drink on his head.