Just Call Him Mr. Asia

May 02, 2005
May 02, 2005

Table of Contents
May 2, 2005

Sports Illustrated Bonus Section: Golf Plus
SI Players
NFL Draft
Pro Basketball
Inside Baseball
Inside Hockey

Just Call Him Mr. Asia

In 1981 Mike Cunning first played in the Far East as a lark. Today, the Phoenix native is the longest-tenured pro in Asian tour history

The commute is murder. He gets up at 6 a.m., drinks his coffee and then loads his bags into the trunk of his Ford Explorer. Twenty minutes later, at Phoenix's Sky Harbor Airport, he kisses his wife goodbye, buys some snacks and magazines, and boards the first of three flights that will carry him to the other side of the world. When he disembarks, 18 or 20 hours later, the air will smell of damp earth, coconut hulls and incense ... or of dust, diesel fumes, grilled meat and cow dung ... or, if he's fortunate in his choice of hotels, of night-blooming jasmine. "The over and back is the part that wears on you," says Mike Cunning. "When I come home, I'm fried."

This is an article from the May 2, 2005 issue Original Layout

If he returns on a Monday, it's usually Thursday or Friday before Cunning can sleep through the night. That's partly due to jet lag and partly due to midlife crisis. He's 46, and his principal source of income--prize money on the Asian tour--dwindled to $28,401 last year. "Some of his trips were a total loss," says his wife, Emelie, a Filipino whom Mike met in Dubai. "There were times when he thought he should give up, but Mike doesn't know any other job. It would be scary to start over at this stage."

It's not as if her husband ever had the Midas touch. In 1997, when he became only the second American, after John Jacobs, to top the Asian tour's money list, Cunning banked a relatively modest $170,619, and that nest egg evaporated when he and his first wife divorced. He earned $50,000 for winning the 2003 Indian Open, which sounds good until you compare it with the $936,000 that Phil Mickelson got for winning February's FBR Open in Scottsdale, 30 minutes from Cunning's house, or the $1.6 million that Cunning's pal Ted Purdy banked on the PGA Tour last year despite not winning a single tournament.

"Mike probably has $6,000 to his name, and Ted's making all that money," says a friend who played the Asian tour. "But that doesn't bother Mike. He simply hops on the plane." Purdy, who followed Cunning to Asia in 1996, calls him Mr. Asia and says, "Mike Cunning is the reason I'm playing golf for a living. He's a phenomenal player, and everybody in Asia respects him."

They should. Cunning, like a modern-day Marco Polo, discovered the East in 1981, when he was one of about 40 American golfers enlisted to play an 11-week schedule in Asia by de facto commissioner John Benda. The naive recruits included future and former PGA Tour players Tom Sieckmann, Payne Stewart and Rocky Thompson, and it's safe to say that few of them had ever glimpsed a world so different from their country-club upbringings. "Our first stop was the Philippines," Cunning says, "and to this day I remember the cab ride from the Manila airport. It was on a two- or three-lane road, but they made eight lanes out of three. Cars and bicycles and motorbikes were weaving in and out, guys were running lights, there was no such thing as a stop sign. When we got to the hotel, I said, 'Wow!'"

Some of the Americans found the wow factor overwhelming and flew home from Hong Kong after the second week. But those who stuck it out for that and subsequent seasons got to test their games against a surprisingly strong cast of native golfers--does the name Vijay Singh ring a bell?--and carpetbaggers like Seve Ballesteros and Bernhard Langer. They also got to test their stamina. Four a.m. wake-up calls and two-hour bus rides to remote courses were common, and in some countries simply taking a swig of bottled cola could lead to days of intestinal misery. Even payday held its perils. (A pokey bus carrying $100,000 in cash, guarded only by tired golfers in polyester slacks, seemed an inviting target for bandits.) "But nothing ever happened," says Cunning--unless you count the $35,000 that Sieckmann lost one year when his briefcase was stolen in an airport.

"If you weren't mentally tough, it could be exasperating," says teaching pro Ron Gring, a member of the '81 expedition. "Mike had the necessary patience and lots of game too. He was in the mold of Mike Reid--sneaky long, a good iron player, a guy who could score under any conditions." Any weaknesses? "Putting."

Cunning certainly didn't plan to make a career of Asia, but in the early '80s a player lacking a PGA Tour card had fewer options. There was no Nationwide tour on which to hone one's game between cracks at the semiannual Q school, and mini-tours like Florida's J.C. Goosie tour were meagerly funded. And Cunning, by his own admission, did not have the greatest golf pedigree. As a youngster he had spent more time on his backhand than his putting stroke, ultimately earning a spot on an American junior tennis team that toured Europe in the summer of 1975. (Asked how he fared against a young John McEnroe, he says, "I got my butt kicked.") Lacking the foot speed for singles, Cunning dropped tennis at 17 and put his energies into golf, joining the team at Thunderbird High during his senior year.

He was soon swept up in the family passion. (His father, Jim, a retired executive with the Del Webb Corporation, went from duffer to 10-handicapper after joining Moon Valley Country Club in 1964. His mother, Donna, a former reporter for the Phoenix Gazette, took up the game when her two children reached school age and became a crack amateur, winning six Southwest Amateur titles and five Arizona senior championships.) After two years at Glendale Junior College, Cunning moved on to Arizona, where he advanced from unheralded walk-on to No. 1 golfer. (His roommate, John Ashworth, would become a big success in the apparel industry, but Cunning's mother fondly remembers him as Messy John, a clothes strewer extraordinaire.) In summer 1980 Cunning turned pro, and a few months later he was catching catnaps under banyan trees in India.

Not that he ever turned his back on the States. After six failed attempts at Q school, Cunning made it through in '83, finishing 39th at the TPC at Sawgrass. Unfortunately that ranking didn't get him into many Tour fields his rookie season--not even into his hometown Phoenix Open. To this day the tournament, now the FBR, has never offered Cunning a sponsor's exemption, a slight that baffles him and prompts his father to say, "I still burn." When Cunning did play, he performed as if his passport were burning a hole in his pocket. "It was tremendously frustrating," he says, describing the year as "over before it began." Back to Asia.

"Some of the places were still a little rough," Cunning says. "In Delhi or Calcutta, Sunday night at the hotel was like a flea market for Indian golfers. They didn't have access to good equipment, so they were eager to buy anything--your shag bag, balls, clubs, gloves, right down to your underwear." South Korea wasn't very polished either. On its mountain courses, where many of the tee shots were blind, foreigners in contention on Sunday had to cope with fans who ran onto the fairway, picked up their balls and threw them out-of-bounds. "Guys who had finished their rounds would come back out to forecaddie for you," Cunning says. "Brian Davis's wife would literally stand over his ball in the fairway to guard it."

Not that the Korean golfers needed much help. "They have great players," Cunning says, "but they're like Guinness--they don't travel well." He cites two-time PGA Tour winner K.J. Choi as an obvious exception, but more typical is Kang Wook-soon, who struggled last year on the Nationwide tour and went back home. "Kang is an exceptional player, but he wasn't happy in America. I asked him about it back in Asia, and he said, 'No food, can't talk, hard to travel ... no fun!'"

Cunning has met his share of First World golfers who prefer boiled-in-a-bag Spaghetti Bolognese to the caramelized chicken claws found in Shanghai's better eateries. "Most American players are afraid to venture out," says Purdy, who has known Cunning since his own junior golf days at Moon Valley. "Mike is different. My first week in Asia, he took me to a Vietnamese pizza place. Other times he'd go out in his shorts and flip-flops, find a beach and be gone all day. Or he'd take a week off and spend it with a Thai player. That's why he's been able to play there so long. He gets out and lives."

And then some. Cunning met his first wife, Marie, at the 1983 Manila Open. After the wedding they settled in north central Phoenix and had two sons--Kyle, now 17, and Jimmy, 15, who play golf at Thunderbird High. Parenthood was a smashing success, Cunning says, but the marriage was not. Marie now lives a mile or two from Cunning, sharing custody of the boys.

If Cunning's first marriage was rocky, so was his effort to move to the next level as a player. Frustrated repeatedly at Q school, he decided in 1989 to quit tournament golf and get "a real job." To that end, he applied for a customer-service position at Phoenix-based Karsten Manufacturing, where his mother had gone to work as personal assistant to CEO Karsten Solheim, inventor of the Ping putter. "They turned him down," Donna says. "Mike was devastated." Luckily, though, Benda said he would sponsor Cunning on his new South American tour if the Arizonan would work as his assistant. Cunning agreed--and promptly won the first event, the S√£o Paulo Open, rekindling his dreams of a PGA Tour career.

Or if not a career, at least a drive-by. At the '91 Q school in Haines City, Fla., Cunning hit into a greenside bunker on his very first hole and then bladed three sand shots back and forth over the green on his way to an 8 and an opening 76. The next day he shot 73. "At this point I'm like, 'Mike, you'd better get a job,'" says Paul Smith, a friend and former Asian tour player who was on his bag that day. Instead, Cunning closed with four straight rounds of 69 or better and made it back to the Show. He started well in '92, finishing 10th in the Hawaiian Open and making all but one cut on the West Coast. From Houston on, though, he quarreled with his putter, lost confidence and slid down the money list. The following year, he stayed in the U.S. and made 12 of 17 cuts on the Nike tour, but they came mostly in $100,000 events, and Cunning says he lost money. Back to Asia.

"I'm not the player who rocked the world," Cunning said earlier this year, resting at home between tournaments. "I'm not making $2 million a year like some of my friends, but you stick it out for the love of the game." He smiled. "Or because you can't do anything else."

Whatever his motivation, Cunning is the second-oldest player on the Asian tour, and he has played the circuit longer than anyone else, regardless of nationality. The Asian tour, meanwhile, has changed management several times, negotiated cosanctioning agreements with the European and Australasian tours and grown into a 25-event schedule with roughly $20 million in prize money. The circuit is now controlled by the players, following the PGA Tour model, and Cunning serves on the tournament players' council.

There are times, such as when he checks his bank balance, that Cunning wonders if he has wasted his life. More often, though, he reflects on his travels and friendships and concludes that he wouldn't trade with anybody. The memories alone are priceless. Like the time he got thumped in the chest with a golf ball as he got off a hotel elevator in Kuala Lumpur. ("Wayne Grady, Mike Clayton and Ian Baker-Finch were playing cricket in the hallway, using a trash can for the wicket and an umbrella for a bat.") Or the day he proposed to Emelie on the 18th green at the Dubai Creek Golf Club, where she worked as assistant to the head pro. ("Our friends and the club staff were watching from the clubhouse balcony, waiting to cheer when I gave them the thumbs-up," he says.) His desert home, a few blocks from Moon Valley, is decorated with keepsakes--carved bone blow guns from Indonesia; an Omani dagger; an ebony horse from the Philippines; a practice samurai sword from Japan; and the one that Emelie calls "the most precious"--the Waterford crystal bowl that Mike got in 1997 as the leading money winner on the Asian tour.

But now, as his mom puts it, he's "hanging on by his fingernails." Last year, while slumping to a 73.92 scoring average with no top 10 finishes, Cunning found himself tiring noticeably in tournaments. "Stuff was happening to me on the course that had never happened before. I was making double and triple bogeys and simply playing like crap on the weekends." Taking the hint, he embarked on a program of aerobic and core-strength exercises. "I definitely see a difference," he said after finishing 33rd in the 2005 opener, the Caltex Masters in Singapore. "I wasn't tired at all on the weekend." Cunning, who missed the cut at last week's Johnnie Walker Classic in Beijing, has earned $15,851 in nine starts this year. His best finish has been a 27th at the Myanmar Open in Yangon.

The real goal now is for the old man to get to the Champions tour, for which he will be eligible on July 30, 2008. The senior circuit has been the salvation of Asian tour veterans like Jacobs, who has won more than $7 million since 1995 and Stewart Ginn, the 2002 Senior Players champion. Says Purdy, "Mike's going to be a force on the Champions tour."

So they hope. In the meantime Cunning follows the advice of Confucius: It does not matter how slowly you go, as long as you do not stop. Then again, Confucius never had to fly the red-eye from Hong Kong to L.A.

Asian Connection

Because they live and travel together, Asian tour pros form friendships that last a lifetime. In January, 10 tour alums (seven of whom are pictured) held a reunion in Phoenix. Next year up to 40 vets are expected to gather during FBR Open week.

Brian Wilson, 40

ASIAN TOUR 1987-98

TODAY Plays variety of mini-tours; lost Nationwide tour card after 2003 season; lives in Fort Worth, Texas.

Jim Rutledge, 45

ASIAN TOUR 1994-95

TODAY Plays Nationwide tour; had six victories on Canadian tour; lives in Victoria, B.C.

John Benda, 57

ASIAN TOUR 1992-99

TODAY Plays European senior tour; tied for third at last week's Jolie Ville Sharm El Sheikh Seniors Open in Egypt.

Mike and Emelie Cunning

Jennifer Smith

Mark Diamond, 44

ASIAN TOUR 1987-92

TODAY Retired equities trader; PGA of America member; lives in New York City.

Craig McClellan, 49

ASIAN TOUR 1984-99

TODAY Designs and sells swimming pools in Scottsdale, Ariz.

Jerry Smith, 41

ASIAN TOUR 1988-89, 1994-98

TODAY Plays Nationwide tour; eighth in last week's Virginia Beach Open. Lives in Scottsdale, Ariz.

"I'm not the player who rocked the world," Cunning said. "I'm not making $2 million like some of my friends, but you stick it out for the love of the game."

"There were times when he thought he should give up," says Emelie, "But Mike doesn't know any other job. It would be scary to start over at this stage."
In South Korea foreigners in contention on Sunday had to cope with fans who ran onto the fairway, picked up their balls and threw them out-of-bounds.
COLOR PHOTODarren CarrollROAD WARRIOR Cunning, 46, continues to play in Asia--where he bought two Indonesian blow guns--because he has no better option.COLOR PHOTOIAN WALTON/GETTY IMAGESBANK ON IT Cunning is 66th ($15,851) on the 2005 Asian money list. COLOR PHOTOMARK DIAMONDCOLOR PHOTODarren CarrollHOME GAME Mike's time in Phoenix with (from left) Emelie, Kyle and Jimmy is precious.