The Sultan and Swing

Golf, for those of you who have never played it, is a strange mistress. There is no other sport I know of that punishes neglect so quickly; nothing atrophies your skill with such speed. For any part time player, taking even a month off can result is disaster. Sure, you will still understand the basic mechanics and theory, but a Sunday Slugger can go from calmly splitting the fairway, to scuttling every ball into the rough in virtually no time at all.
You don't go return from a break at swimming and forget how to breathe mid-length; footballers, no matter how fat, don't try to take penalties with their elbows. Never let anyone else tell you otherwise: golf is not a casual sport and Mark Twain's famous missive about it being a “good walk spoiled” is a crashing understatement.
These are the kinds of thoughts swimming around my bulbous cranium as I stand over a ball on the first hole at The Empire Golf and Country Club in Brunei. It's been a year since I last played – improbably it was with nine-time major winner and alleged cheat Gary Player at his new course in Abu Dhabi.
Perhaps because of that ridiculous pressure – I also had a TV camera in my face – today's examination in front of a retired tour pro doesn't feel too bad. Still, other than the frantic blasting of 50 balls the night before, it's been a long time and it's sweaty and the result will be, at best, unpredictable. On top of all that, there are serious concerns like falling coconuts, electrical storms and kleptomaniacal monkeys. In short: it's a bit different from what I'm used to.  
Off the blue tees, the first hole is 324 metres, or 354 yards to right-minded folk like me. To everyone's astonishment, I play three consecutive shots that could be regarded as decent: a drive up the fairway, an approach slightly short and left, and a respectable chip just passed the hole. Alas, I then take another three taps of the putter to get the thing in the hole.
The next hole follows a similar pattern. A 536-yard par 5, I blast off from the tee, almost keeping up with the pro, then follow that up with a smooth five wood to around 30 yards short of the green. Then I try to get delicate and spend five shots lifting my head, topping the ball, and trying not to brain my suddenly-smug playing partner who helpfully observes that “now you look like someone who hasn't played for a year.”
Thus the round continues until Ahmad abandons me on the 12th hole to go and do something better with his time. Before that, he kindly answered a few of my questions about the course (it drains well), playing in hot and humid conditions (drink until your piss comes out clear) and how he overcame his inner Happy Gilmore and bested his violent ice hockey tendencies (by converting to Islam).
Wee Mo and I play on after he leaves and before long find ourselves approaching a podgy little man who looks like Super Mario without his hat. He asks to play a couple of holes with us as we head for home.
We agree and try not to giggle as he shits a drive into the rough. Understandably keen for the golf to take a back-seat, he starts up a conversation, immediately clamming up when he hears that I am a journalist. Ordinarily I wouldn't much care, but he seems desperate to annoy me by refusing to say what he is doing in Brunei.
Soon I find him so oleaginous and evasive that I go from really not giving a fairway-in-regulation fuck about his back story, to being uncontrollably curious.
I ask him point blank what he is doing in Brunei. He refuses to tell me anything. He does, though, concede that he is in some way attached to the Sultan and that he is being so cagey because of a spurious story that was written in the UK some time ago.
Poor Ken doesn't realise that you don't have to be Lisbeth Salander to find out what he's been up to when he tells you his name, nationality and most famous client. So, after a cursory look on Google, it turns out that he is... The sultan's hairdresser, which is such a pathetically insignificant position that I further regret having encountered him at all.
We only find that out later, but move off shortly after playing a second hole with him. We take a few more pictures before skipping out the last couple of holes and driving back for lunch in the clubhouse. 
Inexplicably, the poor staff there are dressed like a child's idea of how a golf caddy should look with hideous tartan uniforms, plus fours and comical bunnets. It's the golfing equivalent of Medieval Times and makes me glad for the umpteenth time that I will never work a minimum wage job again.
Anyway, though the course is set in a positively palatial setting, Brunei doesn't quite match up to our expectations. Wee Mo and I had both expected Dubai in the jungle, which was not unreasonable considering the similarities between the UAE and Brunei: both are wealthy from natural resources; both are staunchly Islamic; both are ruled by families that aren't afraid to splash a bit of cash.
In reality, though, Brunei is more reminiscent of Hartlepool that anything in the Middle East. Drab housing estates fringe Bandar Seri Begawan (the capital), the weather is on the brink of being regarded as dreich and the few people we do see don't seem to be wealthy at all.
Without doubt, the weirdest thing about it all is just how alarmingly empty it is. I mean 28 Days Later empty. We decide to venture into the city centre to see the mosque and the other nominal tourist attractions and scarcely see another bastardin' soul for the whole afternoon. It was eerie, ugly and so very, very grey.
I guess that shouldn't have been a surprise in a country in which alcohol is as rare as fun. That, though, suits some folk – like my friend the golfer, back at The Empire. “This is the world's biggest bedroom community,” he said, a disturbing look of glee in his fervent eyes.