By John Garrity
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
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
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
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
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
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 São 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
"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
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.
Issue date: May 2, 2005
Photo by Darren Carroll/SI
Cunning, 46, continues to play in Asia -- where
he bought two Indonesian blow guns --
because he has no better option.
They call him