Ever wonder what it feels like to be on top of the world? How about playing golf on top of the world? Rick Lipsey ’89, a former captain of the golf team, spent three months doing just that while he lived and worked in Bhutan, a Buddhist country in the Himalayas of Southeast Asia.
“I wasn’t the first Cornelian to become a golf teacher,” he said, “but I was the first person in Bhutan to be a golf pro, and I guess the first Cornellian too.”
Lipsey and his wife Carrie ’89 love camping and the outdoors and had friends who went backpacking in Nepal after college. After hearing that Nepal was the ultimate place to visit and explore, Lipsey was convinced that he and his wife had to go.
“It was sort of the Mecca for anyone that liked the outdoors. I always wanted to go there and when I got married I convinced my wife we should go trekking.”
While preparing for their honeymoon in Nepal, the Lipseys learned of Bhutan, and were instantly fascinated.
“We became aware of Bhutan and saw what Nepal used to be like before it was westernized and had so much tourism, capitalism,” explained Lipsey.
Bhutan is about 50 miles east of Nepal. It is called Shangri La because it is the world’s last Buddhist kingdom. Most of the country’s one million residents are subsistence farmers, and there are no stoplights, McDonald’s or ATMs. In fact, Bhutan only got TV in 1999. It is the only country that does not calculate prosperity with Gross Domestic Product. Instead they measure Gross National Happiness, a measurement created by Bhutan’s king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck.
Lipsey first traveled to Bhutan in 2000 with his wife on a two week trip. The couple went trekking, sightseeing, and spent a couple of afternoons playing golf at Royal Thimphu.
While playing, Lipsey gave golf tips to his two Bhutanese partners. Throughout the afternoon, the men complained that Royal Thimphu couldn’t afford a pro, so golfers learned to play by trial and error, reading golf magazines or adding an extra day to an international business trip where they could take a lesson.
As a joke Lipsey told the men that he would move to Bhutan and become their pro. Having played at Cornell, he explained that he had a low single-digit handicap and had given quite a few lessons to friends.
A few days later the men came back and asked Lipsey if his proposal was serious. He thought about it, and a few months later plans were finalized for Lipsey and his wife to go back to Bhutan in the fall of 2001.
After the couple found out that Carrie was pregnant with daughter Claudia Jill, the trip was delayed to this past fall.
As details were discussed, it was decided that Lipsey’s students would include Royal Thimphu Golf Club members, school kids from Thimphu and pretty much anyone else in Bhutan who wanted to learn to play golf. However, there was still one problem, what equipment would his students use?
Bhutan’s version of a pro shop was a cabinet in the office of a businessman who brought equipment back from business trips abroad. To remedy the situation, Lipsey convinced various companies to donate equipment. Callaway was the chief donor, with support coming from Nike, U.S. Kids Golf and from top golf teachers in the United States.
At Sports Illustrated, where Lipsey serves as a staff writer, he said his colleagues didn’t take him and his three month sabbatical seriously at first.
“They thought it was another one of my crazy idea for going away, although this was the ultimate of craziness. We’d taken a lot of trips to seemingly exotic places and this was sort of the icing on the cake. ‘You’re crazy,’ they said. They just thought it was a great adventure. At first they said it was crazy, but then they thought it was interesting and would like to do it too.”
In the end, Sports Illustrated and Lipsey’s colleagues were very supportive and enthusiastic. During his three month sabbatical he wrote a weekly column that ran on the Sports Illustrated website under the golf section.
During the three month excursion, Lipsey met an array of characters and accumulated a lot of memories and funny anecdotes. He attended a Bhutanese wedding; met two of the four queens and played golf in the Bhutan Open.
“I felt nervous,” Lipsey said of playing in the tournament. “But it was really sort of funny because it was a national championship, but at the same time it felt like a club tournament. It was a strange juxtstaposition of a national championship and still a small open among friends.”
His students ended up not only including Bhutanese citizens, but also Americans, Brits, Danes, Indians, Italians, Singaporeans and Tibetans in a wide variety of positions. He taught ambassadors, bankers, caddies, colonels, ex-monks, pilots, tour company operators. He also taught every member of the king’s inner cabinet, including the head of their version of the CIA. He taught everyone but the king.
Despite all of these experiences, the one that stands out in his mind the most is the work he did with the kids of Bhutan.
Lipsey started the Bhutan Youth Golf Association which offers daily after school clinics as well as an annual Bhutan Junior Open.
One of Lipsey’s favorite stories came about when he was teaching 75 kids in the Changlimithang Soccer Stadium in Thimphu. Every day he played games with the children, and one afternoon he told them that the student that hit the cross bar of the goal with a golf ball would get a chocolate bar. After quite a few students missed, he said that if Namgay, the smallest child in the group who stood just as tall as Lipsey’s waist, could hit the cross bar, all the children could have candy.
“Everyone was helping him,” explained Lipsey. “He was a good player and he had a nice swing for a munchkin. So then he hits the cross bar and all of the little kids started screaming and cheering. It was so nice to see how excited they were.”
Not only, however, did Lipsey bring golf to Bhutan, but his wife, a civil rights attorney worked as a pro-bono consultant for Bhutan’s Chief Justice, helping to write laws and re-write the entire penal code. In a return trip, Lipsey hopes to introduce a new literacy program with the founder of Room to Read.org.
That return trip is currently in the planning stages. Lipsey nine other people will be take part in the Golf Bhutan Tour 2003 (golfbhutan.com). The trip will run between Oct. 29 and Nov.18 with two different segments. A portion of the fee of the trip will go to the Bhutan Youth Golf Association.
Lipsey says that he hopes the trip will help to raise money for the Bhutan Golf Association and says that Bhutan is just a spectacular place to visit.
“Like Ithaca, it’s one of those places where you go and you fall in love with it. You fall in love with the people and you just really want to share that,” explained Lipsey. “I want to share Bhutan and also continue to do work for the program by organizing, teaching and helping with the planning of a course for the kids.”
Although his next trip will only be for three weeks, Bhutan will always be in his heart, and he plans on going back regularly. For the time being, Lipsey will have to be content hitting golf balls in New York.
Archived article by Kristen Haunss