09.04.06
Watch the Lizards!

Golfers in Vietnam face unusual hazards as new players flock to the once frowned-upon sport and designers build new courses

By Sheridan Prasso
 

Steering his golf cart over the Ocean Dunes golf course built along Vietnam's shoreline, Jeff Puchalski veers suddenly to the left. Darting past is a 2-foot lizard big enough to break an axle. Not that he could have hit the swift little bugger if he tried. In any contest of Vietnamese lizards versus golf carts the lizards will surely win. "Oh, this one's nothing," says Puchalski, the American manager of this course and another one in Dalat. "You should see the big ones."

Apart from big ones, the hazards on this unconventional course include a brisk wind off the South China Sea, the remnants of an old Buddhist temple on the 3rd hole and an empty Vietnamese tomb on the 18th. The course architects at Faldo Design, owned by three-time British Open champion Nick Faldo, decided to keep the tomb and temple walls out of respect for the area's population. Besides, it would have been difficult to remove them. But they did get rid of the biggest hazards of all--a number of old artillery shells dug up during the grading of the course. Faldo says his crew called in the Vietnamese army, which removed the ordnance so the design work could continue. "Whilst I may put my heart and soul into my designs," he says, "I'm not necessarily willing to forsake life and limb!"

Long frowned upon as a bourgeois indulgence, golf is finally arriving in Vietnam. Its first and only pre-Communist course was built for the Emperor Bao Dai in 1922 in Dalat. Then play was discouraged during the dark years of Communist rule--until the mid-1990s. Now the country's emerging nouveaux riches are flocking to the sport. In mid-June Vietnam held its second National Golf Championship--men only; there aren't yet enough women players--and the best golfers will represent Vietnam in the Asian Sports Congress later this year in Beijing.

Vietnam now has 11 golf courses; another 3 are under construction, and Hanoi has granted licenses for an additional 30 to 40. Ten years ago the country had fewer than 70 Vietnamese players out of 75 million people, according to Puchalski, but it now has close to 1,000. "Golf is becoming very fashionable, and people want to be seen on the golf course," he says.

Aimed mainly at expatriates--the tens of thousands of Japanese, Koreans, Americans, Brits and others sent to Vietnam to manage their companies' operations--Vietnam's first golf courses were built near Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. Such proximity made it convenient for many Vietnamese to take up the sport, too--and turn it into an obsession. "I've watched golfers take up the game, and in six months they're in the 80s," says Puchalski. "They just dedicate themselves like you wouldn't believe."

Once they're hooked, they may splurge on a lifetime membership at their favorite club. At Ocean Dunes or at Dalat, that costs $13,200 and up--almost a steal compared to the $400,000 members must pony up at courses such as Trump International in West Palm Beach, Florida. Signing up at Ocean Dunes or Dalat allows golfers to play both courses, and so far they have 200 members, half of them Vietnamese.

Vietnam's rapid economic growth--and the newfound wealth of some entrepreneurs and public officials as a result--is fueling the boom. "My neighbors don't just have a luxury car, they have two luxury cars, and they're putting their golf clubs in their trunks at seven on a Saturday morning," says Walter Blocker, chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce in Ho Chi Minh City, who runs Gannon Vietnam, a consumer-products, logistics and building company.

Blocker's neighbors are usually heading to the Vietnam Golf & Country Club (one of its two courses was designed by six-time major champion Lee Trevino), about 30 minutes outside the city, or to Ocean Dunes in Phan Thiet, a weekend destination at the point where Highway 1 from Ho Chi Minh City hits the coast on the way to Hanoi. And it won't be just a golf outing. There's no legal gambling for Vietnamese, so they take their passion for betting to the golf course, placing bets on every hole. "They're big gamblers on the course," says Puchalski. "The people who aren't so good [at playing] can still beat the people who are [by gambling]."

Some of this cash trickles down to the caddies, many of them pretty young women. They make exceptionally good money by Vietnamese standards--up to $200 a month. That's roughly equivalent to the official salary of a ministry's department chief in Hanoi.

Recognizing the growing commercial opportunities, Gannon sponsored last year's Vietnam Open at Ocean Dunes. Such tournaments are starting to draw sponsorships from bigger-name corporations, including HSBC, Carlsberg beer and Pepsi (nyse: PEP - news - people ). Now the country even has two Vietnamese-language golf magazines.

Vietnam's early steps into the golfing scene came after the government instituted its doi moi economic reforms, opening the economy to foreign investment. The country needed global capital, and officials realized that the capitalists of the world played golf. Vietnam, the logic went, should have a golf course, too. So on Aug. 7, 1993 Vice Prime Minister Nguyen Khanh became the first Politburo member in Vietnam to hit a driver when he inaugurated the King's Island Golf Club, outside Hanoi.

But Vietnamese officialdom remained ambivalent about golf, considering it too much of a luxury sport. That hurt Vietnam in 1995, when the country joined the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Then Foreign Minister Nguyen Manh Cam found that most of his counterparts--Malaysians, Thais, Indonesians, Filipinos--were avid players. He, however, was not, and he found himself sidelined at his first meeting. That prompted Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, then Malaysia's foreign minister and now its prime minister, to quip that membership in ASEAN required two skills: golf and English. After all, a significant amount of Southeast Asian diplomacy takes place informally on the putting greens during summits.

By then a California businessman-- Larry Hillblom, who was the "H" of DHL Worldwide Express--had renovated the former emperor's course and laid the groundwork for Ocean Dunes. Built as a 9-holer some 5,000 feet above sea level, Dalat had been left to the weeds during the long years of war with the French and then the Americans. Hillblom expanded it to 18 holes, planted bent-grass greens (the only bent grass in Indochina) and restored the adjacent hotel, Sofitel Dalat Palace, to its 1922 colonial splendor. Then he spent $40 million to lavish the hotel with antiques and custom uniforms that included braids on the shoulders and pillbox hats. Just ten days after the hotel opened in 1995 Hillblom was killed in a plane crash near Saipan.

Faldo Design soon took over the Ocean Dunes project. It decided to keep the Buddhist temple and Vietnamese tomb (which they asked the family to empty). It had the unexploded ordnance removed and sculpted the course along the dunes between coconut palms and casuarina pines, where the wind comes whipping in off the sea. "The winds are a huge factor, and they can add anything up to three clubs to your shots," says Faldo. "Those winds change direction by a full 180 degrees throughout the year, so depending on when they visit, a golfer can have a completely different experience from one round to the next. I love that variety."

These days Vietnam's links are not only playing host to global capitalists but to tourists, as well. Greens and caddy fees typically run less than $100, and weekend hotel packages often include the room for only a little more than that, with unlimited play. Round-trip flights from Hong Kong can cost as little as $158, down from $750 a few years ago, making Vietnam an inexpensive weekend golf destination for the region.

On the 18th at Ocean Dunes the appeal is obvious. "From the elevated tee you get a great view across the par 5 hole, with the ocean stretching away beyond it," says Faldo. "It perfectly sums up the delight and appeal of playing golf in this wonderful part of the world." As long as you watch out for the lizards.