By Robert Bicknell

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June 4, 2006

My dream for a public course in Vietnam…

One of my pet projects is to get someone in Vietnam to open a daily fee public golf course where disadvantaged kids would have a safe place to live and a place to learn a valuable skill. As more and more golf courses open up in Vietnam, trained equipment operators, groundskeepers, mechanics, F&B and Pro Shop staff and caddies will be required…lots of them.

Training people from the ground up is an expensive proposition, especially when it comes to turf maintenance equipment. One big screw-up and a $40,000 machine becomes a huge paperweight. Secondly, once people are trained there is always the danger of another course stealing all the best staff.

But, what if one golf course was a training ground for staff and worked to help place "graduates" at new or currently operating courses?

Ok, I admit that getting an NGO, charity organisation, the Vietnam government or even some guy who is a few bricks shy of a full load, to invest a few million dollars in a public golf course is an uphill fight, and of course the Ministry of Education would want a say in the curriculum, but the payoff would be immeasurable – not only in return on investment, but for the future of the game and, more importantly, providing career opportunities for people who need them.

Despite the fact that Vietnam’s economy continues to grow at breakneck speed, it is still worlds away from what George Bush described as "the haves and have mores." There are still people who continue to fall through the cracks and could easily be classified as the "have less and the have nil".

Look, not all kids are brilliantly gifted, have stellar IQ’s, or wealthy families. The majority are kids who have the desire to help their families, but suffer from a lack of opportunities so some take to the streets selling newspapers, shining shoes, etc.

Sadly, some kids go even further downhill from there and, predictably, end up in trouble with the law. This is a cycle that a Golf Course School could try and help to break.

These are the people who would benefit from a Golf Course School. To me, the only thing worse than a wasted opportunity is a lack of good opportunities.

I mention this because of a novel approach to troubled kids in the US attracted my attention.

Apparently, The Glen Mills Schools, America’s oldest continuously run reformatory, has a remarkable outdoor classroom: a golf course. Opened in 2000, the daily fee course was conceived as a training facility to teach kids how to work on one.

The course is staffed entirely by kids convicted of crimes and sent to the reform school.

Averaging 23,000 rounds a year and grossing more than $2 million, the Glen Mills Schools doesn’t need to rely on handouts from the government, it is self-sufficient. Furthermore, the kids learn a trade, build self-discipline and learn both respect for others as well as for themselves. All vital tools needed to make it in society.

What is interesting is that only 30 per cent of the students return to a life of crime, which is a far lower rate of recidivism than all the other programs in the US.

The school has no bars on the windows, no fences and no security guards. It sounds crazy but it works because the kids know what would they would lose by running away.

The street behaviour is long gone and replaced by pride in their accomplishments, which are something to behold. To get a $100 green fee at a public course in the US is far from easy, so the course had better be in great condition…and it is.

Not surprising is that many of the students go on to careers in the golf industry, while some even go to university to obtain degrees in agronomy.

This demonstrates that such a program can work – even with troubled youths, so trying it with kids who haven’t gone too far astray would be easier.

Instead of courses in basket weaving, which are an end unto themselves and do not lead to upward career growth, perhaps some NGO could throw its weight (and a few bucks) behind an idea such as this.

One thing I know for certain is that the benefits outweigh the risks.

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