By Robert Bicknell

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June 18, 2006

15th Anniversary Column...

When the editors at Vietnam News reminded me that the 15th anniversary of the paper was coming up, a flood of memories hit me. The 11 years I’ve been with the paper have been a hell of a lot of fun. I’ve watched the country grow and as a consequence, the continued expansion of the paper from four black and white pages to the current colour-filled 26 just to meet the demand of daily news.

Growth of the golf industry was a mirror image of the country’s economy as more clubs opened to serve the increasing amount of arriving foreign businessmen and locals who realised the value of golf as a business and recreational tool.

Everybody goes through periods in their lives when they ask the inevitable question "Is this what I want to do with my life?" Well, in 1995, I decided to take a break from golf and the corporate in-fighting associated with clubs nowadays. As I was in the process of getting married, leaving the country wasn’t an option so I did what most foreigners did…I knocked on the doors of Viet Nam News and was immediately taken under wing by Terry Hartney and the then Editor-in-Chief, Nguyen Khuyen, both of whom have my eternal gratitude.

"Mr. K" (as he was known) was, and still is, an amazing man. To all the staff, both foreign and Vietnamese, he was a friend, mentor, teacher, advisor, and favourite uncle figure all rolled into one. He never raised his voice or lost his temper and believe me there were plenty of occasions where it would’ve been fully justified.

I never did get an opportunity to thank Mr K for giving me a start, therefore, I do so now. Little did he or I know that 10 years and over 400 columns later, I’d still be going strong.

Writing a column is akin to golf in that you take your best shot and bear responsibility for the results. Getting bashed occasionally when you screw up comes with the territory, so when I screw up (and there have been a few beauts), I always rectified the mistake in the next issue.

In 1993, there were perhaps 100 motorbikes and 10 cars in Hanoi. Taking a cyclo around Hoan Kiem lake while eating an ice cream cone was the ultimate in relaxation. In golf, only Kings’ Island Golf and Song Be Golf Resort were operating and a few others either getting licensed or beginning construction (that scream you just heard was Jeff Puchalski yelling that Dalat Palace beat everyone by a few decades…which is technically true, but didn’t actually "open" as a full 18-hole facility until later. For the record, Dalat Palace remains my favourite course in Viet Nam).

Vietnam’s economic outlook was like the wild west as potential investors poured into the country in 1994 with suitcases full of money and dreams of a fast fortune, but a lack of infrastructure and poor due diligence on their part did in most of the dreamers.

As the Doi Moi policies were refined, the country’s economy grew and if you were able to check the golf courses membership sales, you’d see they were an accurate economic barometer.

Golf membership sales also perfectly illustrated the differences in spending habits as more courses opened initially in HCM City than in Ha Noi. Southerners tend to spend more, while Northerners tend to be more "frugal". However, over time as more businesses opened in and around Hanoi, more golf courses began construction.

So, from two courses in 1993, Vietnam now has 10 courses operating and another 10 either on the drawing boards or under construction. A high level Vietnamese government official mentioned over lunch last weekend that he was worried there were too many courses and not enough players.

His concerns are real, but manageable.

For the golf industry in Vietnam to prosper, clubs need to cooperate in areas of international golf tourist marketing as well has "growing the business" here at home. If the current level of local players remains stagnant, the industry is doomed, so the clubs must work hard to attract new players. Memberships and green fees will eventually become more affordable as competition increases. With careful planning, golf could eventually become as popular as football someday.

I’ll let you know in another 15 years.

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