Vietnam Golf talks to golf seniors Lars Holden and Tom Bowen who were among the first golfers to come to Vietnam.
VGM: When did you both come to Vietnam, and what was the golf industry like back then?
Tom Bowen (TB): I arrived in 1999 and was lucky enough to have a Corporate Membership at Kings Island. It was the only golf course in Hanoi at that stage, and the club house was the old wooden building now used for offices. At that time most of the players were expats, and at the weekends the course was always full and there was a great atmosphere in the clubhouse afterwards.
Lars Holden (LH): I arrived soon after Tom, first as Head Professional, and then as Head of Golf Operations and finally as General Manager. As Tom says it was a lot of fun at Kings Island back then. I lived on the Island, which was very isolated, but meant I had no trouble being there for the early starts.
VGM: Tell us more about golf in Hanoi back then?
TB: Kings Island was only the old Lake Course, and was very different to the way it is now – when the lake was full, the water came over fairways, and several of the holes looked very different to the way they are now. The club held monthly medal competitions and numerous other events which made it a lot of fun. Unfortunately the drive was much longer then, before the new highway.
LH: There seemed to be a lot more expats playing back then – or perhaps it is that now there are so many more Vietnamese playing. I really enjoyed those early days, teaching some of the locals and seeing them progress. Even then it was clear to me that golf was going to be very popular.
VGM: You both moved on from Kings Island. Tell us about that?
LH: I was lucky enough to be asked to work on the next golf project in Hanoi – which was Chi Ling Star Golf. This was such an exciting project, to be involved from the very beginning, through design, construction and opening, and as General Manager. It meant that Hanoi had two really beautiful, natural golf courses, on different sides of the city. It was amazing how many memberships we sold so quickly. By this stage there were so many more local players - and Chi Linh became very popular and I think we developed a real club spirit there.
TB: I left Vietnam for a few years, and when I returned, I found that Lars was at the new golf course at Chi Linh – so I joined up there as a member, and I still play there regularly. I still liked to play at Kings Island, and there was already talk of a second course there, now the Mountain course. I remember being surprised how busy Chi Linh was, with so many local players, and lots of golf tourists as well.
VGM: What happened with the development of golf in the north after that?
LH: We then saw a real explosion of new golf courses. Van Tri was a new name, Kings Island Mountain Course, Tam Dao, and Phoenix. Others to follow were Hanoi Golf Club, and Dam Vac. It was a great time here as a lot of new golfers stated, and some new professionals and managers started to come in. It was really the beginning of the golf industry in the north. I had always been looking at what was happening in the south, and they were much further advanced back then, with a lot of expertise in teaching, management, and green keepers. The north was looking like it would catch up. We were also lucky enough to hold 2 Carlsberg masters tournaments at Chi Linh in those years. They were joint Asian and European Tour events, and brought a lof PGA Professionals to Vietnam.
I am Hanoian at heart. My wife comes from very close to Kings Island, so I am really pleased to see the development of golf in the north. I think the south still is ahead in terms of how the game of golf is presented, but the north has made great moves. I would still love to see the golf clubs recognize that they have three main revenues, from golf, from food and beverage and from Pro-shop sales.
VGM: How do Vietnam golf clubs, particularly those in the north, compare with international golf clubs?
LH: I think we have some golf courses which are of real international standard in design. But I think we still have some way to go to meet international standards of maintenance, management and club operations. I am sure this will develop over time.
TB: I agree with what Lars said earlier. The golf club is a total package, not just a round of golf. It is the reception, the changing rooms, the restaurant food and staff, the operations staff, caddies, and then you want a challenging course in good condition. From the golf club perspective, they need to focus on providing all the components, and focusing on all 3 revenue areas.
VGM: So how did your involvement with Titleist and Footjoy come about?
TB: As golf was growing so fast in Vietnam, it was clear to us that the supply of golf equipment was not keeping pace. I was hearing from Club managers that they had to import their own equipment directly from the suppliers overseas, and also many golfers still bought their equipment overseas and brought it back with them. Lars and I started discussions about 5 years ago, and at the beginning of 2010 we started business as the distributors in Vietnam for Titleist, Footjoy Pinnacle and Cobra brands. At the time these were all part of the Acushnet company and we were really happy to have these brands – really the best brands in golf.
LH: I had moved to Ho Chi Minh City, and I set up our operations for the south of Vietnam. Tom and his Team look after the north. We have seen a real growth since we started, and now most golfers in Vietnam are buying their equipment locally. We provide a full range of golf equipment, from Titleist Balls, Clubs, Bags, and Accessories, and Footjoy Shoes, Gloves, Shirts and Accessories. PinnacleBalls and Cobra Clubs complete our range. We are seeing more and more golfers take the choice of their equipment very seriously. Professional club fitting is one example of this, and I am spending more of my time fitting golfers with the correct Titleist clubs. More and more golfers are recognizing that playing with good equipment is good for their game.
VGM: Who are your customers?
LH: We are a distributor, a wholesaler, so we supply the golf industry. We have two customer groups. First the ‘green grass’ or the golf clubs. These are known as the ‘Pro-shops’ and look after club members and visiting players. Secondly we supply the retail shops. They provide all golfers who tend to have a bit more time to select what they want. Both groups are so important to make sure all golfers in Vietnam get the best range and selection of products.
VGM: What do you think the future of golf in Vietnam looks like?
LH: The sky’s the limit! I do not think it will be as big as Thailand, but over the next 10 years I can see great growth in the game. New players, new courses, and golf tourism will all be important.
TB: I would like to see more good young managers in the country. I still think we are short on experience and quality. Over time local managers will develop, but for the next few years I think we need more outside expertise. I agree with Lars. There will continue to be great growth. What really excites me is seeing more and more young golfers, both boys and girls. These are the future of golf in Vietnam.