Vietnam to Host Golf Event

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CHI LINH, Vietnam -- Cone-shaped hats dot the manicured green as a crew of young women wearing rubber boots and sun-shielding face masks learn how to caddy for Vietnam's first major golf tournament.
 
It's an unlikely sight in the communist country where the average annual income still hovers around $420, and a monthly wage often wouldn't cover greens fees.
 
For access and economic reasons, sports like soccer and badminton usually reign.
 
Vietnam will host the inaugural Carlsberg Masters 2004 Vietnam tournament this week, an unmistakable sign of emerging wealth in a country that no longer wants to be known for war and isolation.
 
'I think that the staging of the tournament fits in well with the development of the country,' said Lars Holden, general manager of Chi Linh Star Golf & Country Club, about 50 miles outside the capital of Hanoi, where the tournament will be held.
 
'We're probably five years ahead of when most people say this event should be played. But for me, I want this event to kick start mega interest in golf in Vietnam.'
 
Golf was first introduced to the country in 1922 at the Central Highlands' resort town of Dalat, where the French colonialists built an 18-hole course. Vietnam's last emperor played there in the cool mountain air as did French military officers and later the Americans.
 
But after Ho Chi Minh's revolutionary army ousted the French in 1954, the country endured years of hardship and poverty during the Vietnam War. The Dalat course escaped virtually unscathed, but fell into disrepair when it was abandoned after the communists reunified the country in 1975. It wasn't reopened for nearly 20 years.
 
Since the war ended, Vietnam has been struggling to find its place in the world. But over the past decade, it has opened its doors widely to foreign investors while gradually moving toward a market economy. As a result, many golfers teeing off on Vietnam's nine courses today are Japanese or South Korean business people, but unprecedented economic growth has spurred an increasing interest among Vietnamese players as well.
 
Hanoi native Nguyen Thai Duong, 18, is one. He began golfing just four years ago with his father and now dreams of becoming Vietnam's version of Tiger Woods - or at least the first player in his country to go professional.
 
After training in Malaysia, Australia and the United States, Duong hopes to have a strong showing at the Carlsberg Masters. But he'll have his work cut out for him as 1995 U.S. Open champion Corey Pavin and 142 others compete for the $200,000 purse during the 19th leg of the Asian Tour.
 
'I think I have to practice every day seven or eight hours a day for two or three years' to turn professional, said Duong, who recently graduated from high school and hopes to go to college in the United States to further advance his game.
 
'Golf is very new and not popular in Vietnam. Not many people are watching it,' he said. 'The tournament is a big deal to Vietnam's economy and also because Vietnam is changing on a lot of levels - especially golf.'
 
Duong is among a handful of young, aspiring Vietnamese players who want to see the game take off as it has in other Southeast Asian countries like Thailand. But despite increasing wealth, the gap between rich and poor remains wide - keeping most ordinary Vietnamese from even dreaming about swinging a club.
 
'Golf is still seen as a selected sport. It's not like football where they can grab a ball and find a little piece of concrete out in the street and kick it around and become superstars,' Holden said. 'It's so expensive that a monthly wage wouldn't get you a game of golf, and it makes it tough.'
 
Still, the Chi Linh course opened in August and already has more than 900 members, most of whom are wealthy Vietnamese businessmen and government officials. The Vietnamese-owned course - which will add 18 more holes, 300 houses and a hotel - is estimated to cost $40 million when it's completed in 2006.
 
About a half dozen other new courses are expected to open in Vietnam over the next five years, and Holden is hopeful more exposure will lead to tougher competition, lower costs and ultimately more local and foreign players.
 
'We're trying to really get out there and grab the attention of the golfing community and show them that Vietnam is a destination to come to,' he said. 'Instead of going to Bangkok or going to Malaysia, come and try Vietnam.'
 
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