Around the World in 76 Days
by Ronald W. Fream www.golfplan.com
The image of golf architecture often is that of a name-brand pro golf designer disembarking the helicopter onto a plot of ground, followed by assorted clients, aides and photo op writers. A speech is made describing the grand vision for the course as a driver is put to work and a ball flies to the sound of thrilled onlookers. Minutes later, the name-brand pro re-boards the chopper and its back to the airport where the customized private jet awaits. The new golf project has been launched. Off to another similar event in another country in a few hours’ time.
For some of us in the golf architectural business, the ego-massage, gentle transport and organized entourage of support and assistance is a non-event. It is not all sub-par rounds, private jets, helicopter rides above the traffic and at-your-convenience meetings, photo ops and five-star luxury suites. Golf architecture can be a strenuous, time-consuming occupation – far from the glamour of pro golfer glory for us journeymen. It can still be coach-class airline seating. Four decades ago, we did not even have business class or fax for assistance and comfort. Only those longest yet in the business remember the telex machine. Air conditioning was uncommon, mosquito netting was often needed.
Scheduling for a departure and return tends to be an open ended situation when my trips begin. Meetings dates and times can change when four or seven countries are on the itinerary. Linda, our durable and patient travel agent, books departure flights and attaches an open return, usually cut against a departure from Singapore. Singapore is a remarkable city-state that provides aid and comfort to many frequent travelers transiting Southeast Asia.
The bus trip Tuesday evening from Golfplan’s office in Santa Rosa to San Francisco International Airport (SFO) was uneventful. We left San Francisco early on Wednesday, Feb. 19 via SQ001 at 0005H bound for Hong Kong (HKG), connecting to a Vietnam Airways flight to Hanoi. Business Class on Singapore Airlines is way better than the back of the plane, especially for this 14-hour transpacific flight. Departing just after midnight helps induce sleep. Fourteen hours in the air is a very long time if one cannot sleep easily. I find extended sleep on long flights helps ease jet lag later. In the days of Pan Am, I made the flight 005/006 transpacific run SFO/HKG/SFO more than 40 times – each way. For Golfplan colleague George Philpott, this was his first trip to Vietnam. Crossing the dateline cost us a day. Hong Kong is a huge, modern airport and offers ample creature comforts for the in-transit traveler. Airline business class lounges, anywhere, give a place of refuge and tranquility, which can help ease air travel. We transit nicely; after a short one-and-a-half hour flight, we arrive in Hanoi, the political center of Vietnam.
Vietnam is a booming country. While the hammer and sickle flag flies over local party offices, the gold star on the red field is the more predominant flag. The Communist government is following China’s social capitalism roadmap. With about 85 million people, the majority younger than 30, job creation is a prime economic focus. Over the forty-two years of my exposure to emerging golf markets, it is obvious that golf with tourism can bring social and economic benefits.
It’s a four-hour drive southeast from Hanoi to our jobsite in Thanh Hoa Provence, on roads beginning to show improvement in surface width and quality. I would not tell my life insurance company about the Vietnamese driving habits. This country has more motorbikes per capita than any other. Vietnam competes vigorously with India in obtaining the maximum numbers of horn honks per kilometer driven. Rules of the road and common driver courtesy, as we know them, are nonexistent.
Twin Lakes is to be an executive meeting center, holiday home and resort hotel golf project being promoted by a Vietnamese cement manufacturer. Three design team members – George Philpott and I from Golfplan – Fream, Dale & Ramsey, and Daniel Roos, an architect from Palafox Associates in Manila, tour the lake and kharst limestone outcrop-studded site with Mr. Chinh Leong, the owner’s project director. This is my second reconnaissance visit. The kharst outcrops remind me of Guilin, China. We leave at dusk for a grilled shrimp and calamari meal and a night in a local hotel. After 15.5 hours of flight time, four hours on the road, three hours on site, another hour drive to the surely not five-star hotel, was more than enough.
Our group is out early to continue trekking the property. We are determining the land uses to provide a dramatic 18 holes of golf, water-view kharst outcrop hotel site and homes for vacation and holiday use. This development should find eager demand. A four-hour drive from Hanoi is an easy trip for Vietnamese with increasing economic affluence and shiny new cars. While not as crowded as Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi is densely inhabited. The refuge of tranquil nature is finding an expanding market. The site will prosper.
More space is found to plan for a third nine and hillside, lake and Kharst outcrop views for garden apartments and split-level villas. Another 20 hectares of land might be added later. Having more land now will pay dividends later. Land prices in Vietnam seem high now, but there is no limit over the next few years. Buy what is available.
Fortunately, the humidity is not too intense. When the monsoon returns, so does the humidity. This reconnaissance yields important additional data for refining and elaborating on earlier completed land use studies. Planning will continue as the owners refine their market and goals. It’s time to leave. We are delayed somewhat with late discussions at the site office before a noisy, hectic return drive to the airport. Stuck in traffic, we miss our flight to Ho Chi Minh City. Unfortunately for us, this is a holiday weekend and the only seats available are on a 0230H departure flight. After the airport lounge closes at 2330H, all we can do is sit, nap and wait in the somewhat sparse domestic terminal. This early morning flight is no frills. All we need is sleep.
Ho Chi Minh City is a sprawling mega city of six or seven million people – this density is projected to double in the next 10 years. Arriving at 05:00H puts us at our Saigon riverside hotel by 06:30H with just enough time to shower and meet the first of three clients scheduled for today. A busy day but time at sunset to utilize the rooftop terrace of the Majestic Hotel. A French confection from about 1925, the rooftop terrace offers wonderful views of the Saigon River, bustling ferries and elaborate dinner cruise boats. The continuing noise of horns and motor bikes adds local flavor. This terrace is a people watching lookout.
It’s Sunday morning; we are off early on another four-hour road trip north on the highway towards Hanoi to the nondescript fishing town of Phan Thiet. Good news, fewer trucks are crowding the road, but sadly more locals are out for a Sunday drive. No rules of the road are followed here. The two lane roads serve four or five lanes of vehicles with more than two wheels while two wheelers easily can get 10 abreast.
Mui Ne village, 12 kilometers north of Phan Thiet, is a delightful seaside assemblage of assorted cottage hotels and eating places. Kite-boarders and windsurfers abound as do more and more Russian visitors. Mui Ne also offers an amazing site for golf. Sand dunes, the color of sugar, have piled to some 80 meters above the sapphire blue sea. We run with the site. Golfplan has designed the first course in these dunes. Golfplan always creates one-of-a-kind design, but this giant sandbox offered extreme opportunities. The expressed goal is to produce Asia’s most demanding Scottish Links-inspired championship course. Although Sea Links offers five sets of large diverse tees, this is no place for beginners. Off the back tees, we can stretch to around 6,950 meters (7,600 yards), par 72. Huge rolls of sand undulating and heaving are inspired by the sea. Greens will be immense, offering some three club lengths of variation front to rear. Putting across 65 meters of Tifdwarf Bermudagrass surface with three dissimilar breaks of 50 centimeters and 100 centimeters provide challenge. Every greensite is one of a kind, both frightening and unforgettable.
Bunkers only come in large and larger; deep and deeper. The course superintendent was told to take top dressing sand from the bunkers when needed to keep deepening these vast 50-meter and 100-meter long monsters.
Sea Links will be serious golf unlike any other, pushing the edges and stretching the limits of R & A hole length standards, putting eight or even 10 individual flagstick areas on a green. Only the tee tops are flat. Wind off the South China Sea resembles the winds of St. Andrews and Royal Dornoch, only 10 degrees Celsius warmer.
Few places in golf exist where outrageous abandon, aggressive design, and true challenge for the sophisticated player, can be put in place. Come Christmas 2008, news will emerge about this far-out track that is Sea Links. We tour the construction. Dozers push and shape the sand. Seventy or 80 women are planting Paspalum fairway grass. I direct Bill Kessener, our onsite supervisor, “keep things bold, vertical and visual, and, when in doubt, bigger.” When tall Bill cannot see out of a bunker, it is probably deep enough.
The next day, out early to face horns honking and ignored driving lanes. This driver honks compulsively. We’re back to Ho Chi Minh City in four and half hours, after an all too-short night in a seaside cottage at Mui Ne. While there, we enjoyed great BBQ ribs, fresh spring rolls, local Saigon beer and balmy breezes. We meet with two Ho Chi Minh City-based clients about pending residential projects. The demand for new residential housing is intense in this market. Daniel is off to the Palafox office in Manila.
George is driven two-hours west to Moc Bai and Bavet, twin villages straddling the Cambodian-Vietnam border where Golfplan is designing the Cambodian-Vietnam Friendship Golf Course. This will be 18 holes, nine playing on each side of the border and the par-5 18th will cross back and forth allowing players to putt to or from Vietnam to Cambodia. While George is gone, I handle administrative tasks at the hotel. Dinner is at a Lebanese restaurant. The lamb kebabs and humus were great. The Australian wine was quite good. George is absorbing both business related matters and new cultural factors as well. The diverse cuisine is a change from his California fast-food rations.
An early morning breakfast of Pho – the wonderful ubiquitous noodle soup – then George transits to Singapore to fly back to San Francisco via an 18-hour Singapore Airlines flight. His first visit to Vietnam is enlightening and educational. I go to Singapore too where a driver waits for the easy road trip over the causeway to Johor Bahru, Malaysia. Singapore roads are like the country itself, smooth, clean, beautifully landscaped, orderly and silent. Johor Bahru is following Singapore’s image as a growing business and residential region.
Golfplan is providing consultation for the remodeling and upgrade of Ponderosa Golf Resort in Johor Bahru. Growing real estate values dictate layout changes within this 20 year old course to provide more area for golf-view housing. We also continue with a second project, for the same client, Impian Emas Golf Club. Some 10,000 residences will surround this 27-hole course over the next five years.
The next morning, the driver returns and I leave for Singapore Changi Airport again. The causeway immigration control traffic is dense due to a recent security problem in Singapore.
From Johor Bahru, I go to Bangkok. It’s only a 90-minute flight from Singapore to Bangkok. A driver meets me for transport to the Unico Grande golf club not far from the new Suvarnabhumi airport. Site reconnaissance; collect a photo record before sunset and discuss the site’s possibilities before being driven to the owner’s hotel in Bangkok. Too bad this is a quick trip. The all-suite hotel room is stocked with good wine and within an easy walk of a foot massage salon and an eclectic art gallery/restaurant. All in all, I have a relaxing few hours of well earned R & R.
We’re out early the next day for another look-see at the Unico Grande golf course. It’s important to have first hand visual knowledge plus a detailed photo record. This 30-year-old daily-fee course in metro Bangkok does about 60,000 rounds a year. New day, new goal. Tear out golf for a total rebuild including a major sports-recreation-social-golf members’ club. The real focus will be 99 high-luxury golf-view three and four-story condo apartments inspired by the wonderful Aman hotels. Nearing sundown, the driver arrives and it’s back to the airport to relax in the lounge and wait for the next flight.
It’s a three-hour-forty-five minute Thai Air flight from Bangkok to Bangalore, India’s booming technology city. ETA 2300H. Flight arrivals in Bangalore quickly emphasize the numbers and density of the population. Fortunately, a new airport opens soon. A taxi to the same hotel I have stayed at for years, only the room rates escalate. San Francisco seems cheap, hotel/room-rate-wise. In the basement restaurant, a delicious North Indian menu is on offer when time allows. Incidentally, the local Indian wines are getting better. Out early; after a couple of lengthy strategy and concept meetings on pending Bangalore projects, it’s back to the airport. In much of India, the availability of water decides the fate of many projects. Roads are crowded, horns honking. Dinner at the decrepit airport leaves much to be desired. At 2145H, Jaggu Srinivasan, my long time Indian colleague and I depart for Chennai (formerly Madras) via a 50-minute Kingfisher flight for another late-night arrival. Roads are mostly empty except for the tuktuk drivers, the three-wheel covered taxis, flitting about like dragon flies and honking like a gaggle of geese. Beggars are fewer late at night too.
In Chennai, on Saturday, a site visit for data collection, strategy and planning discussion, crowded roads and thankfully coolish weather. This is “winter” to locals, down to 16 degrees Celsius at night. Unfortunately, 38 degrees Celsius (100 degrees Fahrenheit) plus dense mid-day humidity will soon return. Our dinner at the hotel’s rooftop restaurant rewards the day. Chennai, a teeming city of some 15 million, sprawls below. Now, it’s Sunday and we’re out at 0530H for a 0740H flight departure to Kochi (formerly Cochin).
After a 56-minute Paramount Airways flight to Kochi, we go from the Bay of Bengal to the Arabian Sea.
It’s another hour’s drive south, full of honking horns, through crowded villages, before a cruise on one of the storied “houseboats” of the Backwaters of Kerala. Locals refer to Kerala as “God’s Own Country” – not far off the mark with its long, empty sand beaches; lush, coconut greenery; vast “backwater” lagoons and nine months a year of delightful weather. The three-month wet season is the definition of “monsoon rains”. The houseboats are a major tourist attraction at any time of the year.
Jaggu and I enjoy our leisurely water transport to a 400-acre (162-hectare) coco palm fringed island rice paddy. Talk about a location, not only is the location great; this is the largest parcel under sole ownership with frontage on the Backwaters. With some three kilometers of water edge and large enough for a championship golf course, this true jewel of a site will become a very select, up-market destination resort with luxury homes. Early on, I urged the owner to secure any available adjacent land. With a growing middle class soon to exceed 365 million people, India will create a market demand for whatever we can provide. The owner now sets his sight on acquiring an adjacent 120 acres (48 hectares) currently available, but surely not later. We anticipate 27 lush holes, several waterside hotels, villas, garden apartments and sail-in houseboat moorings. People from the Gulf and up market Indians will pay grandly for large golf and water-front homes here. Tourist golf is new to India but this jewel will speed that activity. The road from Cochin will be upgraded. From the airport, it will be less than an hour.
During the site reconnaissance, it became obvious that we can dredge the one million or so cubic meters of needed fill sand right from the adjacent lagoons. Much of the site is underwater now with recent rice plantings.
After the site reconnaissance, we meet the driver. Returning north to the airport, it is a 54-minute flight from Kochi to Chennai and another taxi to the hotel, arriving just before midnight. Fortunately, Paramount provides a passable in-flight meal. Sleep. Rise early to meet the client again to discuss Sunday’s site visit, before checking out and heading to the airport for a 54-minute flight to Hyderabad, the second technology city of India. The Hyderabad government has surpassed Bangalore in road quality, street cleanliness and general public orderliness. Traffic is still hectic. Horns still honk with the loudest horn usually winning the right-of-way. Bullock carts occasional block the road in this hi-tech outpost. Billboards are everywhere including signs on the walls of many houses, urging Indians to buy things.
Our meeting in Hyderabad is for a new residential golf project to coexist with the growing demand for conferences, family outings and tranquility in the chaos that is overcrowded India. Pragati Meadows is a far-sighted long-established botanical garden with 50 comfortable cottage rooms. Later, 18 rambling parkland golf holes, 150 golf suite rooms and 300 golf-front villa homes will coexist here. The plan is to considerably increase the seminar and conference facilities. The new airport is a convenient 25-minute drive away. Continuing and expanding the botanic garden lushness around the golf is a priority. We will as usual in India utilize a lot of local hand labor in our construction. Labor is cheap and jobs desperately needed.
In the evening, we are en route to Mumbai (formerly Bombay). After the hour flight, the recently upgraded domestic arrival part of the airport is even inviting. Most Indian airports have been among the world’s worst in terminal facilities. Sun and Sand Hotel at Juhu Beach is a refuge. A kebab meal on the terrace overlooking the Arabian Sea belies the filth, poverty, desperation and unending despair of all too-many residents camped out in the Dharavi slum, a teeming area of about one million inhabitants, nearby. Out early with our client, this time to the site of Nirvana Wellness, a large property one or two hours’ drive northeast of the Dharavi slums. Traffic conditions, road accidents and the driver’s ambition influence the travel time.
This dramatic mountain ridge ringed site is a bit desolate in the dry season. Soon, two meters of monsoon rain will change that. One main point is stressed to the owner, “great location and site, buy available adjacent land before unavailable at any price” – my mantra of emerging market golf development. A destination refuge for those fortunate enough to afford a home here set apart from the other 18 million people in Mumbai. Collect site details and take photos. Back to Sun and Sand Hotel for a pleasant seaside Tandori chicken meal in the balmy breeze. The local Grover red wine is quite good.
The next day another early morning check out at 0430H to catch a 0615H flight to Bangalore. After the short 75-minute flight from Mumbai to Bangalore, it’s another two days of meetings regarding our second Bangalore area residential golf project. The roads are crowded and noisy. The beggars are out. Site visits and extensive discussion, including locating the necessary water, with our clients is important. Few Indian developers have prior golf development experience. Providing insight and foresight based upon our 42 years of experience is often an unexpected bonus for them. Having been involved in golf matters in more than 65 countries does produce quite a memory bank of experiences. Hands-on attention is not so common these days.
Working in India always presents the good with the bad, the haves, the really haves and then the have-nots. Tourism in its small way can help change lives. With about 700 million inhabitants existing on the equivalent of US$2 per day (sometimes less) anything our efforts can do to create jobs can improve economic conditions for the have-nots is surely useful. Promoting open-to-the-public, daily-fee and tourist-access golf has a higher spin-off value than exclusionary members’ only private clubs.
March 14th. Leaving Bangalore Airport is always a treat. Soon, a new modern airport will thankfully replace the overcrowded terminal serving this city of some six million. The nearly four-hour Malaysian Air flight to Kuala Lumpur departs just after midnight on the 15th and arrives at sunrise. Kuala Lumpur is a booming city. Indirectly influenced by Singapore, the city boasts many modern and distinctive features. Great roads, orderly drivers and an absence of horn honking is quickly noted. Bad news in. Reports of discontent in Lhasa, Tibet. My plans to go to Lhasa in a few weeks are postponed indefinitely. Kuala Lumpur on the 16th is a birthday dinner with Yoko at a fine Thai restaurant with South African Pinotage wine. Nice.
Monday morning finds me on the early 41-minute shuttle flight from Kuala Lumpur to Singapore for continuing meetings at Singapore Island Country Club (SICC). Golfplan is to direct renovation and upgrading of the nearly 70-year-old Bukit and Sime courses, two of SICC’s four 18-hole tracks. With more than 17,000 social, corporate and golf members, SICC is a major social and political influence in Singapore. After day-long meetings that ran into the night, it’s another early morning flight to Ho Chi Minh City, only one and half hours in the air. Catching the FT and IHT papers in Singapore elaborate upon the trauma of Tibet. I had expected to return in late March or early April to follow-up my tour of last October. Tourist golf in Lhasa is feasible climatically, so long as peace and tranquility encourage intrepid adventure-seeking golfers. To do golf here on the roof of the world be great fun.
At the new Ho Chi Minh International airport, a driver waits. Horns and traffic again all the way to Sea Links at Mui Ne. The trip is pushing five hours with heavy, chaotic road traffic. It’s time to meet about a possible new 18-hole seaside sand dune site resort 15 kilometers north. Some aspiring developers do not appreciate the potentials and opportunities of unending waves of sugary white sand piled high above a brilliant blue sea. Could this site be good for golf? Certainly! Can you grow grass on this sand? Sure! You only need water, creative planning, innovative design and agronomic technology, in that order.
Construction at Sea Links continues. This must be my 10th or 11th visit to review progress on greensite and fairway contour shaping. Two steps ahead, one step back as the owner’s well-intentioned project manager continues to make uneducated decisions relying solely on his own judgment. Bill Kessener, Golfplan’s site supervisor, prevails as best he can. The bunkers stay deep; the turf is being mown, more or less. It’s sundown, a cottage by the sea and dinner. The grilled tiger prawns were great. An Australian Chardonnay compliments the huge shrimp. Starting early in the morning, it’s another four-hour drive back to Ho Chi Minh City. I have learned to use these trips on the road to Mui Ne to catch-up on some sleep or prepare for the next meeting. Later in the day, while viewing the sunset and river life from the rooftop terrace of the Majestic Hotel, there’s some time to relax. Dinner tonight will be either Indian or local street stall.
The next morning after a bowl of Pho with beef, it is an easy two-hour flight from Ho Chi Minh City to Manila for a visit to long-established Wack Wack Golf Club to familiarize myself with a much needed refurbishment, tour and discuss what is possible and desired. Fewer horns but the traffic is just as crazy, only with many Jeepney taxis. A three-hour evening flight to Singapore. At least, SQ serves a good meal and good wine. Another taxi ride back to the Traders Hotel, a businessman’s hotel off the main street. The small adjacent mall is a restocking destination. Hotel rates in Singapore seem to be influenced by those in India; two options – high and higher.
Next morning, my Thai flight is to Kathmandu from Singapore via Bangkok. Thai service is nearly as good as on Singapore Air. About five hours total flying time and, with a right side window seat, I am hoping for a view of Mt. Everest and much of the Himalayan Range on the way in. Pre-monsoon clouds block only some of the view. The Summit of Everest can be seen, defined by the prominent plume of ice crystals. The Himalayan massif is an amazing geographic feature. Nepal has eight of the world’s 12 8,000-meter peaks. I have seen all eight, plus two more in Tibet and Pakistan.