Back in England, I was a keen golfer. In the summer I’d knock off work at half three if I could, giving myself time to get onto Allerton or Bowring Park before it went dark (and after the ticket office closed, meaning I didn’t have to pay) and have a swift round before night fell. As a student I once spent a very happy summer golfing pretty much every day, having taken out a student membership at a local club. I’ve grown to rather enjoy a day hacking my way through parkland, it seems.
But alas, golfing in Vietnam is much harder to do. For one, it’s more expensive. It’s also stupidly hot most of the year round, leaving an ideal golfing window from about the middle of February to the middle of April, and again in the autumn. All told, it had been almost three years since I’d played.
Thus, when one of the teachers in work organised a golf day at the local (localish…) Phoenix Golf Resort, I naturally jumped at the chance.
I have to say, the course itself was quite spectacularly set. The Phoenix Golf Resort, about 50km outside Hanoi (or a brisk hour in a hired mini bus), boasts no fewer than three golf courses, set among dramatic karst mountains rising impressively between the fairways and behind the greens.
This was a far cry from the Liverpool municipals: Bowring Park is set against the M62. Thus, this was set to be something special.
We had accidentally booked ourselves onto the Championship Course – purportedly the most difficult of the three, booked because it was the only course name I could remember when the woman on the phone asked which one we’d like to play. Thus we arrived expecting a day following golf balls into rivers, up mountains and through the jungles of northern Vietnam.
The course had an informal feeling. Perhaps typically for Vietnam, it seemed that actual rules were better seen as guidelines. It was a little weathered in parts. Some of the greens were a bit sandy, the fairways occasionally patchy. I guess this isn’t the easiest country in the world to maintain a golf course, spending half the year in the torrential rain of a wet season, and the other half in the baking dry summer heat.
We had to hire golf clubs, of course. Sadly when packing to leave England I didn’t think to bring my trusty Taylor Made four wood, a decision I now found cause to lament as I was presented with a set of hire clubs that had clearly seen better days, probably sometime around 1973.
Buying golf balls was easier. One piece of advice: don’t buy golf balls from the official shops. You’ll pay a fortune. Right outside the course entrance, on the main road, were roadside stands of locals selling baskets of lake balls, cleaned, sorted by brand and type and sold at exceedingly cheap prices. A bag of 20 Titlist Pro V1s (golf’s best ball, sure to transform me almost instantly into a young and not unattractive Seve Ballesteros) set me back less than a tenner.
Thus with rusty clubs selected and revived lake balls safely stowed, we headed outside to meet our caddies. This in itself was another novelty: I’ve never had a caddy before playing golf, usually preferring to carry my clubs atop my back. Alas, we didn’t have any choice here – caddies are mandatory, included in the green fees, their job being to guide you from hole to hole smoothly, making sure you don’t leave crater sized divots all over the course.
Heaven only knows what they made of us as we sliced balls right and hooked balls left, only preciously rare shots heading in their intended direction. At times they seemed to giggle at one of my three-ball partners as he addressed his putts, at others they showed laudably little frustration as the putts they had carefully lined up on our behalf sailed metres past the holes. Alas, they remained good sports. I’d happily have a caddy again in the future.
To say I played badly is perhaps an understatement. A few drives sailed gloriously along the fairways, but I spent more time watching balls disappear out of sight into lakes or up mountains. My short game remains temperamental, my putting nothing other than an embarrassment, my driving only occasionally providing some redemption.
Even so, we had a terribly lovely day. We’re going again soon, or so we are threatening…