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Director of golf: Vietnam Golf & Country Club

graphic
Robert Bicknell  

November 28, 2000
Web posted at: 4:42 p.m. EST (2142 GMT)

Name

Robert Bicknell


Position

Director of Golf, Vietnam Golf & Country Club, Thu Duc District. Our customer base is Vietnamese, Korean, Japanese, Taiwanese, Singaporean, Thai, Cambodian and a few odd Westerners, each with his or her cultural identity and level of service expectations. As you can imagine, this requires an incredibly flexible and tolerant attitude.


Years in position

Two years here, five years at another club in northern Vietnam. I'm orginally from Newton, Massachusetts.


Age

  QUICK VOTE
graphic Many people like Robert Bicknell enjoy making careers and lives for themselves in other cultures. Would you like to live and work outside your native society?

Get me teed up, I'm ready to go.
Shhh. I'm contemplating my shot, let me think.
Sorry, not my golf bag, I love the green, green fairways of home.
View Results

I'm 42, born July 4, 1958, the Year of the Dog.


Education

I'm functionally illiterate in 4 languages.


How did you get your job?

I worked as a golf-teaching professional in Thailand during the 1980s. In 1991, a friend who was building a golf course in northern Vietnam asked me to join his project. I said yes, and my life hasn't been the same since.


What changes have you seen during your time there?

When I first arrived here in 1992, it was like stepping into a time machine. There were very few cars or motorcycles, most people got around on bicycle or "cyclo" (a bicycle taxi). Finding modern products was impossible, most things we had to custom-build.

When the United States embargo was lifted in 1994, potential investors swarmed into the country with suitcases full of cash -- all looking for possible projects. But the infrastructure wasn't there and the people had trouble understanding standard Western business practices. As a result, most of the investors lost their shirts.

Today, cars and motorcycles clog the streets, shelves are stocked with Western goods and local people wheel and deal like seasoned professionals. But foreign investors are still waiting for long-promised changes to the investment laws. Hopefully, the granting of MFN status ("Most Favored Nation" status, now referred to as "Normal Trade Relations") by the U.S. will kick-start that process and Vietnam can realize its vast potential.

"Getting 144 players and caddies off one course, collecting their scorecards, getting the scores totaled and posted,and ensuring that the proper prizes are displayed -- while at the same time, transporting another 144 players, their caddies and equipment to the various tees on the other course and ensuring that the evening prize presentation is set up and ready -- requires the mental flexibility of a short-order cook and the temperament of Gandhi."

(Editor's note: Hanoi and Washington have initialed the trade pact but the Vietnamese Politburo has asked for some changes before formally signing it. Washington is standing firm, offering only to clarify, not negotiate. International investment in Vietnam, as Bicknell suggests, plummeted by 42 percent last year. In his visit to the country in mid-November, U.S. President Bill Clinton said the country is on a "virtually irreversible" path toward greater freedom and openness.)


How many hours do you work per week?

My contract says 48 hours per week, but I average 72, which proves I flunked "contract negotiation" in college. The Marines' motto of "first in, last out" fits my work schedule very nicely. As it stands, my social life is a shambles. Thankfully I'm married.


What's the first thing you do when you get to work in the morning?

Scream at the caddie master just to keep in practice, check the morning booking sheets and confer with the starters and marshals. Then I inspect both golf courses, the pro shop and the driving range to ensure that they're ready for the daily onslaught. Afterward, I check my e-mail while CNN.com loads in the background. I like to keep abreast of what's going on, even if it's just to reassure myself that we haven't blown ourselves up yet.

  ON THE LINKS
Robert Bicknell tells us the Vietnam Golf & Country Club is the first 36-hole semi-private golf facility in the country. The West Course, designed by Chen King Shih, opened in 1994. The East Course was designed by Lee Trevino and opened in 1997. The club presently serves more than 5,000 players per month. VGCC hosts an average of two full-field (144 players) tournaments per month, as well as many smaller corporate events. To handle this demand, VGCC has 10 full-time golf operations staff, three caddie masters and 368 caddies. And we met Bicknell when he used our submission form here at "A Day on the Job." If you'd like your day to be considered for a profile here at CNN.com/career, let us hear from you as Bicknell did.
 

What time do you have lunch? What do you usually eat?

Lunch is anytime a free moment appears, usually after the noontime rush. For the staff and myself, speed-eating has been developed into an art form. We've found the fastest foods to be fried rice, a bowl of pho (Vietnamese noodle soup), tuna sandwich or a hot dog. But honestly, I'd kill for a pizza.


What time do things get tense around the office? What makes it that way?

People have a hard time imagining that things can get tense at a golf course, but that's only because they don't see "below deck." A smooth-running golf operation sort of resembles a duck on a lake: calm and serene on the surface, but paddling like hell underneath.

Around here, tension sets in when we have two shotgun tournaments on the same day with one beginning as the other is ending (we have two 18-hole courses). Getting 144 players and caddies off one course, collecting their scorecards, getting the scores totaled and posted,and ensuring that the proper prizes are displayed -- while at the same time, transporting another 144 players, their caddies and equipment to the various tees on the other course and ensuring that the evening prize presentation is set up and ready -- requires the mental flexibility of a short-order cook and the temperament of Gandhi.

Fortunately, the staff is well trained and more often than not we pull it off without a hitch. Unless, of course, it rains and then all bets are off.


If you're having a good day at work, what is it that makes it good?

A good day means happy patrons -- no complaints from members or guests and everything is running smoothly. This crowd is a bit finicky, so keeping them happy is a major challenge, but we seem to be doing something right because complaints are seldom heard. When someone comes up to me or my staff and says they had a great time it makes all the effort worthwhile.


How much work, if any, do you take home?

Actually, quite a bit. Tournament results and handicaps need to be posted to the Web site and the newspaper column needs to be written. In addition, there's the normal amount of extra paperwork involved in running a facility -- especially around budget time. The only part of my job I can't take home is practicing full wedge shots in the house. That's where my wife draws the line.


What does your work contribute to society?

Hopefully, it allows people to relieve some stress and learn more about themselves and life in general, because in both cases you have to "play it as it lies." There are very few mulligans in life (a free stroke, it doesn't count against your score) -- and none with the sharks I play with.

It also provides good-paying employment for around 1,000 local people and helps them acquire the necessary skills for future career growth.


Do you expect to finish your working life in this career?

I expect that either my boss or the club members will kill me after reading this interview. But really? I don't know what the future has in store for me. Up to this point, life has been pretty good and I'm fortunate in being able to do most everything I've wanted in a field I enjoy. Not too many people can truly say that.

When you have one of those days on which you don't think you can face the job again, what is it that gets you out the door in the morning and off to work? "It would have to be the old saying, 'A bad day on the golf course is always better than a good day in the office.'"

If you could have two more careers, what would they be?

Whaddaya mean "if"? In addition to my full-time job at VGCC, I also write a weekly golf column for Viet Nam News (the national English-language daily newspaper) and maintain my Web site (see Related Sites below).

But if I had to give up golf and do something else, I'd probably try to find time to finish the book I'm writing. The other option would be films or stand-up comedy. I suspect the latter fits better because everyone says my golf swing resembles Jerry Lewis having a spasmodic contortion. As a last resort, I could always hire out as a crash-test dummy.


What is an unforgivable trait in a colleague?

Cheating at golf and paying retail. Sandbaggers really irritate me.


What do you do to relieve stress?

Hitting a few hundred balls at the driving range helps, as does watching WWF wrestling. Short of that, just sitting back and watching the clouds usually does the trick.


What have you been reading lately?

"How To Win Friends and Influence People."


When you have one of those days on which you don't think you can face the job again, what is it that gets you out the door in the morning and off to work?

The thought of staying home and facing my wife. No, seriously, it would have to be the old saying, "A bad day on the golf course is always better than a good day in the office."

graphic


 

RELATED STORIES:
Clinton calls for openness on final day in Vietnam
November 20, 2000
Clinton arrives for historic Vietnam visit
November 17, 2000
InDepth Special: Wartime ghosts haunt Vietnamese-U.S. relations

RELATED SITES:
PGA Vietnam
Viet Nam News


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