Thursday, December 11, 2008

Golfing in Vietnam

Kenny Saunders, Jr., at age 47 still marvels at attaining his achievement as a PGA level A-1 golf professional living and working (if you can call it working) as a golf professional at the Nick Faldo designed Ocean Dunes Golf Club in Phan Thiet, Vietnam. Opened in 1994, Ocean Dunes has garnered worldwide acclaim for its windswept dunes. The notorious par-3 9th hole by the sea has been hailed by GOLF (USA) Magazine as one of the best 500 holes in the world. Faldo is an Englishman and member of the World Golf Hall of Fame.
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Kenny at age 42 got the push he needed from his then future wife, Millie. Kenny quit his job as a jewelry salesman 5 years ago to become a cart caddy at $6 an hour at Nashville Golf and Athletic Club.
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Today as head golf pro and director of Ocean Dunes, Kenny and Millie live in a rent-free villa on the coast of the South China Sea. They have a housekeeper and their own personal driver who is like a part of the family. Everything is done for them even their laundry – they pay for absolutely nothing.
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It was a hard road Kenny traveled. The tests to attain PGA Class A level takes 3 to 5 years to complete. Flying back last summer he took his final test while suffering from extreme jet lag. He passed the test and his parents were ecstatic.

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His parent’s Ken and Rosanne Saunders of Roanoke made their first trip to Vietnam to see their son during the Thanksgiving holidays. They are still recovering from a 30-hour flight. Listening to their experiences was both amusing and eye opening. Ken, Sr., had young girls come up to him and rub his tummy smiling and calling him “Buddha.” Rosanne on the other hand had her tummy churn with some of the food dishes she ate.

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The most exciting adventure for Ken, Sr., was when he was tapped to replace a no-show for an International Golf Tournament. Ken was the only U.S. participant. He played with golfers from France, Korea, New Zealand, and Australia. Ken said, “the young Vietnamese girl caddies do everything for you. They ride on the back of the golf carts, give advice, spot and clean your golf ball, and even retrieve it from the hole for you.”

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Son, Kenny in a letter reminisced – it was just yesterday when he and his father played at Countryside Golf Club then named Arrow Wood Country Club. “I was 5 years old when Dad had to saw off my clubs and black tape the handle for grips because they were too tall.”
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Golf teaches many of life’s lessons and cultivates friendships that last a lifetime. “You can go to a golf course by yourself, pair up with another threesome and when the day is done you will have 3 new friends,” says Kenny. Valley Character, an organization that promotes character-building programs for youth, has used clips with golf professionals like Chip Sullivan, head PGA golf pro at Ashley Plantation in radio promotions. To that end, Kenny approached a Vietnamese school and asked if any of the youth would like to learn how to play golf. They sure did and now Kenny has 20 school-age kids having a ball. According to Kenny’s father, he was invited to Saigon a few days ago to share his experience in teaching school children how to play golf. It seems that a program similar to First Tee is in the works.

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Kenny says that the golf business in Vietnam is going strong in spite of the economic downturn in the U.S. The number of golfers has mushroomed from only 400 ten years ago to over 7,500 today. “Tourism is booming here. Business people are becoming affluent,“ says Kenny. In Vietnam, you join a golf club as expensive as you can afford. This shows everyone, “that you have made it.”

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Kenny and Millie will be back in the States as a guest of Nick Faldo for the Indianapolis 500 in June 2009. They will visit their parent’s who live on the 10th fairway of Countryside Golf Course in Northwest Roanoke. It would be a sure bet that father and son will play a round or two on the golf course where Kenny at age five took his first swing at a golf ball with Dad’s sawed-off golf club.

Posted By Valerie Garner

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