With the opening of The Bluffs golf course, The Grand Ho Tram Strip has placed its bet to become Vietnam’s premier golf destination. By Michael Tatarski. Photos courtesy of The Bluffs.
When you stay at The Grand Ho Tram Strip, it’s easy to forget you are still in Vietnam. A luxury bus picks you up from the Kumho Building on Le Duan and whisks you away, taking the high-speed TPHCM-Dau Giay expressway to the Vung Tau highway. The bus glides along silently: unlike everyone else on the road, these bus drivers have clearly been told not to drive like careening, honking madmen. As you sink back into your seat, you could just as easily be in North America or Europe – provided, of course, you don’t look out the window.
But the reality doesn’t truly hit until you get to Ho Tram. Upon arrival at The Grand, lush grounds give way to a huge hotel tower. The grand lobby leads into opulent hallways and past restaurants, bars, a nightclub and the casino, ultimately ending at the hotel wing. My spacious room overlooked two enormous pools and the shimmering East Sea, providing a view that lived up to the hotel’s name.
As much as I wanted to laze about next to the pool or lie in my plush bed all day, I was here for a reason: the grand opening of The Bluffs, Vietnam’s second Greg Norman-designed golf course. Located on a strip of land across the road from The Grand, the course is a stunner. According to Norman, who spoke at a press conference in the clubhouse, its design largely follows the natural undulations of the area. His team consciously minimised the environmental impact of the course, a problem that plagues many golf course designers. The original plan even included a couple of holes right on the water, but plans for future expansion of The Grand resort forced a change.
Still, the final product is impressive, with views of the ocean to the east and forest stretching toward mountains in the west. Tough bunkers dot the course’s perfectly-manicured fairways, while the greens are hewn to fit the contour of the land. Norman repeatedly said how proud he was of the course, noting that it is, among the 77 he has designed worldwide, one of the two most beautiful.
Michael Campbell, a Kiwi golfer who won the 2005 US Open, officially opened The Bluffs with a drive from the first tee. Norman was supposed to play but a hand injury left him unable to swing. This shot kicked off a two-on-two competition that also featured Robert Rock, a British golfer, and two of Vietnam’s top female players, Tang Thi Nhung and Ngo Bao Nghi. The following morning featured a demonstration of trick golf shots by Henry Epstein, which resulted in your intrepid correspondent holding a deck of cards in his mouth while Epstein, blindfolded, took aim. Fortunately, the trick didn’t involve him actually following through on the swing.
This was followed by a putting demonstration from Norman before he flew back to Saigon via helicopter. While speaking to the press earlier that morning, he shared at length what went into the course, as well as his thoughts on golf’s outlook in Vietnam. When asked what the most challenging design factor was for the course, Norman said the wind presented the most difficulty. This is not surprising, as a steady, stiff breeze blows in from the East Sea. As a result, the course features wide fairways to give players some leeway.
Norman also stressed the need for golf development from the grassroots level. The government can approve as many courses as it wants – there are around 75 potential courses in the works nationwide – but without players they are pointless. He provided Sweden as an example of a country that went from no players to a handful of world-class golfers in the span of a generation after one breakthrough star served as inspiration.
Ben Styles, general manager of The Bluffs Ho Tram Strip (no relation to the Saigon restaurant of the same name), expanded on the potential for local player development. He said a scholarship program or a golf school are likely on the horizon, and the team behind the course is looking into such possibilities. He also praised Duc Pham, who translated the remarks into Vietnamese for the local media contingent, as an example of just such grassroots work. Pham, who is a member of the Australian PGA, works with the Hanoi Golf Academy to train a new generation of young Vietnamese golfers.
Already, The Grand’s exquisite luxury facilities have put the small town of Ho Tram on the tourist map, but with The Bluffs now open for business this stretch of the south Vietnamese coast is sure to attract players from around the world. Still in its first month, the course has been nominated for three Asia Pacific Golf Awards. By the time the sport catches on among the Vietnamese, The Bluffs will provide local golfers with a world-class course right in their own backyard.