YANGON: When the Han brothers left Myanmar more than 35 years ago, their pursuit of professional golfing careers was an almost unknown concept in their homeland.
Chan Han recalls telling his uncles and aunties his plan to move overseas and start taking the game he loved seriously. “They told me: ‘You went to college, and now you want to be a caddy?’ It was a different time. They didn’t understand.”
Despite a rich golfing legacy left behind by British colonialists, including the construction of dozens of courses, the country has not been a fertile breeding ground for aspiring athletes. The Han brothers were privileged and chased a dream.
Now, they are both central figures in trying to transform golf into not only a big money industry, but also one where aspiring young players can succeed at the highest level.
Visitors wrap up their final hole on the esteemed Pun Hlaing golf course.
Chan Han is the chairman of the embryonic Professional Golfers Association (PGA) of Myanmar, while Kyi Hla Han is the chairman of the Asian Tour, following on from a successful playing career.
Both acknowledge the great challenges that golf in Myanmar faces – including a lack of top-quality infrastructure and support for juniors – but see the potential ready to be unlocked.
“I think the evolution of golf in Asia has changed, it’s fantastic to see,” Kyi Hla Han told Channel NewsAsia at the launch of the 2017 Myanmar Open, the country’s showcase professional event, which he hopes will drive exposure to the rest of the world.
“Myanmar still needs a lot of time to develop. What we encourage young players to do is come out and play. I think it’s just a matter of time. We’re seeing it happen in Indonesia and Vietnam and Cambodia, Sri Lanka, even Bangladesh,” he said.
“I think golf has also come within the reach of the general middle class and I think that’s important for the growth and development of the game. I’ve seen that happen in the past 20 years in Asia.”
BRAVE NEW WORLD
But while countries like Thailand have enjoyed a golfing boom, local standards of golf slipped in Myanmar after decades of military rule despite the elite still enjoying the sport and patronising many of the country’s courses, which fell into government or army ownership.
It was an uncertain environment for Chan Han when he tried to reinvigorate the sport on his return in 1993.
“I realised then there was no path or plan. Back then people were playing with equipment coming in from left and right. We didn’t have proper shops.
“There were a lot of travel restrictions and we had to buy from people who were coming from outside. We couldn’t even imagine what we have now,” he said.
Training academies are improving the golfing prospects of young Myanmar players.
Yet, in Myanmar, golf remains an expensive and exclusive sport in many ways. “You have to admit that, yes,” Chan Han said. He knows the situation well as the CEO of a company that operates a driving range and teaching academy.
Previously, the players who found success golfing were often the caddies at courses around the country, or the “well to do”, he said. However, there are pathways to a career if an individual has the talent and desire.
“It’s a little bit easier now than it was for us in the days when I started. Once a person wants to play, aside from the cost, there are ways and means.”
Young talent like May Oo Khine, 22, and Thiha Htay, 23, believe in the possibilities as they refine their game on the green and range.
“People from here don’t think it’s a career for life, they think it’s just a sport you play. I have to explain for them to understand,” said May, who plays on the national tour and is eyeing medals for her country at the SEA Games in Malaysia next year.
“I like trees, grass and when I play golf I feel really free,” she said with a smile.
Thiha Htay grew up near a golf course and boldly declared he wants “to be one of the best golfers in the world”.
Chan Han has players like these in mind when he said: “There is a road, there is a plan and we want to pave this road to make it smoother and bigger."
That “road” can only be built through investment, and it’s the lucrative golf tourism industry that Myanmar is aiming to tap.
The Myanmar Open will be televised for the first time in 2017.
“HUGE FINANCIAL OUTCOMES”
The sun is growing stronger on a bright morning at the Pun Hlaing Estate on the outskirts of Yangon, when a group of Korean men tee off down the luscious fairway off the first tee.
This is Myanmar’s finest course, designed by the legendary Gary Player. And these are precisely the type of golfers industry stakeholders want to see.
China, Japan and South Korea are key targets for tourism and business investment here. But Chan Han acknowledges that there are still hurdles for international financiers, who might more easily sink their money into projects in neighbouring Thailand or emerging markets like Vietnam or Cambodia.
Myanmar wants to attract Asian golfers who might otherwise visit Thailand.
“Our country has to understand as much as we want to call ourselves the new destination, there’s still a lot of competition as far as golf tourism goes,” he said.
“We also have to understand that there are huge financial outcomes to all this. If we had just a portion of what Thailand has for golf tours, we would be doing so much better.”
Myanmar governments – past and present – have been reluctant to green light new major golf infrastructure, particularly when connected to residential development, a popular model employed around the world.
The quality of courses, Pun Hlaing aside, is also an impediment to high-spending tourists, although Chan Han is keen to promote the natural beauty of “wonderful courses carved out of the land”, a unique product of colonial times.
Thayet Century Golf Club, one of the country’s oldest courses, has an affiliation with perhaps the world’s most famous - St Andrews in Scotland. It has “playable greens and scrappy fairways”, according to Chan Han but lies in central Myanmar with little access or infrastructure.
“Do we have the airport, do we have the roads, and do we have the hotels? We don’t really have that yet so it’s going to have to go step by step. It needs to be a concerted effort from everybody and that’s the difficulty of it.
Golf driving ranges are seen as a more approachable way to begin playing the sport for Myanmar locals.
“Our concern is when I’m trying to attract and bring in people, I don’t want them to be turned off,” he said, explaining that by upgrading some courses, outsiders will see justification to spend.
The irony, he says, is that golf itself is often the perfect conduit for getting business done. Indeed, it was over a game of golf that former Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew once tried to convince General Ne Win to open up the country to tourism and investment.
Despite Aung San Suu Kyi’s symbolic pledge to stamp out fairway dealings by banning golf membership “gifts” to civil servants, the Han brothers are bullish about the game’s future prospects.
“It’s a big journey, it’s a big adventure,” Chan Han said. “We are on a very healthy road.”
Follow Jack Board on Twitter: @JackBoardCNA