On the fairway to fulfilment
Eddie Chan started his career as a lifeguard but through hard work and study he is the country club manager of a Hong Kong golf club, writes Tim Metcalfe
EVERY GOLFER'S IDEA of heaven, or sometimes hell, would incorporate a golf course.
Idyllic fairways and manicured greens are a world apart from real life, an escape from reality's problems and strifes into the companionship and challenge of a sport where everyone is equally handicapped by a singular obsession to hit a little white ball in the minimum number of shots into a small hole somewhere in the distance.
To believers, it is a unique and satisfying game, sport, pastime or whatever you like to call it. Life would be infinitely poorer without it.
It therefore goes without saying that every golfer, no matter what their circumstances, has occasion to envy those who make their careers on golf courses.
It would be, one imagines, like living in a dream world with constant opportunity to do what you most like to do. Ah, if only.
Eddie Chan, the 36-year-old country club manager at Clearwater Bay Golf & Country Club, arguably Hong Kong's most idyllic course of all, has disappointing news for us envious outsiders.
Since his appointment last year, he rarely gets to play.
'I used to practise on the driving range and golf course three or four times a week before I came here,' he said. 'Now I only find time to play about once a month. By the time I finish work, it's too dark.'
Throughout the day, he is invariably occupied 'ensuring the smooth running' of all the club's other recreational facilities, heading a team of 65 looking after the swimming pool, squash and tennis courts, 'adventure' gym, spa, nine-hole executive golf course, shops, new golf academy and the operational aspects behind them - from housekeeping and engineering to transport, safety and security.
At the same time, he also has to keep the members happy. More than 1,000 use the club at weekends, with up to 200 on weekdays, and his brief includes maintaining good relations with them all.
'The best thing is to turn an angry face into a smiling face,' he said. The position carries a weight of responsibility at a relatively young age and is all the more remarkable given Mr Chan's background. His working life began as a lifeguard, a job that generally offers little in the way of career advancement.
'I started from the bottom of the recreational industry and had to work my way up,' he said.
This was because he was brilliant at school, but unfortunately only in sports. Academic studies and exams took a back seat to starring as a swimmer, tennis player, cyclist and canoeist. Even as a 16-year-old he was training with Hong Kong's canoeing team. Just after A-levels, with results too poor to get into university, he was recruited into Hong Kong's dragon boat squad.
For a while, in his early 20s, the free-and-easy life of a lifeguard suited him perfectly.
'Earning lots of money was never one of my goals,' he said. 'I wanted an outdoor job I enjoyed and sport was my passion. I could never sit behind a desk all day.'
To an extent he climbed the lifeguard ladder, becoming a swimming coach at the Japanese International School and senior lifeguard at Hong Kong Parkview, but the career has its limits.
When he reached its peak as programme officer at the YMCA in the early 1990s, he finally realised he needed some academic backup for a future.
He went back to school, acquiring a diploma in recreational management at the Chinese University that earned him his first step into club management, first as assistant manager at the luxury Red Hill Peninsula residential complex at Tai Tam, and most recently as general manager of the Kowloon Bowling Green Club.
Ironically, once bitten by the learning bug, he has not looked back. 'I decided to take more and more courses to improve my knowledge,' he said. 'Every few months I took a new one. In the recreational field, a lot of people have a lot of interests, so the more you know, the better.' From every swimming, badminton, tennis, canoeing and dragon boat qualification imaginable, he extended to certificates in PADI scuba-diving and turf management, culminating with a certificate in soil science and turf management through the University of Hong Kong's lifelong learning institute, SPACE.
Through the Hong Kong Recreation Management Association he earned further qualifications in swimming pool management and golf course design and maintenance.
Because recreational clubs place a high priority on cleanliness he took a food and hygiene course with the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health.
With an impressive list of no fewer than 17 recreational industry qualifications, he next realised the two things he knew nothing about - yet everyone was talking about - golf and wine.
'I decided I had to learn them,' he said. He threw himself into golf, devoting endless evenings visiting every driving range in Hong Kong, to observe how they were run and practise his swing.
He even invested in expensive courses and coaching, bringing his handicap down to its current 24.
Even more impressive was his dedication to learning as much as possible about wine 'so I could talk to club members with some knowledge about it'. He swotted on the internet, joined the Hong Kong Sommelier Association and 'attended as many wine tastings as I could'.
Over the past five years, with his wife in tow, every holiday has been spent touring the world's great wine-producing regions - including France, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.
Having invested 'a lot of time and money' in wine, including a personal collection of about 200 vintages, he is now an executive committee member of the Sommelier Association, as well as a frequent judge and tasting contestant in wine challenges.
It has become something of an obsession and his next ambition is to become a master of wine. Perhaps, not surprisingly, his ultimate dream is to own his own vineyard, preferably in a region that has golf courses.
'The point I would really like to make to youngsters is that even if you don't study hard at school, you can still achieve something in life if you work hard and learn more,' he said.
'Young people today give up too easily. I always advise my staff that if I can make it to this level, they can too.'
A positive attitude
Adventurous and outgoing character
Always ready for challenges
Club manager/general manager
$35,000 to $150,000
10 years' experience or more
$22,000 to $30,000
Seven to 10 years' experience
$15,000 to $20,000
Five to seven years' experience
$11,000 to $15,000
Three to five years' experience
Sports assistant/club attendant
$8,000 to $10,000
One to three years' experience