From college to head professional in two years? Unlikely, but not impossible if you’re willing to spread your wings overseas, as Cyrus Janssen’s tale proves ...
Little did Cyrus Janssen know when he qualified back in January 2007 at 22 years of age that ten years later he would have spent the best part of a decade working out in China and Hong Kong, progressing to the head professional’s role at Sheshan when still only 24.
Janssen had undertaken 16 months of internships at three private clubs while studying at Florida State University, but when the time came following graduation, an article in Golfweek triggered an interest that would see him start his PGA career in Shanghai, China.
“After reading that article, the interest to go abroad was there,” Janssen confirms. “After finishing university I took a few months off and backpacked through Europe, and really fell in love with travelling. So I said I really need to give living abroad a try. I went on the U.S. PGA member online job board, clicked the international job hostings and happened to read one for a new David Leadbetter Academy opening up.”
Janssen knew that he wanted to give overseas work a go, but the fact that it ended up being China was really pure chance, as Janssen freely admits: “I thought I would go to Europe and that that would be a nice place to be - maybe Germany or somewhere like that. But then I thought Shanghai sounds pretty interesting! China was really starting to make a lot of noise in 2007, and I thought that maybe it would be a good opportunity to go and learn something in China.”
Janssen sent in his resume, and underwent a simple phone interview with the New Zealander managing the academy. “He just said they were looking for guys with a good attitude who want to come and learn,” Janssen reflects. “I was very honest. I said, ‘I don’t have a lot of experience, but I’m a really hard worker and I’m really keen to give it a try.’ He said. ‘That’s great, why don’t you come out to China?’”
The rest is history!
Would you say it was always your desire to go overseas?
No, that didn’t come until my senior year at university where I read that article in Golfweek highlighting PGA pros abroad. The concept had never really crossed my mind until then. But my mother’s from Germany so I grew up going to Europe quite a lot in summer and was familiar with travelling, so the idea of going abroad to work really appealed to me.
What about all the logistics and paperwork?
I think it was easier back then. At that time I just needed to purchase a flight, so I booked a one-way ticket to China. I applied for a tourist visa and they said they would get my work visa sorted out on arrival, so there wasn’t really too much to do other than apply for a Chinese visa as any tourist would do.
Was it easier because China was looking for people to run its new golf resorts?
Yes, I think that in China, even right now, you need to prove that you have the skill that maybe a local person couldn’t do. If the form says this is a PGA professional, he plays at a good level and is an excellent teacher, you can pretty much get the job and the work visa, no problem. Also, in China at that time they really needed some foreigners to establish some credibility.
What are the biggest challenges you have faced?
I think the typical answer is the cultural differences - when you go to somewhere like China, and you come out of the airport and nobody speaks English! You jump in a taxi and there’s zero English, and suddenly you can’t even communicate to get a taxi or go anywhere. It’s quite a different feeling.
What are the biggest benefits to working overseas from your experience?
There are two. One is that the opportunity to advance your career is much easier in Asia than in the States or back in a western country. I came over at 23, very much an entry-level professional who would be a second assistant at a country club back in a western country. But I worked hard and two years later got offered the head professional’s job at a number one course in China. There’s no way you could make that jump back in a western country in two years. The learning curve is much steeper in Asia. Typically you’re working a lot more hours and it’s a much more demanding job than it is back home. I think I played three rounds of golf in my first two years in China!
The other one is that you get a certain level of respect. I was 23, I’d just graduated three weeks earlier from university, and yet they were introducing me as an expert golf instructor from America. Immediately 20 people would give you their ears and it was like “Wow, this guy is a master!” Yet I was in Uni just a month earlier!
Which has been the most challenging role you’ve undertaken overseas?
Probably my second job in China - the head professional’s job at Sheshan, which hosted the WGC-HSBC Champions. That was a great role because I was challenged to come in and really build an academy from scratch. Beforehand, they’d had just a single pro on the driving range giving lessons, and we had a number one golf course in China. So why wouldn’t we have a top academy? That was a lot of challenge - dealing with staff, training them, selling the idea to the Chinese that we should have an academy. It was about establishing the culture.
How long did it take you to acclimatise and really feel comfortable in Asia?
I’d say a good six months to really get my feet on the ground and feel comfortable. I worked really hard on trying to learn the language, I started pretty much straightaway trying to learn Chinese and within a year I was able to give a golf lesson in Chinese. At the end of two years, I had a trip back home to Florida, and I remember coming back and thinking I now feel as comfortable in Shanghai as I do in Florida.
How do you feel your international experience has helped you develop professionally?
You face many more unique challenges. Every day is different, especially in China. You come to expect the unexpected and anything can happen.
Being in Asia, you learn a lot about different cultures. China is my specialty, but I now know a lot about the Japanese and Koreans too. You travel around and meet a lot of people, and I feel much more of a world citizen having lived abroad for a decade.
Do you think you’ve developed more than you would have done had you stayed in the States?
Absolutely, without a doubt. At university I had an option to go to a very nice private club in West Palm Beach, Florida, and the other option was to come to Shanghai. Obviously I made the decision to come to China, but I remember thinking to myself I can always go back to Florida and get a job at a private country club, but this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to go to China. Both options were great - if I’d chosen to stay I would probably be GM at that club by now, and that’s a great career. I spent my first 22 years in Florida and if I’d worked another ten years there I’d have had some great experiences as a GM… but it wouldn’t compare to what I’ve seen in the last ten years!
Do you think your experience in China has made you the ideal candidate whenever you’ve looked to move on?
I think so. It takes a certain type of person to work abroad. You need to be very flexible, you need to like to travel and try out different cultures. But I think the most important thing really is being adaptable, being open-minded. I like to see how they do things in different cultures so I don’t think there’s an assignment that would be too tough for me.
If you were to give any advice to someone considering heading overseas, what would it be?
If someone is contemplating the decision, I would say, go! Make sure that you take the leap. In a worst-case scenario, go try out China, go try out Vietnam, go try somewhere for a year. If you don’t like it, you can always go back and you have it on your CV - it looks good that you have some experience abroad.
The other big thing is that you have to realise there are a lot of people who want to come out now, so you have to stay persistent, and you have to really be hungry to come out here. Ten years ago China wasn’t really looked at as a great destination, but now if you live in Shanghai or Beijing it’s no different to living in London. You’ve got all the great amenities - five-star hotels and dining, all that good stuff - so there are a lot more people willing to come out. So you have to be persistent, and when you do come out here, you have to be open-minded, stay open-minded and appreciate the culture.
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