Adam Lawrence visits a radical new practice facility in Sweden.
Add together a huge Himalayas-style putting green, 27-hole chipping and putting courses, a six hole executive course, a full-sized practice range and a clubhouse with excellent conference facilities, including an indoor putting room, and what do you have? You have the new Volkswagen Golfarena in the western Swedish town of Halmstad. You have one of the best practice facilities this author has ever seen. But you also have, potentially, a business model that could be applied in almost any city in the world with a reasonable number of golfers.
There are, of course, standalone driving ranges all over the world, and in markets where golf is popular – especially where it is expensive, or in short supply – they do very well. Who can forget the photos of packed multi-tiered ranges in Japanese cities that filled golf magazines during the 1980s and early 1990s, before the building boom in that country gave would-be golfers the opportunity to access real courses?
The problem, from a business point of view, is stickability. Lots of people go to a driving range, pay for a bucket of balls, whack them into the distance and leave. They might buy a coffee or a snack as well, but you need to sell lots of buckets and lots of coffee to make a good profit.
As far as developing new golfers goes, the industry has, for several years, been talking about the need for alternative facilities that make it cheaper, quicker and more straightforward for beginners to take up the game. Again, plenty of people start golf by going to a range, perhaps taking a lesson or two, and hitting balls until they feel a little more confident. It is, though, a huge leap from a range to a full-sized eighteen (or even nine) hole golf course, and one that many beginners never really manage to make.
Regular golfers too should practice more: we all know that focused practice is the quickest route to improving our game. But actually doing so is a different thing: even those who do go to the range regularly tend to spend most of their time trying to smash drives into the far distance, aware only of the quality of contact and whether the ball was hooked or sliced. This is not the kind of practice regime that produces great results!
What makes the Golfarena such a clever idea is the way that it addresses all three of these issues. By providing not just a chipping or pitching green, but three nine hole courses of increasing difficulty for each skill, as well as similar putting courses on the Himalayas, it enables practice to become a social activity just like golf itself: competing with friends at chipping or putting is far more likely to encourage golfers – who by nature tend to be competitive – to work on their short games. For beginners, the Golfarena has every facility – including teaching professionals – that they might need to learn the game, and it does so, crucially, in an environment that closely resembles a real golf course, from the shaping of the greens, tees and surrounding dunes to the golfers enjoying a post-practice beer in the clubhouse. After spending some time at the Golfarena, progressing from range and short game areas to the Academy holes, moving on to an actual course ought to be much less daunting for newcomers.
From a business perspective, the breadth of facilities the Golfarena offers should make it an excellent proposition. To fit so much in only 16 hectares (40 acres) is remarkable, and a great achievement by architect Christian Lundin of the recently-established international practice ReGolf. Given the Golfarena’s location close to the sea, adopting a links theme for the landscaping and shaping was a natural choice, and by hiring Irish contractor SOL Golf to build the facility, Lundin was able to produce some of the best faux-dunes shaping I have seen. The Himalayas green in particular is a triumph, full of devilish humps and hollows and grassed with a fescue sward of remarkable quality given its youth and the fact that it was built on native soil.
Fitting all these facilities into such a small space was only possible because, in effect, the different courses share the same ground. Naturally, therefore, it isn’t feasible to have golfers using every part of the Golfarena at once, so managing director Martin Siljegård and his colleagues have invested in an online booking system that, through a graphical interface, enables staff – and potentially customers too – to see what areas are being used for what purpose at any given time. Like the Golfarena concept itself, this system has the potential to be redeployed on any number of similar projects.
The addition of conferencing space to the ‘Arenahouse’ might at first seem overkill. Actually, though, it’s very easy to imagine lots of business events being held at the Golfarena; even apart from the brilliantly simple indoor putting room, which has holes set in the floor and high quality synthetic turf, how many deals could be sealed over a friendly putting contest on the Himalayas?
Lundin and his clients deserve a lot of credit for the Golfarena. It works on so many different levels; as a training centre for high level golfers it is perfect, and has attracted many professionals and elite amateurs already, as the signed photographs on the walls indicate. As a venue for new golfers to learn the game it works well, and is the sort of facility that could and should be replicated around the world. And finally, though no-one can be certain of financial success in any business, if the Golfarena is not a good business proposition then it’s hard to imagine any golf operation being so!
This article appeared in issue 30 of Golf Course Architecture, published October 2012