Continental drift? The current state of golf development in Asia

Continental drift? The current state of golf development in Asia
Adam Lawrence
By Adam Lawrence

Asia has been golf’s most dramatic growth region in recent years. But has golf development stalled across the continent, or is the momentum still there? Adam Lawrence investigates

The eastward shift of the global golf industry in the past two decades has been dramatic. As the pace of development in Europe and North America began to slow, especially in the second half of the last decade, golf architects, and the other consultants that support them, looked increasingly to Asia as a source of new business. Whether in countries like India that had a long tradition of golf, or China where it was entirely new, Asia was the bold frontier.

It’s not just in the development of new golfing facilities where Asia has been grabbing the world’s attention, either. The emergence of a crop of talented young women professionals from South Korea who came to dominate the LPGA Tour was just the harbinger of a potentially much larger force. Korea’s Yang Yong-eun became the first Asian to win a mens Major when he defeated Tiger Woods in head to head combat to take the 2009 PGA Championship; now, it seems as though a new potential star appears from an Asian country every few months. Guan Tianlang astonished the game when, at the tender age of 14, he not only qualified for this year’s Masters, but made the cut and finished as the tournament’s low amateur. Lydia Ko, a New Zealander, but Korean by birth, is the fifth-ranked woman golfer on the planet at the age of 16, and very nearly won the recent Evian Championship, which would have made her the youngest Major champion in the game’s history, breaking the 150 year old record of Young Tom Morris.

It’s a mistake of huge proportions to view Asia as one market from a golf perspective. A continent of such scale and variety cannot but have many, many different characteristics across its different countries and regions. But there are trends that, if not continent-wide, stretch across a number of different countries, and from which we can draw some inferences about how the game might continue to develop.

First is that, pretty much across the continent, golf’s development and growth has been a top-down process. Where the game has spread, it has done so largely because wealthy elites have taken to it; where courses have been built in quantity, they have been created by developers as part of a scheme whose goal is to make profit (whether by associated housing, or as a resort project), rather than by golfers banding together to find somewhere to play. “There is an old guard of golf right across the continent,” says golf architect Andy Dye, who has been working in Asia for many years. “They are there in Delhi, in Kuala Lumpur, in Singapore, in Manila, and elsewhere.”

So the first question must be how the game moves beyond this elite audience and creates a wider base. “The spread of golf is an evolutionary process,” Dye says. “In the US, in the 1930s, Roosevelt allocated money to build public golf courses as part of his programme for easing the Depression. That brought the game to a less wealthy, much broader based audience. So is anyone going to do that in Asia?”

In most of its existing markets, golf did begin largely as a game for the elite. But the success of golf around the world has been in its appeal to aspirational middle classes, a group of which Asia has no lack. “There is a phenomenal number of emerging middle class across Asia – people with a reasonable amount of money, but not super rich,” says Dye. “There are literally hundreds of millions of them. They are natural candidates for golf. And we know that, in any activity, the real money is always made in the mass market. So the challenge is for developers to create projects that target the mass market, and offer the right product at the right price.”

Asia remains a difficult place to do business, though. Alan Prickett moved to Singapore a few years ago to run the region for machinery manufacturer Jacobsen. “The new golf regions offer significant growth opportunities for us, but doing business in some of the emerging economies can be challenging at times, for many reasons, and it is not at all unusual to drive several hours, or even take flights, to get from one course to another at the present time,” he says. And it’s not plain sailing in the more established markets. “The established old golf markets are, in some cases, struggling for income, but there is a rising interest amongst the general public that will continue to allow membership fees to remain at a sustainable level in most places and certainly gives me hope that the industry in this part of the world will remain considerably stronger than in the more over-developed markets elsewhere.”

“The Asian markets tend to run equipment harder and for longer than is the case in most parts of the west,” says Prickett. “We regularly see replacement cycles running to ten years, but equally the courses are generally adept at keeping the machines serviceable themselves, with most employing at least one mechanic, and usually more. One of the things most manufacturers in Asia believe very strongly in is ongoing professional development and specific technical education for course operatives, superintendents and technicians. Grass species vary widely across the huge geography of Asia so we have to ensure that products are capable of dealing with large fluctuations in temperature and humidity, as well as the differing characteristics of the grasses.”

“There seems to be no question that the days of wild golf-growth in Asia are now behind us, and some of the countries above have seen serious challenges to new developments, particularly China, but this remains the most active region of the world for new golf,” says Jacobsen’s Alan Prickett. “In markets like Myanmar, the Philippines, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, we are seeing a steady increase in golf course construction and a noticeable increase in the demand for golf from the emerging middle class. The major ‘high-ticket’ opportunities we have are, in the main, related to these new-builds, but it is also true to say that many of the courses in Asia can be described as premium golf venues, so there is an ongoing demand for machinery to keep these facilities in tip-top condition.”

But the one characteristic that holds true across the entire Asian continent is the need to take a local view of each market. “In each country, you have to have the right local partner, or you’re not going to get it done,” says Andy Dye. “How do you get through the political, social and economic hurdles in each country? You need a suitable local partner. And you have to be prepared sometimes to tell your client ‘Hey, you’re wrong’. They don’t like to hear it, especially in emerging markets, because they’re typically the chairman of a big company, used to hearing people tell them they’re right. But you have to tell them.”

China

China, Asia’s dominant economy, has seen the most dramatic growth in golf construction in the last decade

China, Asia’s dominant economy, has seen the most dramatic growth in golf construction in the last decade, but the complex relationship the country’s government has with the game is holding development back. There have long been rumours that golf will be formally legalised and properly regulated in China, but such a change of status seems no nearer now than ever. “

They’ve been doing that ‘looking the other way’ thing for a long time, in golf and other things, and frankly I think they have no choice but to carry on,” says Andy Dye. “It’s cultural there, how they do things. And I don’t think there’s a pressing reason to do it otherwise. They might do it in ten years, but to them ten years is like tomorrow. We call China the modern miracle, but they view their civilisation as going back thousands of years. They are aiming for economic stabilisation now; although there are a lot of people who have shared in China’s economic growth, there are hundreds of millions who are still extremely poor. And though golf isn’t a big issue in reality, it’s high profile.”

Architect Dana Fry, much of whose business has been focused on China for some years, agrees. “Lots of projects are on hold in China until the government hands down new regulations,” he says. “There are many rumours, some suggesting that there will be only a certain number of permits handed out, as was the case in Vietnam, for example, or maybe limiting the kind of sites golf can be built on. But it is very unpredictable, and until the government moves it is difficult for developers to get access to bank loans.” “We used to send grass to, on average, seven or eight projects a year in China,” says John Holmes of grass supplier Atlas Turf. “This year, only two, and I’m not expecting any more.”

South Korea

The Korean golf explosion is perhaps the game’s greatest recent success story. From 24 courses and a total of 750,000 rounds in 1980, the country’s market has expanded to well over 400 courses and nearly 27 million rounds now. Korean golfers have achieved huge successes on both male and female professional tours, and research by golf consultant Ha Jong-du shows an average number of rounds per course in excess of 60,000 – which implies demand for additional facilities. And, indeed, more courses are currently being built: architect Kyle Phillips’s spectacular new South Cape course on an island off the country’s southern coast is expected by many to challenge the Nine Bridges course, which has long been regarded as the country’s best.

Philippines

“I’ve lived in the Philippines in the past and did four courses there,” says Andy Dye. “Now, we have a full time office in the country. They have a great golf history going back forever, unlike say China, where it’s all new. The Filipino economy is improving. Certain parts are overdeveloped with golf, but in others there’s a demand for more. There’s some remodel work coming up – some of the older courses have been let go and need to be updated. And we have a new-build project north of Manila, based on tourism and golf. The country has infrastructure and security issues, just like other growing economies, but Filipino golfers are a very strong base for the game. Golf is how many families get together, and is used to do business a lot. And they love the game.”

Indonesia

“Indonesia remains pretty strong,” says Dana Fry. “Their economy is still doing pretty well, and there’s a certain amount of both new build and renovation activity.” “Developers in Indonesia are looking for a new model,” says Andy Dye. “They had an economic model, but now, with cost of maintenance, they want a model where membership dues pay for the operation of the club. The way they look at it, once the golf course and the development is up and they’ve made a profit, they believe the golf course has to be self-sustaining. President Suharto was a big golfer; in that era they did a lot of business on golf courses, but now, you see a lot of courses where there isn’t enough money to maintain the course properly, and they’re trying to figure a way round that.”

India

India has the longest history of golf in Asia; in fact, it has the longest history of golf anywhere in the world outside the UK, and arguably outside Scotland. The country’s first golf club, Royal Calcutta, was formed by Scottish expats in the British colonial service back in 1829, and, like another imperial import, cricket, golf has become a significant part of Indian life.

“India is a vibrant country that is brimming with commercial success and has a real appetite for golf,” Troon Golf executive Bruce Glasco told KPMG’s Golf Business Community in a recent interview. “While domestic real estate sales on golf courses in premium resorts represents the lowest hanging fruit for developers, I believe inbound international golf tourism will evolve in India as the destination progresses its tourism strategy and maintains its economic trajectory in target markets. The mystic of India and the growing infrastructure should make for an attractive prospect for the most discerning of golfers and certainly for businessmen and women the world over.”

“India is going to struggle for a while because of the devaluation of the rupee,” says John Holmes. “Unless they’re using local materials or services, the weak currency means they are going to be paying more for everything they have to buy in – design services, materials. Coupled with the problems of land cost there, I think that market is one that will be slow for some time.”

Lao Country Club, Laos

Located near capital city Vientiane, the 18-hole course at Lao Country Club is one of a small number of golf facilities available in Laos

Located near capital city Vientiane, the 18-hole course at Lao Country Club is one of a small number of golf facilities available in Laos, a landlocked country in southeast Asia that lies between Vietnam and Thailand.

Korean architect Dr Ryu Chang-Hyun completed the redesign of the former Youth Garden Golf Course in 2011, overseeing construction and supervising the entire project from start to finish, ensuring the course was prepared in accordance with his design plans.

The course lies on predominantly flat land and the region has very distinct dry and rainy seasons, meaning that weather extremes need to be considered within maintenance plans for clubs in the region. This was also factored into Ryu’s redesign project, with particular attention given to planning to ensure that the construction team was carrying out activities at the most appropriate times.

The course’s most dramatic hole is the par-five 541-metre fifth. The tee shot requires golfers to avoid a lake to the right of the fairway, and the hole also features an iconic dead tree. A point of contention during construction, the team had initially favoured the tree’s removal. But Ryu decided to keep it, believing it added a unique and memorable aesthetic appeal. Also, the tree’s bark has whitened over time, making it stand out and giving players a reference point for their tee shot.

The course has paspalum grass fairways and zoysia rough, the distinct hues of each creating visual contrast and definition. The greens are TifEagle bermuda.

Laguna Lang Co, Vietnam

Faldo Design’s Laguna Lang Co course, on Vietnam’s central coast near the city of Danang, is among Asia’s most interesting new courses.

Designed to play hard and bouncy, like a links, it is the first course in the region to use manilagrass (zoysia matrella) on the fairways. Asian turfgrass expert Dr Micah Woods says manilagrass is effectively the tropical equivalent of fine fescue, as it has evolved to survive in low resource areas of tropical countries.

It seems to be working. Atlas Turf’s John Holmes says: “I played Laguna on a recent trip to Vietnam, and it was extremely fast and firm, perhaps the fastest I’ve seen in south-east Asia.” Faldo lead designer Paul Jansen adds: “A good proportion of the course’s playing strategy is dictated by some of the fantastic ground contours found over the site and the desire to maintain hard and fast playing conditions. Though I’m biased I love the variety of the Lang Co course – it is surrounded by rice paddies, streams, sea, exposed sand and blow outs, rocks and trees.”

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