Golf spreads its wings


Sean Dudley

For all the efforts of governing bodies to increase participation in golf, it is an undeniable fact that the game remains, to a large extent, the preserve of the relatively affluent. So it’s no surprise that, as social change brings greater wealth at least to a proportion of the population of a country, then increased interest in golf should follow.

That’s one of the classic ways in which golf spreads. Newly affluent populations, seeing the popularity of golf among the social groups they seek to emulate in other lands, gravitate to the game. The demographics of wealth in countries whose economies have only recently been opened up also tends to favour the development of golf; affluent elites looking for a pastime which can help business, enhance social status and, nowadays, create opportunities to build desirable residences, naturally adopt golf.

There is, of course, another way in which golf can spread to a country – through tourism. Only a few Spaniards or Portuguese, at least until very recently, played golf, yet those countries have been, because of golfers heading south for the sun, among the most dynamic of areas for golf development in the past two or three decades. Golfers are highly desirable tourists for regions to attract, because even those that are relatively price-sensitive spend significantly more money than most other travellers. Witness the attempts by several regions in Spain – Mallorca and the Costa del Sol are the classic examples – to change their profile from high rise, cheap and cheerful sun and sand to more upmarket destinations focusing on golf.

“A buyer of a golf holiday doesn’t only buy the golf product,” says Andrea Sartori of KPMG’s golf unit based in Budapest. “What else do you have in your product mix beyond golf? You can’t only sell the conference centre, you must also sell what goes around it. Golf tourism is not that competitive – you can mention Portugal, Spain, southern France, and now Turkey, and then you’re pretty much done. Italy will become a significant player if they get the golf right, because the rest of the Italian offer is unmatched, and Croatia is getting in place to do well too. Eventually Greece will, as well, although it is taking time because the political situation in Greece is hostile to golf development.” “It’s important to make a distinction between the markets golfers are coming from,” says Sartori’s colleague Mark Sandilands. “From the UK, we’re looking at a price-sensitive customer, which bodes well for the emerging markets. Compare prices in Portugal or Spain with an emerging market like Bulgaria – it’s easy to see why those customers would be attracted to new markets. But customers from the US are less interested in price. They want names.”

Sandilands says that golf destinations need to meet a number of criteria if they are to prove a sustainable success. Most important, he argues, is providing the travelling golfer with a variety of places to play. “You need clusters of golf courses,” he explains. “For a destination to succeed it needs a critical mass of courses, at least six or seven.” But choice is not enough in itself, as Sartori points out: “Ideally you want to have a flagship course. One must stand out – Valderrama on the Costa del Sol, or if you take South Africa, Fancourt. Dubai is another good example – but in Dubai you have more than one flagship, because of the scale of the investment in golf. They also have a very successful cluster, with no more than 30-40 minutes drive to the courses from the main resort areas. The Middle East in general has tremendous potential, but Dubai is leading the way, and it is going to become a major destination in a relatively short time.

“Slovenia is the most advanced golf market in either the Balkans or Eastern Europe, with 0.37 per cent participation. All the other countries in the region are far behind both in demand and supply. But I do believe that Bulgaria is doing very well, and I would put money on Croatia being a success. The quality of the tourism product, coastline, weather, gastronomy, accessibility by car and air, culture and heritage is very high, and as soon as the golf product is good enough to match then people will start to go there.”

“Government is a key driver for tourist golf,” says Sartori. “Turkey is a very good example. In the last five to seven years, the growth of golf in Turkey has been quite impressive, and it has been a government-led effort. Cyprus is another good example – the government there has created a golf policy, and is determined to build sufficient courses to become a significant destination within the next few years.” The Cypriot government, as part of its golf policy, has made it easier for golf developments to win planning permission, but has also created tax incentives for golf. These incentives are starting to have an effect – the established Tsada course near Paphos has recently been totally refurbished by British architects Mackenzie and Ebert, with the ultimate intention of creating a 36 hole resort. Dubai, of course, is another fine example of a country where the development of golf is being driven from the centre, and the results are there for all to see.

For golf architects, one aspect of the emergence of new golf markets is particularly interesting. Potential golfers in regions like the Middle East, Eastern Europe or the Far East are not being introduced to the game by their parents, as was the case for most players in the West. Rather, it is the spread of golf on TV that is the attraction. Thus most of the high-profile golf projects in such markets tend to have a professional golfer’s name attached as ‘signature’ designer. Tiger Woods’s recent announcement of his first signature golf course at Al Ruwaya in Dubai is the obvious example of this trend, but it is far from the only one. Look, for example, at the Black Sea coastline of Bulgaria, where Gary Player’s design firm has two projects, and European Golf Design is building another two courses under the signature of Ian Woosnam. And we have not even touched on the biggest single example of signature design – the giant Mission Hills complex in China.

Everything about Mission Hills is vast. Ten courses, all built with astonishing speed (the final five were constructed concurrently in only a year), eight of which were designed by American firm Schmidt-Curley. But, again, each has a signature branding, from Nick Faldo to Jumbo Ozaki and even teaching guru David Leadbetter. It seems, therefore, that big names are what attracts golfers in these new markets.

One of the issues for golf architects and their clients is that developers in emerging markets are learning their trade, so to speak, in the spotlight of public attention. Where the UK and the US, for example, grew their golf industries slowly, over the course of many years, the existence of golf tourists and the sheer speed of modern life means that this privilege is not extended to new markets.

In its own way this is a great opportunity for golf architects. Developers or clubs that know less about golf need more handholding, even though some may not be temperamentally inclined to listen. Swan Golf Designs associate Ljubica Jovetic references one project on which she had designed a lake with the now necessary safety shelf around the bank, ensuring a zone of shallow water to reduce the risk of drowning should anyone fall in – essential in these litigious days. On her next site visit, the lake had been constructed, without the safety shelf. Jovetic told me she left the client in no doubt that the shelf was necessary, and it was duly built – but at greater cost than if it had been built as originally drawn.

Jovetic’s boss Howard Swan is bullish on the Balkans. “Croatia is going to do especially well because of its sheer scenic beauty, its existing tourist infrastructure and its size,” he says. “There are two key areas – Dalmatia (Dubrovnik and surrounds) and Istria. But Croatia’s greatest disadvantage is the problem of multiple land ownership. The big chunks of land, suitable for real estate development with golf, are all owned by the military, the government or the church. And they don’t want to get rid of it. You can have a lease of 50 years, as they do in Turkey, but how can you sell real estate on leased land?

“Bulgaria also has promise,” he adds. “The Black Sea coast from Varna upwards and north to Constantia in Romania, in time, will be a success. We are currently servicing three inquiries in Crimea, which is now part of Ukraine. But one of the great problems for the whole of that area is that it is facing increased competition from the Gulf and even Brazil – where the governments are far less backward about coming forwards than in Eastern Europe.”

Which leads us to the conclusion that emerging golf markets need not be confined to Europe, the Gulf and the Far East. The power of the travelling American golfer is causing developers to build golf courses outside but easily accessible to the USA, in countries such as Mexico. American architect Forrest Richardson has recently opened his Links at Las Palomas on a spectacular sandy site in Puerto Penasco on the coastline of the Mexican province of Sonora. His compatriot Bobby Weed is working on a project 7,000 feet above sea level in central Mexico. Weed associate Scot Sherman says this part of the world is very attractive to Americans, especially retirees. “It has the most unbelievably temperate climate. Americans and Canadians are moving to this area of Mexico in significant numbers for retirement and second homes, so we are pleased to be working there,” he says. As air travel has become so much easier, travelling golfers can consider much longer trips to pursue their hobby.

Where the growth in golf is coming primarily from locals, the issues are rather different. “Local golf can develop from bottom up in a way that tourist golf can’t,” says Andrea Sartori. “If you take Eastern and Mediterranean Europe, they are starting from a lower base, so it isn’t difficult to achieve high growth rates. As media awareness of golf increases, as disposable income increases, then there will be more interest in golf.”

One characteristic of such markets, typified by the Swedish example which is trumpeted by golf industry personnel all over Scandinavia and central Europe in general, is that, to succeed, golf courses in such markets must be far more inclusive and welcoming than has been the case elsewhere. “In traditional golf markets – such as the UK and Ireland – the proportion of junior and female golfers is very low,” says Sartori. “If you take the typical membership composition in western Europe then you will see 20 per cent are juniors, by far the highest in the region. In the UK, though, only 11 per cent are juniors, the lowest in Europe. In central Europe, 35 per cent of members female.”

Does this have an impact on the design of golf courses? Sartori says probably not. “But it does impact significantly on the additional facilities that courses must develop if they are to succeed,” he says. “Courses in the UK are in a very disadvantaged position in this respect.” For courses in new markets, it is clear that attracting female and junior golfers is key – can you afford to exclude such a huge proportion of your potential audience? Sartori thinks not.

Of course, the tourist or local golfer model need not be exclusive. Courses that have a secure base of local players and can still attract travelling golfers are best placed of all to succeed financially. The new course at Linna in Finland, featured in the last edition of GCA, is a good example of this – the rapid growth of Finnish golf provides the course with its core market, but the operators are working hard to attract visitors from further afield as well. Also within the PGA European Tour Courses group, the recently opened Estonian Golf and Country Club (EGCC), not far from the country’s historic capital of Tallinn, has a similar strategy. President Mait Schmidt says the EGCC has primarily been built with local golfers in mind, but that, given the popularity of Tallinn as a short break destination among British travellers in particular, the club has high hopes of attracting a significant amount of long-distance play.

So is there a nation or region out there that will become the next beacon of golf, building dozens of courses on perfect land, destined to be ranked among the best in the world? That will embrace golf both as a mass participation sport while at the same time hosting top tournaments and producing champion golfers of its own? Outside China, the answer is almost certainly no – it takes decades to embed a sport in a culture. And in China? Who knows? As with virtually every area of human activity, the potential for China is pretty much limitless. Whether that potential can be harnessed is one of the great unanswered questions of our time. Golf is just a tiny part of that equation.

This article first appeared in issue 7 of Golf Course Architecture, published in January 2007.