A rock and a hard place

Sean Dudley
By Sean Dudley

William Swan

The world is sliding into a global recession. Newspapers are filled with doom and gloom stories of the world's leading economies, and we're being warned that worse is to come. The USA has announced a half million job losses, the UK is seeing the fall of retail giants, European and Japanese car manufacturers are joining their US counterparts in a desperate bid to stave off collapse and home repossession rates are soaring all around the developed world. Even the much vaunted Brazilian, Russian, Indian and Chinese economies are seeing a downturn.

The golf industry does not stand apart from these events, and the next few years will undoubtedly be tough for all of us working within it. With many of the large-scale golf development projects based around – and financed by – real estate, prospects are not good. Property prices have fallen substantially in all but a few countries, and for many of those still willing to invest, the availability of finance remains a major issue.

Now, with the credit markets showing few signs of easing, ultra low interest rates are causing new problems for both new resort developments and standalone golf clubs. Traditionally much of golf 's income comes from the elder members of society, who also tend to be the savers.

Unfortunately, not only is it a bad time to be a borrower, it's not a good time to be a saver either. Rates of return are low, and projections of future income are being scaled down, so the amount of disposable income available to be spent on golf is falling dramatically.

The impact of the economic climate will inevitably reduce the demand for second and holiday homes, thereby reducing the likelihood of proposed golf and residential developments going ahead.

The challenges to existing golf clubs may be just as great, with membership renewals under pressure and budgets being squeezed. These fears are confirmed through discussions with our existing clients, who are now more cautious about the future, and by discussions with our friends in the industry.

It would not be unreasonable to conclude that for the golf industry things are not looking up.

However, for golf course architects there is a more positive side of the current situation. Over recent years golf has seen unprecedented levels of development and in the rush to get projects completed and properties on the market, the importance of good design diminished. This was true in all areas of development but, as the golf course was usually not deemed to be the most important component of a project, golf design was particularly susceptible to being marginalised.

That is not to say that those charged with designing the courses were not capable of good design, but rather that the clients were less interested in the quality of the course and more interested in the opening date. While golf contributes only a small amount to the return on the investment, instances where design was neglected can now be regarded as missed opportunities.

This will surely become more apparent as we slide further into recession. The golf industry has already fallen upon on hard times, with sales of residential properties slowing still further and money becoming in short supply at all golf facilities. As the pressure begins to tell it will be those projects based upon good design that survive while those that hurried through the planning stages will suffer.

Back in the third issue of GCA, published during more buoyant times, Tom Doak argued that while a golf course raises property values, a great golf course raises them further still. His words are even more resonant now, where the quality of the course can be the difference between success and failure. Developers are beginning to wake up to this fact, and this can only be a good thing for those of us working in golf architecture. Resources afforded to project feasibility, masterplanning and golf course design will become an increasing proportion of the overall investment, and this can only lead to better developments. There is a new appreciation of the architect's role in the project, as the golf course design is the rock on which the rest of the development is built.

Will this new appreciation of golf course design result in golf course architecture businesses excelling in the midst of the financial struggle? Will the economic downturn see an upturn in the number of golf design fees? Probably not, but the opportunity for golf architects to put great designs on to the ground is one to which we can all look forward.

William Swan is a golf course architect with Swan Golf Designs in the UK.

This article first appeared in issue 15 of Golf Course Architecture, published in January 2009.