In the Rough

Golf’s economic model, both at professional and pastime level, has been the subject of much debate in recent months. In the golf design and construction sector that underpins the whole industry, the concern remains real.


It is a generalisation but one grounded in some truth: the sport of golf has been one of the hardest hit by the global economic crisis. A reliance, in some cases, on the automotive and   $    tournament sponsorship saw cutbacks as companies in those sectors sought to quickly re-evaluate marketing strategies and budgets in the face of new economic realities. It is in the area of course design, however, that golf was hit hardest of all. Longstanding economic ties to the real estate market saw new projects almost dry ˜455£    4565   grim indeed for a sector that had just been through an unparalleled boom period. Some of the growing number of companies concerned with golf course design and construction virtually reverted to refurbishment and remodelling of existing courses, such was the paucity of new projects. Jeremy Slessor, the managing director of European Golf Design, a company co-owned by the European Tour and IMG, describes the course design industry as “going through some pretty hard times.” He adds: “There is a lot of interest in resort development and most of the work we do is related to resort development as opposed to pure golf, but there’s also a lot of hesitation on the part of investors because there’s just so much SportsPro Magazine | 100 102 | uncertainty in the market. “Just when you think things might be turning around a bit economically, there’s another wave of bad news and bad results and things slow down again. It’s not a buoyant market by any means but there are people who are investing and hopefully history will determine that they weren’t brave and foolhardy but actually quite wise.” Another course designer, Peter Harradine, makes a more positive assessment of the     “    ”   › #     recession and the sector’s virtual stall. “I would say in the last nine months things $      Œ  are concerned. A lot more people seem to $ +  ”)  ) ;    for the design, construction or remodelling of over 200 golf courses across the world. Its latest area of focus is in Eastern Europe and Russia, with ongoing builds in Kazan and Ukraine among the more #& +  ”     underpinning each is slightly different but Harradine says that “quite a few” are still tied to real estate, a model perfected during the boom years for the sector but      #       #    2008. Slessor, however, insists that debate over whether such business models are sustainable is not a new phenomenon. “I don’t think the discussion is any more   $   $  #”   “”       the door of a club on day one and you are absorbing all the land costs and professional costs, all of the construction costs and the grow-in costs, then it is, at best, in many, many locations a very, very long-term investment. The geographic idiosyncrasies and the demographics of where you’re building and who you’re marketing to are going to dictate very strongly whether golf on its own is an economic investment. I don’t think that’s necessarily changed; I think what has changed in some ways is the extravagance, temporarily I expect, has come out of the market. The ‘listen, don’t worry about the budget, we’ll just spend what we need to spend’ type of project isn’t going ahead at the moment.” Harradine expects that course design +         projects will continue to get the go-ahead but says: “I don’t think we’ll ever see the boom we saw before. I think there’ve been golf courses built in completely the wrong places where they’re bound to close sooner or later because there just aren’t the people there to go to it and the prices are too high – I take Dubai as an example. I’m bringing it, maybe, to countries where they’re building golf courses for the wrong reasons – to sell houses. They should build golf courses to get people to play. I’m glad we have the projects with the houses because it keeps me in business but one should not forget that golf courses should really be built for people to play golf as well.” Harradine, an experienced course architect who has worked on projects on several continents, has strong views on the golf design sector in particular and the golf industry in general. He believes that golf has a huge image problem, which is “A lot of people perceive us as capitalist pigs with multi-coloured trousers and this has to change.” SPECIAL REPORT | GOLF Despite the growing importance of refurbishment work Harradine Golf are still creating new courses, such as the public Pravets Golf Club in Bulgaria (top) and the Golf & Country Club in Kazan, Russia (bottom) 104 | affecting all aspects of the game – including the one directly concerning his business. “A lot of people perceive us as capitalist pigs with multi-coloured trousers and this has to change,” he suggests. “Golf, unfortunately, in central or western Europe – not in the UK where golf is part of the culture – has a very bad image and we have to change our image. You will always have the exclusive golf course but you don’t in central Europe always have the public courses and golf is quite expensive so it is open to the more well-to-do. The greens and the environmentalists, left-leaning people, don’t like golf because it’s a sport for the rich. This is completely wrong. It’s an image we absolutely have to change. “We have a bad image with ecologists because we can’t get them to play golf. If they would start playing they would realise what a great game it is. They are fundamentally against us just because of our image. That causes problems with building permits, with all sorts of things – local authorities.” Harradine, though, believes golf has, to some extent at least, brought these types of problems on itself. “All these super manicured courses in the States where they cut the fairway line exactly and put heating in the greens, it’s like putting a red rag in front of an environmentalist. That kind of course gives the wrong message. Golf is not about that. Golf has really been damaged, the image, by a lot of stupid PR, materialistic spin people. “We have been listening to this marketing bullshit for the last I-don’tknow- how-long, spun by all these bullshitting people who say it’s got to be a championship par-72 course designed by some guy who doesn’t even know what sand he’s standing on and just because he used to drive 300 yards and won one international    Œ   #   architect. We got the wrong image because of these marketing bullshitters who just go for the big thing and paying Tiger Woods US$54 million just to sign a plan. I think there’s got to be a big concerted effort by everyone in the golf industry to stop these guys and say, ‘Golf is a great sport. It’s not only about championship courses and getting Willy Wonka to design it.’ This is all the big spin.” According to Slessor, sustainability is at the heart of every project European Golf Design gets involved in. “I think the perception that there are courses built solely for tournaments is pretty over-hyped to be honest,” he argues. “There are very, very few courses that are ever going to host events to begin with and if, as a design company, we solely put our efforts into making sure they were tournament-ready we would be out of business very quickly. They have to be playable and they have to be commercial and they have to be attractive to play for at least 51 weeks of the year, if not 103 weeks out of 104, so the trick is to leave a course that is capable of hosting an event but is still capable of providing somewhere fun and challenging to play for a resort guest or a member.” Adds Harradine: “Professional golfers are great ambassadors to the game. If we didn’t have these guys playing so well, people would not try and imitate them, so I think professional golfers are very, very important to the whole game. But when you have to spend so much just to get an event, plus all the tents and corporate facilities and everything that goes with it, it’s not affordable to everybody. There are quite a few courses around that do not have all this palaver and still manage to survive and cater to what I call the ‘normal’ golfer. What we need in western Europe is basically public money invested into public courses with the blessings of the environmentalists. It is a proven fact that a pay-and-play course actually makes more money than a private club.” Harradine’s hope is that golf’s entry into the Olympic Games will stimulate the kind of public investment in certain territories that he believes is fundamental to the growth of the game. Until then, his concerns remain: “I’m worried about the golf course industry, mainly because we have a bad image. Golf is just an incredibly fantastic game and should be played by everyone who wants to play it and at the moment we’re suffering from this acute image problem.” “It is a proven fact that a pay-and-play course actually makes more money than a private club.”

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