The Golf Industry in Asia 25 Years On… what have we learned?

The definition of insanity, “Doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results”! During the course of my 20 plus years in Asia, I’ve seen many examples in the golf industry in this region where the same mistakes that were made in developed golf nations are being made here. This is part and parcel of any industry entering into a new part of the world and dealing with a new environmental challenges and a constantly evolving technology. But this doesn’t have to be the case. Golf continues to expand in Asia at a rate faster than almost any other region in the world from golf course design and construction in China and other growth economies to golf course maintenance in India, Learn from those of us here who have gained from both our successes and failures and learn from what has been done in those developed golf nations.

Circa 1992 I had the great fortune of entering the golf business in Thailand and what a wonderful 20 years it has been travelling to various golf projects throughout the region. Back then the industry was full of excitement over golf with the potential for Asia to follow in the footsteps of Japan, Europe and America where many witnessed a golf boom 30 years prior. The captains of industry in Asia were laying out huge sums of money in order to have in their portfolio, a fabulous golf course. Unfortunately, many of their core businesses had nothing to do with the golf industry.   Some were spending on good advice but in other cases some were losing hard earned cash or even worse, borrowing for projects and risking the family business. As we see it now, some became heroes; others are still wondering what happened and what went wrong.

During those days the expat population was burgeoning and architect’s, land planners, clubhouse designers, shapers, construction superintendents and golf course superintendents, were here for that first round of the golf course building boom. Since then with billions of dollars spent, thousands of courses built and so much expertise available, why is it that so many projects have failed and others are still struggling to maintain international standard facilities and operations, and conversely how did others become so successful.

From my experience, the failures resulted from the lack of educational infrastructure for the local people to succeed in keeping up with the golf boom. There are not enough universities in the region offering landscape architecture, turf grass programs, general manager training programs to qualify a person in all aspects of the clubs they are managing. In addition, there are not enough trained professional golfers running the golf operations and teaching programs at golf clubs. Most importantly not many owners recognize the need for training to develop the professional skill sets of the local staff within our industry. These are all necessary actions to protect the substantial investments made in golf.

You can observe this yourself by taking a look at the successful projects and surveying successful actions. The frightening part is, we are now seeing Vietnam, India, China and Korea going through a similar cycle.   Will they make the same mistakes that Japan, Malaysia the Philippines and Thailand made? What are the answers and more importantly what is the solution to avert more failed golf projects?

To answer this question in a few words – ‘professional skill sets’. Experience tells us that in each area of a golf course operation it must start with hiring the right professionals to do each and every job needed. These people are highly skilled in their profession and have many projects and past experiences in their arsenal, which they can refer to when working on your golf course.

As an example of the danger of no professional expertise, if you are building clean rooms for computer chips in Taiwan would you hire a project manager who used computers but has no idea of how to build a computer or a clean room?   Would you hire a golf course industry professional for this job? Of course not!   But still it is not uncommon to see clean room engineers, civil engineers, colonels and more, with limited or no experience with golf now in control of golf projects. Unfortunately, cutting corners in any aspect of a golf project will create future problems including unnecessary maintenance challenges that ultimately end up costing the owner more over the life of the project then if was done correctly in the first place.  

Use your professionals from the beginning to end so that they can in turn train your team to do their jobs with the proper expertise and technology needed for golf. This must start with a good design from a designer that not only has design experience, but who also understands and preferably plays golf. The group should also include a certified golf course superintendent who will ensure that future maintenance nightmares are avoided at the initial planning stages and who understands what it will take to create a successfully maintained golf course in the future. Another equally important professional is the financial planner.   When project managers and financial controllers have little or no experience in the golf industry, the mandate changes from creating a product that can stand the test of time, to doing it as cheap as possible. Financial planning in the golf industry is a balancing act. Spend money now to make and save money for the future. These professionals greatly increase one’s chances of success and on the other hand lack of experienced professionals greatly increase the chances of failure!

When times got tough in 1997 during the region wide financial crises most projects were overextended due to the heavy loans taken out to build the project. As we go around and talk to the clients who now need help, one of the first questions we ask is, can we see your financial feasibility study that was done when the project was initiated? Unfortunately many could not produce one.   From our experience, a golf course should not be built or run without a thorough financial plan done or they are doomed for failure. This is the guideline that keeps the course on the financial path for continued success. The field of dreams, which starred Kevin Costner, had the famous line, “build it and they will come” but this is not reality in today’s golf world.

The question I am asked most when introduced to a new golf project is how much does it cost to build a golf course? Anyone who gives an answer to that question directly to an owner without a master plan and golf course design would be just guessing. How can one know how much it will cost unless you know what the concept is, how much the infrastructure needed to produce that concept will cost, along with the earth moving calculations, drainage, feature work, machinery, irrigation, grassing and landscape plan, etc., which can only come after master planning and golf course design. In order to have a great golf facility you cannot leave any of the above out of the financial plan. Many people think of golf as just a sport, but really it is a professional activity in every aspect.

The following skill sets associated with the golf business could take a lifetime of education and work to be proficient in any single one starting with: financial feasibility, master planning, golf course architecture, clubhouse design, landscape design, civil engineering, irrigation design, construction management, golf course superintendent, golf professional, general management, human resources, real estate, hotel and resort operations, food and beverage and customer service expertise to mention a few. Look carefully at any successful project within this region and you will find that they have included and or engaged such professionals to work together as a team to do the job. If you look at the failed projects, most of us can identify exactly which one or more of the professional skill sets above were left out!

There is a lot of data floating around in the golf industry or any industry for that matter, so what separates the successful from the unsuccessful, as we all have “data” about golf. The separation point is dealing with the people who have what is called “senior data” in other words, all data does not have the same value or importance. In any field of knowledge including the field of golf, the important data exists among other facts of far less significance. As a final example, let us bring this all down to a fine point in an area of expertise that is close to my heart, which is really keeping the project at the top or bottom of the industry, golf course maintenance. This is truly the area that protects the future value of the investment and if done properly one can even turn an average design or layout into a very enjoyable round of golf for your customer and generate return business.

As a golf course superintendent one needs training as a motivational speaker, expert staff trainer, counselor, mind reader, agronomist, soil scientist, hydrologist, horticulturist, arborist, coach, meteorologist, herbicide expert, fungicide and insecticide expert, dog whisperer, wild bore catcher, rules of golf expert, golfer complaint specialist, water management expert and finally you have to have great administration, leadership and interpersonal relationship skills with very systematic and through golf course evaluation and troubleshooting skills. These are some of the characteristics needed in just this one area of the golf business.

So what have we learned? Hopefully we can recognize what we know and what we don’t know about every area of the golf business. Then engage companies or people with professional skills and or train your people up to that level. Finally realize and use what they know to protect and add value to your project so that our wonderful industry continues to flourish and prosper in Asia.

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