Friday, 15 February 2013

Future of Golf Course Development - Interview

How can the game of golf sustain itself through place-specific golf course development?

1] It appears that key stakeholders within the golf industry have, and continue to, strongly push an agenda that is directed towards the growth of the game. What are the consequences of such an approach to the game of golf, and thus golf course development?

I don’t think they promote growth at all.

I think they depend on growth to support their existing infrastructure and now that’s come to a standstill. Their frightened in many cases and I personally think the problems will last for a decade or more. Nobody has addressed the real problem. Everyone is focusing on trying to bring new players to the game, but the biggest issue is retention. The game has become too expensive to play regularly, takes too much time out of our busy schedules and people leave over the economics.

We will have to address a couple of major fundamental issues to actually deal with this. The escalating land costs. The increasing amount of land required because of technology. The ever increasing costs to meet conditioning expectations. And the fact that costs have gone up as revenue has dropped dramatically. But that won’t happen till the ball is rolled back to reduce land requirements and the maintenance standards are changed to make North American courses look and play more like the United Kingdom. I`m not holding my breath on each major issue and I would expect close to zero growth for this entire decade.

2] Golf’s last great growth period was driven by real-estate specification, with very little premium on quality golf course design.

The fatal flaw was the belief of the developer that they could forever sell their lots at a premium and flip the golf courses over to a willing buyer. They paid top dollar for a marketable name and paid top dollar to build to impress home owners with no plans or understanding how to run that business. The intention was a quick flip to members or a management company who would take over the facility.  They never worried about the quality of golf course, whether it was too expensive to maintain or whether it was a good economic model. That was someone else’s problem. They were just selling lots at a premium by adding the facility and that’s all that mattered.

a] What are the long-term consequences of real estate reliant golf course development on the game of golf?

Few of these golf courses work as a business. They were built for way too much money and without any end-user in mind. You can’t run them as a legitimate business because the overhead exceeds the revenue stream. The worst part is they were built to be high end facilities for the elite making them largely too hard for the average player on top of being too expensive for the average consumer. So they don’t even work as facilities to bring people to the game. The model was generally high end and there are very few high net worth people playing golf. They also were impacted by the market crash of 2008 and went back to working longer hours.

b] How can golf course development exist without real estate?

It used to be you built a course in a location with a demand. You built it as cheaply as you could keep an eye on maintenance to make things work. You then charged a modest fee and built your regular base one player at a time. This modest approach still works.  You also made improvements as you could afford them. Almost makes too much sense when you think about it. Golf courses are businesses and businesses need to make a profit to survive.

3] It can be argued that the comparatively ‘radical’ nature of golf courses built in the early exportation of golf from the British Isles were vital components in ensuing the establishment and long-term success of the game in countries such as the US and Australia. Despite this, it appears that the majority of developments in today’s emerging golf markets have borrowed from the one-size fits all, modern approach.

They were built in great locations because the cost and expectations were minimal. The game grew before the expectations grew. People were just grateful to have a place to play. Expectations are actually a problem of this generation. They expect too much, often where it’s not possible  and golf is being hurt by this selfish attitude.

 a] Why have golf course developments in emerging golf markets failed to innovate?

The selected the wrong model – North America – as the standard. Many cultures like the courses to be a controlled and perfectly maintained environment. They see that as the highest form of architecture and don’t understand the core of the game is how it’s played, not how it looks. Almost all decisions are made by people who don’t play golf and often the courses are built to their vision of the game.

4] Given the nature of golf courses in the British Isles it is my opinion that golf developments in emerging regions can (and must) meet the cultural/social demands of the local golf population if the game is to establish and sustain itself in the long-term. a] How can golf courses best function as social assets?

Public facilities are social assets, but very few public facilities are being built because of economic pressure and the belief that golf is a game for the elite in society. There is a stigma to the game that comes from the North American version. That`s another problem that must be addressed to ever see public money invested in the game.

b] What responsibility must golf course architecture in directing the long-term future of the game?

In the last couple of decades 90% of new golf courses were designed to meet the demand of 10% of players. Only the best can play them and only the wealthiest can afford to play. We need to reverse the pyramid so that 90% of the courses are fun and cheap places to play. Then we as architects could help make progress in the growth of the game.

5] With the inclusion of golf into the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio providing hope of a golf development boom in South-America, and the continued construction of new courses in growth markets such as South-East Asia, it is my opinion that the golf industry is at a ‘breakpoint’ in which it will be vital to shape a place-specific model of golf development that is sustainable and accessible to all. As the game continues to globalize, how are the challenges facing golf course architects (and the golf industry) today likely to evolve in the future?

In many ways we would be better off if nothing happened for a decade and many of the modern designers retired. They won`t change their spots and they`ve done enough damage to the game. The next generation is building a different type of course that is more inclusive of lesser players, more environmentally sustainable and a damn good economic model. We need those designers to become the trail blazers.  Rio is being built by one and my hope is we could show the world something different. That was why that choice of architect was so important. 

6] Golf course development in emerging markets appears to be following a private model driven by real-estate speculation, and to a lesser extent tourism. If golf is to be accessible, and sustain itself in the long-term, then, in my opinion, there must be a balance between public and private golf.

Public golf won`t get built in these tough economic times. New golf will come from various serious and wealthy golfers looking to create a legacy project or a really simple old fashioned business plan that meets the demand of the current market. There will not be any in between for quite some time.

 a] To what extent should the golf industry guide the development of courses at a regional scale (if this is even possible)?

They shouldn`t guide anything. It needs grass roots people who understand who they can attract to come and play their course. Golf needs to go back to what it was which was a really efficient small business. Corporate golf has damaged the foundations of the game because the goal is not long term success but short term profit. Golf needs to return to its roots.

b] What types of course should we be building in countries unfamiliar to the history and nuances of the game?

Ideally we should be building much more rudimentary and fun layouts where people are unlikely to lose a golf ball. You want them to make a few pars or bogies and generally enjoy the day. The one thing they don`t need is a `championship Course that makes the game difficult to play. That frustrates new players and drives them out of the game.

The one thing still being built in large volumes in the emerging markets is long challenging golf courses. And we wonder why the game won`t grow.





  1. Good article - care to name any architects you would like to see retire?

  2. You know who they are without me writing them. If you've read this blog, the names are easy. Find a Year in Review on Architecture that takes about generational change and they will all be there.

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