Golf industry must reinvent to stay the course

In a white T-shirt and drawstring pants, Richard (not his real name) found fortune through his fin-tech company before even turning 30.

When not busy running his company, Richard relaxes at the swimming pool of his fancy condominium in the heart of Kuala Lumpur while playing a game on his smartphone.

“Why do I need to sign up for a club when I already have club-like facilities in my condominium?” he asked.

“My parents were members of a fancy club in the Klang Valley. I used to go there when I was young. Over the years, I’ve realised it’s more of a status thingy and honestly, it’s quite lame.

“And since we already had a gym and swimming pool at our previous condominium, the same money (membership fees) would have been better spent on something else.”

Asked about golf, Richard replied: “Nah. Not my cup of tea, no pun intended.”

Richard is not alone.

Golf clubs nationwide and around the world have been trying hard to boost their membership and lure the younger generation. The Covid-19 pandemic has made it even worse, with some clubs on the brink of bankruptcy.

Despite acknowledging the problem, most of these clubs are run by committees whose members of a certain age choose not to understand the massive generation gap between them and youths. Also, with only a handful of local golf talents who have made it big, the sport lacks icons in Malaysia.

Clubs and golf courses are bogged down by too many rules. The pleated pants of today are tracksuits or jeans while important decisions are made not in shiny polished leather shoes but in sneakers.

Rules are important but have to be justified and seen. Otherwise it will just be another pretentious establishment that believes in elitism but struggles to give its clubhouse a new coat of paint let alone maintain its facilities.

There is also the cost factor. While some may not feel the pinch, others feel the same money (and long hours) spent on golf would be better invested on something more trendy and cool.

Pete Cowen, who coached Danny Willett, Darren Clarke, Henrik Stenson, Lee Westwood and Sergio Garcia, and runs an academy in Rotherham, was quoted by UK’s The Telegraph in 2018 as saying: “We have seen a 40 per cent decline in people at the golf range over the last 10 years in the north of England. Courses are going bankrupt.”

According to the US National Golf Foundation, around nine million people aged between 18 and 34 played golf in the US in the 90s. In 2018, the numbers had declined to about six million.

IBISWorld reported that golf courses and clubs have particularly struggled to attract younger players, many of whom find the clubs too conservative about etiquette while the sport is deemed difficult to learn.

 

The situation isn’t prettier in Malaysia despite the fact golf can be played all year long. At one time, young South Korean golfers made Malaysia their home thanks to the generally great weather.

Those who still spend long hours on the golf course admit playing in Indonesia and Thailand is value for money compared to Malaysia. And the services there are better too.

Golf courses and clubs need to make themselves relevant. They can start by getting school children involved. Big courses should lure the youngsters by providing clubs and gear so that they understand the sport and the lifestyle that comes with it.

The First Tee programme, popular in the US, comes to mind. First Tee is a youth development organisation that introduces the game and its values to children through after-school and in-school programmes.

The programme has been introduced to over 9,000 schools with equal representation of boys and girls. Some 1,200 locations (golf courses) are involved in this programme with over 3,900 active coaches and more than 24,000 volunteers. In fact, some 1,000-odd PGA and LPGA professionals serve as coaches, executive directors and even as volunteers.

There have been some efforts to get school children in the sport in Malaysia but these efforts have been done in a systematic fashion involving all golf course operators and other stakeholders. And this is where the players need to work hand in hand and not in isolation for the wellbeing of their industry.

The idea is to monetise the spin-offs from the sport. The type of food, the setting, the additional activities and how these courses can be ‘friend’ or ‘family-friendly’. Coffee, pastries and good yet affordable food with an Instagram-worthy ambiance can turn a place into an instant hit.

The sport can also be a perfect activity for parents and children and efforts must be made to turn it into a more wholesome yet less competitive affair.

While golf courses in Malaysia can now breathe after the National Security Council allowed recreational golf throughout the Conditional Movement Control Order, the operators need to find ways in making themselves relevant to survive and sustain even longer.

The industry needs to reinvent, reach out to the different age groups by having something for everyone and redefine the meaning of prestige. The stakeholders should rightfully start their quest at schools.