Growing the game – The Global Perspective

GOLF RETAILING spoke to R&A top brass Peter Dawson, Michael Tate and Duncan Weir about the future of golf on a global scale, and also to former European Ryder Cup captain Colin Montgomerie

When Colin Montgomerie arrived at the practice ground at Sheshan International Golf Club in Shanghai to hold a junior clinic two years ago, at the WGC HSBC Champions tournament, the Scotsman had little idea of the level of golf he was about to witness. As an eight-time winner of what was the European Tour’s Order of Merit, a winner of 40 professional tournaments, a Ryder Cup player eight times, and then Europe’s Ryder Cup captain, there is not a lot this golfer has not seen on a practice ground.

“I was asked to hold a clinic with the Chinese national under-10s team,” starts Montgomerie. “Eight of these kids turned up, carrying bags that were as big as they were, and one boy said to me in perfect English: ‘Would you like a draw, a fade, a high one or a low one?’ This boy was nine years old. So I said to him, ‘Let me see a shot that hooks from right to left,’ and he asked, ‘Do you want a hook or a draw?’”

Showing consummate control, the young boy produced a textbook draw to order, and Montgomerie had to quickly re-calibrate the tone of his clinic.

“That boy is a genius,” adds Montgomerie, in talking exclusively to GOLF RETAILING. “He was playing off a three or four handicap at the age of nine, and the questions he was asking were not juvenile or childish; they were grown-up questions, about things like what you can tell about your shots by looking at your divots. It was Ben Hogan stuff! I almost said, ‘Go and ask someone who knows what he is talking about!’

“This little boy was from Beijing and he had been flown to Shanghai for this event. His parents were there too, and they said that for every boy with their son’s ability, there were another 1,000 in China.”

The thought of there being 1,000 more like this nine-year-old boy is a compelling illustration of the vast depth of golfing potential in China.

“The point is that the future of this game is in Asia,” adds Montgomerie, “in countries like China and South Korea. Look at how the Koreans have dominated women’s golf in recent years, and why shouldn’t that situation happen in men’s golf? There is no reason why it shouldn’t.”

Eastern promise

The R&A has taken a central role in the development of golf around the world. The St Andrews-based governing body has established programmes such as the World Amateur Golf Ranking, the distribution and translation of the Rules of Golf – which the R&A currently makes available in 135 countries (excluding the United States and Mexico, which comes under USGA jurisdiction) and in 36 languages – and amateur championships like the Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship and the Latin America Championship, which are joint initiatives between the R&A, the USGA, Augusta National GC and the regional golf federations.

In March 2014, China-based Huidian Research estimated that China’s golf industry was worth US$1.03 billion in 2013, representing an increase of 10% from 2012. The industry report also estimated that China is home to as many as 1.1 million golfers.

“If one per cent of Chinese people play golf that is tens of millions of new golfers, compared to the estimated total number of golfers in the world currently, which is 60 million,” says Michael Tait, executive director of business affairs at the R&A. “The game is taking off in India too, and now that golf is an Olympic sport there is greater potential for governments to release funds to develop golf.”

“The Olympic Games has helped golf development in countries like China, where there is massive emphasis on any opportunity to win an Olympic medal,” concurs Montgomerie. “This is a country that is determined to sit at the top of the Olympics medal table.

“Today there are over one million US-dollar millionaires in China. It is hard to fathom, but the point is that we know there are at least one million people in China who have the means to play golf. The Chinese middle class has grown from nothing to a very substantial number.”

The safest bet in golf is that it will not be long before more Asian golfers follow in the footsteps of Yang Yong-Eun, the 2009 US PGA Championship winner from South Korea, in bringing men’s Major trophies back to Asia, but Montgomerie takes this logical progression a step further.

“You will find a Major championship being played in Asia one day – definitely,” he states. “Tennis has got it right, in as much as its four Grand Slams are held in Australia, France, Britain and the United States; that is a good geographical spread, whereas if you look at golf, we have three Majors in America and one in Britain.

“You will see the spread of golf’s Majors heading east. We know that the Masters is going nowhere, and the US Open probably isn’t either, but the US PGA Championship could possibly be the one to move. Or what is to stop there being five Majors?

“Even in 10 years’ time, Asia will be demanding a better say in the world of golf. Asia will have more Major winners by then, there will be more great golf courses in Asia, and simply in numbers, there will be more people playing golf in Asia than on any other continent in the world, so why shouldn’t Asia have its own Major? There is also such a strong work ethic in many Asian countries, and in countries like China and South Korea they are going to achieve great things by combining talent with that work ethic.”

Heading to Rio
Emerging markets: (l to r) Billy Payne, chairman of Augusta National, Peter Dawson chief executive of the R&A, and Mike Davis, executive director of the USGA, launch the Latin America Amateur Championship earlier this year

Emerging markets: (l to r) Billy Payne, chairman of Augusta National, Peter Dawson chief executive of the R&A, and Mike Davis, executive director of the USGA, launch the Latin America Amateur Championship earlier this year

When the R&A successfully championed golf to become an Olympic sport – which it will be for the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro – the motivation for the campaign came from the belief that the Olympics are the biggest opportunity for the growth of golf internationally.

“The R&A’s support for golf is now much more international than it used to be,” starts Peter Dawson, chief executive of the R&A. “This is why we were so keen to support Olympic golf. In some parts of world, in Asia and Eastern Europe in particular, governments direct their support towards Olympic sports.

“The issue for golf in the West is competition for leisure hours. There is such a wide range of things that people can do with their leisure time today, that if golfing numbers can just stand still in the West it would be a massive achievement. I expect golfing numbers in the West to decline, while hopefully numbers in developing countries will rise.”

“We try to service the specific needs and requests of our affiliates around the world,” adds Duncan Weir, the R&A’s executive director of ‘Working for golf’. “In Scotland, for example, we have plenty of golf courses, golfers and golf pros, but the big problem is encouraging golfers to join clubs, so we might support Scottish golf with some kind of ‘Join the club’ initiative. Whereas in a country such as Thailand it would be completely different: it might be about taking golf pros, equipment and knowledge out into rural villages, or about helping a country’s best young players compete in a major Asian amateur event.

“We would like to see more indigenous golfers playing in countries where golf has traditionally been dominated by tourists, particularly in parts of Asia and in the Middle East.

“We are making progress. It is terrific to see how many more countries are now represented in tournaments like our Junior Open, which has doubled in size over the past 10 years. We have had golfers from 74 countries play in the Junior Open, and we are going to see more countries producing golfers who are good enough to compete in the Open Championship itself.”

With burgeoning economies and the added incentive of Olympic golf, the demand for more golf courses in the biggest Asian countries like China and India is rising.

“China is so big that it is difficult to get your arms around it, so to speak,” says the R&A’s Dawson. “We started with greenkeeper training programmes, then rules education, and we have been talking to the China Golf Association about junior programmes, but goodness me, with China it is hard to do more than scratch the surface.”

High-profile course designers like Montgomerie have compasses set for the east.

“It is encouraging for golf course designers such as myself that there is an opportunity in China,” says Montgomerie. “Europe and America are fairly stagnated in terms of golf development: in America they are still feeling the effects of recession, and more golf courses closed than opened there last year. Golf is moving east, and to the Far East in particular.”