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Safeguarding Singapore's golf clubs

IT is no secret that a relatively high percentage of land in Singapore has been reserved for golf courses.

Before Jurong Country Club's closure last December, golf clubs occupied about 11 per cent of total land area. This island of only 720 sq km has, by a quick count, 14 golf clubs and 27 courses. This is certainly not par for the course.

Raffles Country Club is due to shut next June, and the land area of its two 18-hole courses will be freed up for the building of a high-speed rail line and housing and commercial properties linked by roads, as well as the setting up of green lungs.

With Keppel Club's lease ending in 2021, a further easing of land is on the cards.

The outlook is shrouded in further gloom, given that Marina Bay Golf Course is to close in four years and move to an existing course at the Singapore Island Country Club.

To check further losses of golf land, the Asian Golf Industry Federation (AGIF), the region's umbrella golfing body, is initiating a move to collate information in an attempt to show that golf courses are a force of good.

Eric Lynge, the federation's chief executive, said recently that reliable, consolidated data is key to safeguarding the future of golf clubs in Singapore and around Asia. In his view, the closures are not due to a shortage of golfers or unprofitable business models.

"Singapore is home to one of the most cash-rich clubs in the world and other such entities that are relatively healthy financially and membership-wise," he said.

But this has not stopped speculation.

Recent opinion columns in Singapore have claimed that the average age of club members is 60 and that most clubs are unprofitable.

Those in the industry know this to be false.

Mr Lynge said: "What is true is that around 10,000 memberships will expire with some compensation but no place to transfer. This affects not only golfers but also the substantial membership population, which uses the other facilities at these golf clubs. What is also true is that between 300 and 400 full-time jobs for mostly Singaporean workers are being lost."

However, he qualified that infrastructure projects are necessary and there is no country with a better track record than Singapore on this front.

Those in the industry should question and look into why golf courses are viewed as being more dispensable than other properties, he added. One factor is that there is no consolidated data which gives the golfing community and industry a clear idea where it stands as a body.

"How can we prove that golfers are much younger than the perception? How can we show the number of Singaporeans who rely on the golf club industry for their livelihood? How can we prove that participation is increasing or decreasing? We can only answer these questions with data," he said.

"It is clear that the industry would benefit by getting together like other industries to start benchmarking all elements pertinent to golf and the club environment."

Mr Lynge noted that Singapore has a very high level of facilities and participation per capita in club life - "not only golf clubs, but university clubs like NUSS, Armed Forces clubs like Safra and NSRCC, and union clubs like NTUC community clubs".

He said this presents an opportunity, not only for the club industry in Singapore but in the rest of Asia as well.

To this end, the AGIF is in talks with organisations such as the National Golf Foundation in the US, which has tracked all data about golf in the US market for years.

Patrick Bowers, the chief executive and managing director of Laguna Hospitality, said that those in the industry know and understand - at least anecdotally - the financial and employment benefits the industry contributes.

"Collectively, the golf industry in Singapore employs thousands of people at both junior and senior levels, generates significant tax revenues, provides a strong basis for doing business internationally, not to mention the physical benefits of exercising outdoors - this being a game members of the older generation can play well into their retirement," he said.

Balanced against these positives is the question of the level of usage of Singapore's golf clubs. A quick check with the clubs found that on most weekday afternoons, when there are no corporate events, the usage level of the courses is at between 70 and 80 per cent.

There are also many Singapore golfers who cross the Causeway to play in courses in Johor; on certain days, retirees get to enjoy the game for as little as RM60 (S$18).

To stop this outflow and lift usage in Singapore clubs to near-optimum levels, clubs should consider ways to attract such retirees and, of course, juniors (even for nine holes after school); this is not only to raise revenue, but also to enable more people to enjoy the game.

With Jurong Country Club's closure, some retiree-members had been quoted as saying that they will have to give up the game. They should be able to enjoy it, along with the camaraderie of their peers, in their golden years.

The golf clubs have a great part to play in ensuring that the sport is not only for the elite, as is widely believed, but is a healthy pursuit for all, for the physical and mental challenges it offers.

Clubs should do their part to provide data to wipe away the misconceptions about golf. It is no longer an exclusive sport.