Boys in green target China as major growth area
One Irish company is helping to beat the downturn in golf, says Dermot Gilleece
D espite increasingly desperate advertisements for green fees at knock-down prices, the news from the Irish golf industry is not all grim. In fact, decidedly upbeat stories right now include a small, specialist company which has doubled its workforce in the last 18 months, largely in response to international demands for its expertise.
There is also the fact that Ballybunion GC has just taken in 47 new members at an entrance fee of €8,000 each. And that the Old Head of Kinsale has been named "The Most Spectacular Course in the World" in the current issue of America's influential Links magazine.
Making the Old Head's distinction all the more remarkable is that it has outstripped iconic Cypress Point in second place. And neighbouring Pebble Beach on California's Monterey Peninsula is ranked fifth.
The fact that two Chinese venues make the top ten shouldn't surprise us at a time when China has just passed Japan as the world's second-largest economy. Instead of heading west, the cry these days is "Go east young man", certainly where golf developments are concerned.
Turfgrass Consultancy were quick to realise that familiarity with the Chinese golfing scene would be crucial to the further development of the company which is headed by John Clarkin. And civil strife elsewhere in the Middle East didn't deter Clarkin from heading to Oman last week to look over a major project there.
Meanwhile, work here at home includes practice facilities for Rory McIlroy and Pádraig Harrington. And the company is also involved in a major research and development programme just north of St Tropez in France, aimed at reducing water consumption and fertilisers and pesticidal use on golf courses.
All of which contrasts sharply with news from America that 4,500 members have bought the six Jack Nicklaus championship courses at Desert Mountain, Scottsdale, Arizona for a knock-down price of $73.5 million. Costing roughly $16,500 per member. So, instead of getting an anticipated $200m for a facility where the renowned Renegade Course was opened in 1987, the owners have been forced to settle for little more than a third of that figure.
Then we had the recent disclosure from Dubai that a project which was to have earned Tiger Woods a design fee of $25m is being abandoned to its desert origins.
Though India, Korea and Brazil are attracting considerable attention as future golf destinations, they are being dwarfed by China where, similar to what happened here, most courses are being tied either to housing or hotel projects or both. And against a modest, current figure of one million players, they're looking to a golfing population of 30 million within the next 10 years, which would be double the current Japanese figure.
"Julian Mooney is our head of agronomy and through a contract with the Ladies European Tour, we specialise in dealing with cool-season grasses and warm-season grasses," said Clarkin. "So we can provide expertise in warm-season grasses at sites from India to Barbados, Antigua and Brazil.
"Asia is where it's really happening right now. The Chinese middle-class is growing at such a rate as to make golf course development extremely attractive. I'm hearing estimates of between 1,000 and 2,000 courses being built there over the next 10 years, which is phenomenal."
Turfgrass Consultancy, which has increased its staff from four to eight with the prospect of further expansion, won the highly-prized agronomy contract at Chambers Bay, Washington State, where the US Open is to be staged in 2015. Explaining their modus operandi, Clarkin said: "On meeting a client, we will set out a programme for the development of a golf course, including permits, a suitable architect and agronomy. We are also connected to Robert Hill Consulting, who will put together an appropriate membership structure.
"When everything is in place, we project-manage the golf course, from putting it out to tender to the right construction company to overseeing the actual construction. We can then assist in the grow-in and maintenance of the course going forward, along with all key aspects of agronomy.
"From 22 years' experience in the industry since starting work at Grange GC, I find it extremely sad what's happening in Ireland. Five years ago, much of my work was concentrated on new golf course developments here. Today, 95 per cent of my work is abroad, including courses in emerging European golfing countries such as Albania, Romania and Russia, while I also have contracts in Switzerland and Italy."
His work on the practice facility in the grounds of McIlroy's Belfast home is especially interesting. "It's actually growing in as we speak," he said of a complex which contains three par-threes and a large, separate green in the middle.
"We put in different types of grasses, including A4 Creeping Bent which is the grass at Augusta National. We've poa annua sod (meadowgrass) which replicates different courses that Rory would play throughout the year. Then there are fescue and rye grasses on approaches, grown at different heights and different densities."
Does this mean McIlroy will be unusually well-prepared for this year's Masters? "We were trying to get part of it in play before Augusta so Rory can practise there on fast greens," said Clarkin. "However, indications are that it won't be ready until May, given that it was only between July and September last year that the seed went in."
Meanwhile, he sees little cause for optimism in the Irish market. "Because of certain facilities going into receivership, green fees have been driven down to unrealistically low levels, simply to get revenue through the door," he said. "This must lead inevitably to closures. As is happening in the US, the market here is effectively in the process of righting itself from a situation of serious over-supply."
Didn't he feel any guilt for his part in the lunacy? "Not personally," he replied. "I am essentially a golfing man, unlike developers who saw golf primarily as a way of selling real-estate. That's where the over-supply stemmed from, while marketing people were promising unrealistic memberships."
In this context, had he actually advised against certain developments? "Absolutely," replied Clarkin. "Of, say, 20 projects I've looked at in the last six months, I advised against half of them. It's in our own interests to develop successful, quality products rather than being associated with failure."
In the longer term, there is the prospect of contributing to a time when a Chinese takeaway may be associated with the plane of a golf-swing, just as readily as it is with prawn crackers.
Sunday Indo Sport