Golfers are so passionate about their game that it prompted the legendary architect Pete Dye to say, “The ardent golfer would play Mount Everest if somebody put a flagstick on top.”
To date, no one has had the ambition to build a course on the world’s tallest mountain, but given the game’s amazing overseas growth during the last few decades, it might not be out of the question.
Today, golf course architects from the United States are jumping into the international marketplace with both feet, finding their skills in demand on projects across the globe. China has been driving most of the growth over the last 20 years, which saw new course construction proceeding at a blistering pace.
Things have slowed considerably in China over the last few years, but a number of architects have taken advantage of golf’s growing global presence. Three prominent designers – Brian Curley, Dana Fry and Rick Robbins – say that while there are significant challenges associated with working outside of the U.S., it can also be an incredible, rewarding experience that provides a lifetime of memories.
Furthermore, architects aren’t the only professionals whose skills are needed by foreign builders. Much of the overseas demand involves renovating and reconfiguring existing courses, and skilled superintendents with a touch of wanderlust will find their skills in demand if they choose to enter the international marketplace.
Major shifts in Asia: China and beyond
Virtually every industry has been affected by the amazing period of growth in China during the last 20 years or so, and golf is certainly no exception. Despite a formal ban on new course construction, an incredible number of new courses were built there from 2000 to 2014.
Chinese officials technically started to crack down on new course construction in 2004, but that didn’t stop plenty of new courses from being built over the next decade. It merely ensured that those courses would be built with little oversight – and lots of corruption. Since its stricter enforcement of the new-course ban in 2014, the government has tried to work out its conflicted feelings about the sport.
“My experience has been that many of the [Chinese Communist Party] members see golf as a beneficial recreational activity, but the building of new golf facilities is a different issue from playing golf,” says Rick Robbins, founder of Robbins & Associates International, Cary, North Carolina.
It isn’t that Chinese officials are opposed to golf; rather, they wanted to stop the illegal and uncontrolled use of land and resources that had been so rampant since the mid-2000s.
However, the government does need to develop a coherent and consistent approach to golf before major growth resumes in China, Robbins says. “The real issue is finding the best way to have the long-considered ‘capitalistic’ sport fit into their socialist system without appearing to be an exception,” he explains. “My feeling is that it will take some time to allow the CCP to go from a complete ban on golf-facility expansion to one of support for new courses. My best guess is it could happen in two to three more years, but it could happen next month – or never.”
Brian Curley, co-founder of Paradise Valley, Arizona-based Schmidt-Curley Golf Design, agrees that golf will regain momentum in China. It might not be for a while, though and will probably never regain its former pace.
“I do not see any market becoming a dominant player for many years,” Curley says. “Never will there be a surge on par with what China did over a 15-year window. Other markets will emerge, but much more in realistic response to consumer demand than with the hopes of developing a large market of new players. China may very well become the next hot spot, but I believe it is a few years off.”
Until that time, Chinese golf enthusiasts won’t stop playing; they will just have to find other places to do it. Golf vacations to nearby countries like Thailand and Vietnam have become quite popular, but locations as far as Africa and the Middle East are showing signs of increased activity, as well.
South America has been lagging relative to most other parts of the world. Only a few years ago, Brazil was developing into a major economic powerhouse, but financial and political scandals have put the brakes on growth, according to Dana Fry, principal with Fry/Straka Global Golf Course Design in Dublin, Ohio.
“Countries such as Brazil would like to develop more golf, but their economy is so bad now its not feasible,” he says. “As the economies in Asia, Eastern Europe and pockets of Africa and South America improve, so will the construction of new golf facilities.”
The “Golf around the World” report
One of the industry’s top sources of information on international golf trends is the “Golf around the World” study from The R&A, which released its second edition earlier this year. Formed in 2004 and based in St. Andrews, Scotland, The R&A (http://www.randa.org) engages in and supports activities undertaken for the benefit of the sport of golf.
The 24-page report provides a wealth of information on international golf course planning and construction, including a continent-by-continent breakdown (Figure 1).
All told, that’s 556 new golf course projects (in 18-hole equivalents) in various stages of construction or planning, The R&A says. Much of the new course development (59 percent) is associated with major destination resorts – another indicator of the growing popularity of golf vacations. While some of the courses are expensive enough to put them out of the financial reach of the average player, it’s encouraging that the vast majority of new and planned courses are accessible to the public.
As mentioned previously, China’s current hiatus on the construction of new courses has proved to be a boon for its neighbors in Southeast Asia. Vietnam has 41 facilities in place, according to the report, and 32 more in development. India, with its huge population and growing middle class, has 267 existing facilities and 28 more on the way.
Is the international market right for you?
While the focus of this article is on golf course construction, the opportunities for supers to work overseas are growing, too. It’s not a viable choice for everyone, and there are plenty of caveats. But if you’re looking for adventure and a new challenge, Robbins, Curley and Fry say you will need to:
- Do your homework. If you want to work in another country, the first thing you need to do is learn the basics of its history and culture. If you don’t, your ignorance will likely be interpreted as an insult, and it will cripple your ability to accomplish the next goal, which is …
- Cultivate good references. For markets that are fairly new to golf, the decision-makers are likely to look for well-known, experienced professionals. By far, the best way to overcome any credibility and relationship issues is to be highly recommended by someone the potential client knows and trusts.
- Pay attention to the staff, too, not just the owner. The boss is important, but if you ignore the staff members – or worse, make them feel inferior – they can make your life much more difficult. The ability to read new situations and observe the roles of all the staff, so you know who is in the best position to pass your thoughts back to the owner, is a valuable asset.
- Avoid confrontation. If you are not going to respect the culture and feelings of the local population, don’t go there. Those who say, “This is not how we do things in the U.S.,” should probably stay in the U.S.
- Understand that business is done differently overseas. There are a number of operational challenges to working overseas, not the least of which is getting paid – and enforcing payment if someone tries to stiff you. Getting reimbursed for travel expenses can also be difficult. On the other hand, some owners are less involved with daily operations than they are here, so you might have more freedom to do things as you see fit.
- Above all, be patient and never lose your smile. Traveling and working in other countries will always present challenges, ranging from communication difficulties to scheduling problems to the infamous “Asian business dinners” that usually devolve into all-night drinking sessions. The key is to realize that all of those things are part of the process and view them with a sense of humor whenever possible.
Above all, enjoy the ride. While challenging, getting paid to see the world’s amazing variety of people and places can be an incredible experience and create lifelong memories. “Expect the unexpected, prepare to pay ‘finders fees’ and the traveling life is very hard!” Fry warns. “Despite what I just said, I still prefer building courses outside the U.S. I love the adventure, discovering new places and always looking for that next great site!”
However, while golf’s growth has been impressive over the last decade, new course construction still takes a lot of time.
As a result, most of the work being done overseas is in renovating and upgrading existing courses. “Regardless of whether you’re an architect or a superintendent, if you find the idea of working overseas challenging and exciting, you can find opportunities that would benefit from your skill,” Robbins says. “The need to replace aging infrastructure, add length and change styles of play will always provide a source of projects, and ideas about creating or improving practice facilities – especially short-game areas – will be in more demand.”
You might also find yourself working in a totally different environment than you would in the U.S. “There are tremendous sites available all over the world that would never be allowed to be built upon in the U.S.,” Curley says.