Wednesday, June 19, 2002

Paddy's Sports View 19th June 2002

The massive expansion of golf around the world in the last few years is such that the choice for the golfing aficionado has never been greater. The construction of golf courses, and the associated leisure facilities, is a potential source of considerable revenues for the developed world and the developing world alike. If you have a good climate, available water, reasonable access to an international airport and suitable land then a golf course can be a very profitable investment. And in many ways Dubai is a model for other parts of the world. From the early days when the construction of the Emirates “Majlis” course from out of the desert seemed almost miraculous, we now take for granted the fact that a bare desert landscape can be converted into rich green fairways.

The burgeoning of golf tourism and the opportunistic creation of new golf courses to meet the demand not only widens choice, but also makes golf far more accessible for more people. When I was young in England in the post war years golf was a traditional, and rather elitist game. The courses dated back fifty years or more and all of them were member’s clubs which only tolerated non-member players with great reluctance. The club in Kent that my father was a member of used pricing and prejudice to keep out players who were “undesirable”! I remember driving to the club one day and as we approached the road which led to the clubhouse I noticed a prefabricated, metal roofed building on the course. I asked my father what it was and he said (somewhat shamefacedly) that it was the “Artisans” hut. He explained that the Club committee some years earlier had decided that there was a potential source of revenue available from “Artisan” (working class !) players. These players paid a small subscription for which they were allowed to play on the course on weekdays (when it was not so busy) - but they were not allowed to use any of the club’s member’s facilities or to play at weekends. Whether this golfing “caste” system still exists I doubt (I certainly hope not). Hopefully the massive growth of new facilities in Britain over the past few decades (including the construction of some excellent new “public” courses) has made such socially divisive systems unnecessary.

The need to keep a balance between the needs of members, and the requirements of casual players (especially holiday makers) is a tricky one to achieve. Many Emirates members feel that there are too many visitors on their courses and they resent the fact that it is not always easy for the members to get a tee-off time on popular days. But it is at Nad Al Sheba that some of the members are most aggrieved at what they see as an excessively commercial focus in recent times. A few months ago my wife and I were playing with a friend in a three-ball and as we reached the twelfth hole a marshal zoomed up in a golf cart and dumped a new player on the tee. This player was a visitor (paying cash no doubt) and on a busy afternoon the only way that the Club could accommodate him (and take his money) was to insert him into our three-ball. The fact that we were more than halfway into our round, and that we had developed a pace and style of play, was irrelevant. Now any golfer knows that the quality of a round is hugely affected by the interaction with your playing partners. You establish a way of playing, and to have it disrupted in this way was very unsettling.

Nad Al Sheba has become much less of a member’s club and much more of a commercially driven business in recent times. Indeed it is difficult to see what the advantages of membership are (other than the right to play in club competitions). The new membership structure is so complicated that even the club officials don’t really understand it. And one of the basic rights that members of gold clubs around the world enjoy (the right to sign for purchases and receive monthly accounts) has been taken away and you actually have to deposit money with the club if you want to have signing privileges!

The golfer (including the Dubai golfer) has never had more choice. Nad Al Sheba and the other clubs need to make sure that they cherish their members if they want to keep us in the future!