Singapore

Shrinking interest and facilities

Golf in Singapore facing a double whammy

Golfers in Singapore can be forgiven for feeling their sport is under siege.

If anything, the Singapore Land Authority's (SLA) shock announcement this week that it was acquiring the Raffles Country Club (RCC) property in Tuas has simply added to this sense of uncertainty.

On Wednesday, the SLA gazetted the acquisition of the 146ha site occupied by the club along Jalan Ahmad Ibrahim to house facilities for the Kuala Lumpur-Singapore High Speed Rail (HSR), the Cross Island Line's (CRL) western depot and other transport-related needs.

The Land Transport Authority and SLA emphasised that the RCC site was found to be the most suitable location to run at-grade HSR tracks immediately after the bridge crossing and to place the tunnel portal leading to the underground tunnels that would take the HSR to the Jurong East terminus.

The site will also be used for required HSR crossover tracks and an HSR siding facility to temporarily house a train near the border for safety or operational reasons, if necessary.

This comes over a year after the Government announced the acquisition of the 67ha 18-hole Jurong Country Club (JCC) site just down the road from RCC.

The authorities have also refused to renew the lease on Keppel Club's property at Bukit Chermin, forcing it to shutter in 2021. And the popular Marina Bay Public course will make way for development in a few more years.

Over at the Singapore Island Country Club (SICC), members are still digesting the fact they will lose their beloved Sime Course to the NTUC (to replace the Marina Bay public course).

And SICC is also likely to be forced to give up its Bukit Course, which is rumoured to be earmarked for NTUC-controlled Orchid Country Club in 2030 (when the latter's land at Yishun is acquired for development).

Meanwhile, the expansion of Changi Airport has already seen National Service Resort & Country Club (NSRCC) lose its Air Force layout, while Tanah Merah Country Club's (TMCC) Garden course has seen a drastic realignment and shortening. All in all, not a rosy scenario for golf or golfers in Singapore.

NOT INTERESTED

In reality, the sport faces two critical challenges here. First, it has to compete for land against other economic uses. Second, it has not been able to spark enthusiasm among the young.

As far as land is concerned, the SLA and other relevant agencies have been constantly reviewing Singapore's land use as the nation's population heads towards the 6 million mark and beyond. New technology and increasing demand have meant that previously unusable land - which was allocated for golf clubs - can now be used more productively.

The average membership age (at Singapore golf
clubs) is almost 60 years.

Keppel Club's land will ultimately be used for housing development, as will Orchid CC. JCC and RCC will give way for transporation and other infrastructure. Marina Bay will make way for the extension of the CBD. Even land that courses such as Warren Country Club and the nine-hole Changi Golf Club stand on could potentially face competition for other uses.

Given such circumstances, no golf club in Singapore is assured of retaining its real estate for eternity. And those who do manage to get lease renewals may have to pay premium pricing reflecting the enhanced economic value of the land.

The question is: Given that most clubs do not make money anyway, how many will be able to afford significantly higher lease renewal charges?

Then there is the second factor that is impacting the game in Singapore. Some call it the "squash" effect.

Remember the 1970s and 1980s when the game of squash was the most popular racquet sport in Singapore, and perhaps around the region? Remember squash stars such as Zainal Abidin and Peter Hill? But where is squash today? Who are its stars today? How many people play the sport here any more?

While golf is not in such dire straits yet, interest in the game among the younger set has yet to match that in the 1990s and into the 2000s when the Tiger Woods phenomenon swept the world.Golf club membership brokers, equipment-makers and sports retailers note a steady decline in demand for memberships and golf-related products from today's younger executive crowd.

Most millenials are too busy building their careers and have no time for five-hour sessions on the fairways. Running and other high-intensity sports seem to be the in-thing with the 30-something crowd.

Internal market research by golf equipment manufacturers shows demand coming largely from existing golfers, mostly in their late 40s, 50s or 60s, rather than new entrants to the sport.

Not surprisingly, with falling numbers of new young entrants to the sport, most clubs here are faced with a membership profile which is ageing rapidly.

The average membership age is almost 60 years, with many having bought their memberships in the late 1980s and 1990s. The phenomenon is not unique to Singapore.

In the US, which is the world's largest golf market, the National Foundation of Golf reported that falling enthusiasm for the sport has resulted in about 160 of the country's 14,600 18-hole facilities being shuttered last year - marking the eighth consecutive year of net closures.

So, as Singapore goes through another stage of transition, the outlook for golf courses and the sport itself looks uncertain.

Today, Singapore has 13 clubs catering to some 30,000 members. By some estimates, the value of investments in golf club memberships here exceeds $3 billion.

In about three years, at least four existing clubs would have disappeared.

While one cannot argue with the strategic needs of land-scarce Singapore, golfers will nevertheless be hoping to continue enjoying access to a fair number of courses here, even as the sun seems to be setting on their beloved sport.

This article appeared in The Business Times yesterday.

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