The Shark’s Bullish On Asia
When the “Great White Shark” starts circling, expect some game-changing news. Golf legend and the hugely successful entrepreneur Greg Norman aka the ”Great White Shark” has always been vocal about trends in golf and as a highly focused businessman, he is one who is never reluctant to speak his mind. He recently accorded an exclusive interview to ASIAN GOLF and during this session, he was very insightful on various aspects relating to the future of golf and he was also very forthcoming on the future directions of the game especially as it related to Asia.
Norman who is an old Asia-hand is region, “The most exciting thing for me these days is very bullish about the future of golf in Asia and his assessment of the re- gion is based on solid facts combined with his stepped up business activity on the Continent. Generally speaking, he is bullish about golf, PERIOD! Just before he spoke to ASIAN GOLF, he paid special tribute to American President Donald Trump for giving golf a boost. Appearing on Fox Business, he told the show’s host Stuart Varney, “The game of golf has been in the doldrums, but now it’s not and I want to thank President Trump for pull- ing us all out of it.”
He said that he’s seeing momentum pick up in his golf course development business in America.
“We are actually seeing pre- global financial crisis days in my golf course design business.” he said and went on to emphasise, “And it is a true economic indicator about the stability that’s been happening with deregulation of a lot of things. We are seeing it here in the United States — the uptick in our business, not only in just the soft goods but in the consumer products and golf courses.”
This bullish sentiment carries through to golf in Asia and this is how Norman sees the the dynamic growth we’re seeing in the Middle East and Asia. Vietnam, Malaysia, India, Oman and Jor- dan are all places we’ve been very active in recently and I feel confident that we’ll see healthy growth in those regions for years to come. I really enjoy being a part of the success of these emerging markets and using what I’ve learned in other parts of the world to help build a sustainable footprint for golf.”
It is most encouraging to hear a golf great and arguably one of the most respected entrepreneurs in sports to speak about golf with such optimism. It comes as a breath of fresh air after years of the industry languishing in a state of laggardness.
How Norman views golf’s future in Asia comes as a much needed shot in the arm for the golf indus- try. He does not mince his words when it comes to rationalizing the growing up-tempo business mood: “I’m very bullish on new course development in Asia; particularly in countries like Thailand and Vietnam. If you look at the economic figures and steady growth of tourism, it’s pretty impressive. We’ve been working in Vietnam since 2004 and have seen tremendous growth there, so I’m a big believer in that market. I also look for China to re-emerge at some point due to the sheer demand for golf there.”
What more can one say! Norman has spoken and he has shared his vision for golf and its place in Asia. It’s a viewpoint that is in concert with the boom- ing economic conditions in all of Asia and Norman gets it!
ASIAN GOLF is proud to present excerpts from its inter- view with the Australian golf super-star cum entrepreneur.
ASIAN GOLF: You have been a massive presence in golf over the decades – as a world-class professional golfer, an active advocate for the game, a passionate activist on sustainability and often, as an outspoken critic of the golf establishment. You have kept yourself relevant always by re-inventing yourself. With this incredible career in golf, share with us your thoughts on the current state of affairs with the game at all levels?
NORMAN: On a professional level, I think the game is as healthy as ever. It’s great to see so much talent out there and such a diverse group of international players having a legitimate chance of winning each week. I’m also very im- pressed with the amount of respect they all seem to have for one another. It was very similar when I first started playing professionally. I think that’s extremely healthy for golf on a global front and encourages the general population to take more of an interest in the sport.
With golf participation in the United States having been fairly flat for the last couple of years, we’re starting to see an upswing there as non-traditional venues like Top Golf, Drive Shack and indoor simulators continue to introduce people to the game or create a renewed interest.
ASIAN GOLF: For quite some time, the game has been languishing with clubs shutting down, rounds on the decline, attrition of players and although the gate-keepers have tried various initiatives to grow the game, the success rate has not been one to shout about. Are the game’s bureaucrats doing the right things to arrest the hemorrhaging and to get the game back on the right path to growth?
NORMAN: From a growth perspective, we are certainly seeing some positive signs of change from the governing bodies of golf, but I think we still have a ways to go. One thing I stress to all of our golf course design clients is to think outside the box and make golf more accessible to all age groups, particularly the kids. Let them do their own thing on the course in a relaxed environment and they will learn the same life lessons from the game that our genera- tion did, just in a different way. I think that there’s been some resistance to change for fear of the core values of the sport being compromised, but at the end of the day you still have to answer to yourself for your actions and decisions on the course. That’s how those values are instilled through golf, not by how much you paid for a membership or what you’re wearing on the course.
ASIAN GOLF: Observers claim that golf has not been made relevant to the mixed demographics of today’s society that is tiered by generations of Gen Xers, Gen Ys, Millennials etc. – generational groups that don’t share the same perspective of the game as the generation that helped grow the game – the Post War Baby Boomers. What are your thoughts?
NORMAN: There’s no doubt that the Baby Boomer generation is critical to the present and future success of golf, but as with everything, their idea of what golf should be is evolving too. The more I see new technological advancements in the game, the more I see these men and women opening up to change. It may not be happening as fast as we would like it to, but I firmly believe that we are breaking barriers with new golf technology. For example, a millennial may not even hesitate to download a golf app that tracks their shots with the camera on their smart phone, but a baby boomer may be somewhat intimidated by the technology. As they are increasingly exposed to it and eventually try it out, it’s like an entirely different aspect of the game to them. I’ve experienced it myself and I’m a big believer that technology will ultimately be one of the key factors in effectively crossing generational barriers in golf and making the game more fun for everyone.
ASIAN GOLF: Given the fact that we now live in a day and age that is faced with disruptions in virtually all fields of human endeavor, has the time come for golf to be disrupted big time to become more appealing to younger generations that want to see the game change from their fathers’ game to one that they can call their own?
NORMAN: No matter how you look at it, golf has to adapt to a more time-sensitive, technology-based cul- ture. My design team and I started focusing on that sev- eral years ago and we’re now building everything from barefoot courses where you can play in board shorts and pick your next tee shot to six-hole layouts that can also be played as twelve or eighteen-hole rotations from different tees. Again, it offers a no pressure atmosphere where a golfer can post their favorite shots on social media, play music or use an electric skateboard instead of a cart and have fun with the game without burning five hours.
ASIAN GOLF: In Asia, given the scarcity of land and other natural resources, some governments are exploring the possibility of curtailing the growth of golf. There is a general consensus that golf takes up too much valuable land, pollutes the environment with fertilizers and pesticides and poisons scarce water reserves. Against this backdrop, do you think that the time has come for golf course owners and operators in Asia to become active upholders of sustainability, an issue which is not taken too seriously? Your comments.
NORMAN: Environmental sustainability has been a fundamental pillar of my golf course design philosophy since I started my golf course design company in 1987, so this is a subject I take very seriously and discuss with my design team and our clients quite often. We have also been fortunate enough to collaborate with several different organizations and even government agencies throughout the world to help establish regulations and policies that promote sustainable golf development. Having been in this position, it has been extremely chal- lenging at times to work in Asia. However, there seems to have been a significant shift of awareness in recent years and I’m particularly impressed by the efforts we’ve seen in Southeast Asia. The more we can work to find a balance of golf and nature the more accepting these countries will be. And they will ultimately prosper from it both culturally and financially.
ASIAN GOLF: Many courses have been developed in various parts of Asia over the last thirty years. While some were well built and well designed, the same can’t be said for many others. Are the mistakes of yester- years being repeated?
NORMAN: I think to some degree they are being repeated. But by the same token, I think that there are more developers who recognize that better quality will bring a premium and that there is a legitimate market for that now throughout Asia. Whether it’s a home, villa, hotel room, or a round of golf, consumers will pay more for higher quality. And competition is certainly ramping up in certain parts of the region.
ASIAN GOLF: You are an old Asia hand when it comes to golf course development – in this context what do you have to say to new course owners on what they should do to attract more players and what should be done to retain the players. Also, do you feel that more has to be done to attract women and children to the game in Asia and how should it be done so as to ensure a high level of retention?
NORMAN: I always encourage our clients to focus on “differentiation” - what they can do to set themselves apart. Again, you have to think outside the box. Whether it’s an eco-themed resort that incorporates local culture or a six-star resort with every amenity imaginable, you have to offer something unique to your part of the world. It’s the same with golf. And the type of hybrid and short courses I mentioned earlier are going to appeal to every family member, especially women and children. Once a developer has achieved that, it takes a commitment to excellence to maintain a level of exclusivity. That’s one area that I see many developers fall short in all parts of the world, but particularly in Asia. Many times a developer will execute well on the concept, but doesn’t follow through on the delivery and upkeep. We see this lot with new golf course developments throughout Asia and its very disappointing considering the amount of effort and expense that went into these projects.
ASIAN GOLF: Let’s switch gears and talk about Asia - Asian players and their place in profes- sional golf. You have always been a source of en- couragement for young players. How do you look upon Asia’s young stars and their performance on the PGA Tour, European Tour and the LPGA? Do you see the Asian presence growing exponentially in the years to come?
NORMAN: With the Asian women holding nearly half of the top 50 spots in the world rankings, I don’t think anyone would argue that it’s been noth- ing short of domination by them where women’s golf is concerned. But to be fair, the men have been at a disadvantage for many years because of competing tours; the Asian Tour and One Asia. The rivalry between the two has been a huge setback for men’s golf in Asia, but we’ve seen much more engagement from the US PGA Tour and European Tour in recent years and the results speak for themselves. It’s all about creating more opportu- nities for the players and it seems to be headed in the right direction now, so it wouldn’t surprise me at all to see many more male Asian golfers enter the world rankings.
ASIAN GOLF: When do you see a world number one from Asia and can we have you speculate on what you think his nationality would be?
NORMAN: Hideki Matsuyama nearly reached the top spot in 2017 and I think he’s currently around 20, so he could easily a make a run at it next season. Judging by the current rankings, I would have to say the first Asian golfer to reach no. 1 will be Japanese or South Korean. Those countries have the numbers as far as Asian representation in the rankings and they’re playing a lot of events.
ASIAN GOLF: Do you see China ultimately becoming a dominant force in the professional game of golf given the emphasis that is now being placed on the development of junior golf in that nation?
NORMAN: I had the opportunity to work with the China National Golf Team as an Advisory Coach leading up to the Rio Olympics, so I’ve seen first-hand the depth of talent in the country. The kids there have an incredible ability to absorb and process instruction and they are very technical by nature, so I feel confident that China will continue to produce top level players like Shanshan Feng and Li Haotong. The challenge there lies in consis- tent instruction. Tenniel Chu and I have discussed the subject a lot over the years and have actually worked together on a few different initiatives to promote youth golf in China, but it’s hard to achieve consistency with the many influencing factors that athletes have to deal with there.
ASIAN GOLF: Given your intimate knowledge and understanding of Asia, can you give us your assessment as to what the future of golf looks like for this diverse and sprawling continent go- ing forward?
NORMAN: I’m extremely excited for the future of golf in Asia and I truly believe that the region has the potential to double the number of golf- ers in the world with government support and a sustainable plan for growth in areas with the most potential. With the focus on development shifting from more mature markets like Japan and South Korea to emerging countries in Southeast Asia, there is a huge opportunity to showcase these magnificent locations and position them to pros- per for centuries to come. I feel very fortunate to have been a part of that growth to this point and I’m looking forward to working there for many more years.
ASIAN GOLF: Finally, after three years of research and expenditure, the venerable R&A and its partner across the pond, the USGA, have come up with what they consider to be radical and major changes. Have they done right? Have they done enough? Will the changes impact the growth of the game in terms of attracting more people to take up golf?
NORMAN: I certainly think the changes are step in the right direction and will have a positive effect on the overall enjoyment and growth of the game. But I think the timing and effectiveness will come down to how successful they are at educating golfers on how much more relaxed the new rules actually are. I could see where the learning curve could take a while, but hopefully the changes will take hold and make the game more fun for the masses. I’m all for it.
Norman will be in Asia as the guest of honour of the 2018 Asia Pacific Golf Summit that will be staged in Bangkok on November 1 – 3. One of the highlights of his visit to Thailand will be his induction into the Asia Pacific Golf Hall Of Fame and this prestigious award will be bestowed upon him at the 2018 Asian Golf Awards.