Putting for keeps

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Amidst a flailing economy and changing sports trends, the Garden Route golf industry’s willingness to adapt and work together has not only resulted in a significant upturn in business but also reconfirmed the region as the jewel in the Southern African golf tourism crown.

WORDS Athane Scholtz PHOTOGRAPHS Supplied

It’s no secret, golf has suffered. An expensive, exclusive sport was always going to take a knock in the global economic crisis. And, in an era when time is money and relationships instant, an afternoon on the golf course means sacrificing elsewhere, be it productivity or family time. Pezula Golf Club general manager, golf industry consultant and former CEO of Fancourt, Ingrid Diesel, says the golf industry worldwide suffered significantly between 2009 and 2013. “At the core of survival lay an important decision, which not all golf establishments were willing to make. It meant laying down the traditional principles of the sport – which had always been formal, financially exclusive and mostly for men – in favour of survival.

“Most golf courses could no longer survive on membership fees alone and opened to non-members and walk-ins, throwing local and overseas tourism markets wide open. The Garden Route’s reputation as the ultimate golfing destination in Africa was soon re-established, and this time without restrictions or limitations,” says Ingrid.

“The Garden Route’s golf courses rate among the best in the country and the world, and are within easy driving distance of each other. Combined with a weak rand, foreign tourists can now experience world-class golf in one of the most scenic places in the world, at a fraction of the price of almost anywhere else.

“Many of the region’s golf courses were willing to market themselves together as a destination, which meant tour operators and self-drive tourists could plan itineraries around golf and add tourism activities such as game drives, sea adventures and forest hikes.

“These days, golf courses are booked to capacity in advance from November to March and our down-season shrinks every year. The Garden Route’s mild winters make it easy to sell winter stay-and-play packages, which have also extended the season.

“An unanticipated associated benefit was the golf merchandise, especially top quality branded clothing, which started flying off the shelves. Golfers were collecting branded t-shirts and caps from every course they played, to the point where Pezula made a decision to double the size of its Pro-shop to keep up with demand,” says Ingrid.

Pinnacle Point golf director Nic Grundtvig took over the reins during the recession, after the estate’s original holding company was liquidated and the Pinnacle Point home owners association (HOA) assumed control over the golf course.

“We made the difficult decision to not make golf course membership compulsory to owning property on the estate. At the time there were very few homes here and the HOA did not want compulsory membership to be detrimental to property sales.

“After being tied up in the liquidation, the golf course needed some serious TLC and our first priority was golf course restoration. Once the course was back in shape, it regained its reputation as a bucket list course. We also opened the course to non-members, reduced playing rates and invested in targeted advertising and marketing,” says Nic.

While re-establishing itself on the international tour operators’ radar reaped benefits, Pinnacle’s situation outside Mossel Bay, on the most western edge of the Garden Route golfing mecca, and the course’s relative difficulty offered unique challenges. “The self-drive market between Cape Town and Port Elizabeth benefited us in particular, and we have become the first and the last stop on the top golf journey. We have several lodges available for self-catering accommodation and make play-and-stay packages available for this purpose. Our location next to the Garden Route Casino also has great benefit.

“While Pinnacle will never be considered an easy course, we have made an effort to make holes more attainable by offering different tee-off positions that reduce difficulty and present more fun. The HOA is also investing in alternative sources of income, such as facilities for non-golfing partners and children as well as conferencing and functions, and has plans for a spa and indoor pool,” says Nic.

The industry agrees the profile of golfers has changed significantly and now includes women and children, while in the retirement segment couples golf has increased considerably. A new family-focused culture has required golf clubs to incorporate facilities and activities for non-golf playing spouses.

George Golf Club (GGC) council chairman Jonathan Monk says research has shown the biggest issues in golf course survival evolved around disposable income, rising costs and time constraints. “Golf takes long. Working people can no longer spend an afternoon or a day on the golf course, and the time of business deals being sealed on the golf course is mostly over. From a golf course management point of view, if we can reduce the time on the course and maximise enjoyment, our business market will grow and we will have more tee-times available, which ultimately means more revenue.

“The principle extends to families – if we can facilitate dads spending less time on the course, or get his family to join him during or after a round, everybody wins. The after-golf clubhouse culture is now more important, so making moms and children feel welcome ensures additional income and creates a community spirit.”

With 1150 members, the GGC is the largest municipal membership-based golf club in the region, hosting up to 45 000 rounds per annum. As a good-value-for-money course in a fast- growing town, the club recognised the need for a dedicated, professional golf manager and restructured to facilitate the appointment of Lloyd Martindale, now at Fancourt, and later current manager Sandra Lennox.

Jonathan says the structure change enhanced the club’s profile and it is currently rated 15th overall in the Golf Digest Top 100 golf courses in South Africa. “We wanted to compare favourably to our world-class surrounding courses and possibly cash in on golf tourism. The protected location and design of our course meant any day is a golf day, even when elsewhere was exposed to the elements.

“The approach paid off with 60% of the club’s revenue being generated by non-member income,” says Jonathan.

One of the most established golf and resort estates in the country, Fancourt continues to be the standard against which others are measured with two of its three golf courses in the Top 10 and the other 16th.

However, the brand has not been untouched by the recession and trends, which among other things saw its Bramblehill golf course close down, and resort restructuring and staff cut-backs in recent years.

As an established residential estate, expansive hotel offering and sports resort, Fancourt’s golf model is significantly different from other Garden Route courses. It is the only local estate that still requires membership for property owners, and play is not open to non-members unless invited by a member or as a hotel guest. “There are only so many tee-times in a day, and members and hotel guests should be ensured of playing time,” says golf general manager Lloyd Martindale.

The Fancourt residents profile has also changed, with 50% now permanent residents, many of whom are families with school-going children, and subsequently a new generation of golfers for whom golfing is integral to their growing up.

The country’s number one golf course, Fancourt Links, has proven another recession point – at the top of the income bracket, there remains a platinum class golfer for whom the tradition of golf remains exclusive. The $100 000 Links membership fee for non-property owners, and $60 000 for residents, has not frightened away players at the top end of the market, but has rather become an economic milestone like a sports car or designer jewellery.

“Fancourt Links owner, Dr Hasso Plattner, decided to raise the exclusivity bar further with fencing between The Links and the rest of Fancourt, and longer time periods between tee-offs so greenkeepers can move unseen in front of and behind players, creating a feeling of being alone on the golf course. This is a proper private club, enforcing dress codes and rules, and membership is by invitation-only.

“The more we increased exclusivity, the more membership grew. Links membership stands at 80 and there is a cap, which once reached, will increase value and exclusivity further. Our figures, and those of our neighbours, confirm that golf on the Garden Route is healthy and has potential for real growth. The future is green,” says Lloyd.

How local courses compare
March 2016 Golf Digest Top 100 ratings:

  1. Fancourt Links
  2. Fancourt Montagu
  3. St Francis Links
  4. George GC
  5. Fancourt Outeniqua
  6. Simola
  7. Pezula
  8. Pinnacle Point
  9. Oubaai
  10. Plettenberg Bay GC
  11. Kingswood
  12. Mossel Bay GC
  13. Goose Valley
  14. St Francis Bay GC
  15. Knysna GC