Golf clubs face pressure from land use needs

In January, the Government indicated that some golf courses might have to make way for other land use such as housing.

The announcement indicates that an important policy shift could be in the works. Golf course land, previously as good as out of bounds, is now eyed more closely as part of the land use equation, and may be converted for other uses.

In the past, vast tracts of land were used for golf courses because they were deemed unsuitable for anything else. The Government rarely took back land from a golf club when its lease expired.

One of the rare occasions involved Warren Golf Club near Dover Road in 2001, as space was needed for the expansion of the National University of Singapore. However, the club was offered an alternative site.

The January announcement has created uncertainty over whether current golf club leases will be renewed. Membership prices have therefore fallen.

Members of Keppel Club, which has about eight years left on its lease, are especially nervous. Even at clubs with longer leases, the knowledge that part or all of the land can be acquired if there are more pressing needs, has given members the jitters.

Are golf courses and golf club memberships still relevant today as Singapore gets more densely populated? It may seem that golf courses take up a large amount of space. But estimates are that they occupy around 1,500ha, or two per cent, of Singapore's total land area.

Historically, having a rigorous basis to decide how much land was allocated to golf courses was probably not a top priority. Instead, golf courses occupied land that had limited alternative use, for example, near water catchment areas or the airport.

The first golf courses were in fact legacy courses, dating back to the British colonial period.

The 1990s

SEVERAL golf clubs in the early 1990s were still holding temporary occupation licences (TOL), which had to be renewed annually. In those days, some clubs were charged as little as $12 per year for taking up large tracts of land.

Clubs expressed concern that there was little security of tenure. At the same time, with clubs raking in profits from their membership sales, transfer fees and golfing activities, the Government moved to price the land on the basis of what it was worth.

In May 1991, then Law Minister S. Jayakumar announced that the Government would offer longer leases with an average 30-year tenure to clubs with TOL.

But he added that golf clubs would also have to pay market rates for the leases.

The 30-year tenure was similar to those for land set aside for other institutions and buildings for community uses, such as schools and hospitals.

Putting an expiry date on the lease gave the Government the flexibility of taking back the land if it was needed for development purposes, while allowing clubs to make longer-term plans, industry players noted.

The rates for the lease renewal were based on NatSteel's successful $131 million bid in 1991 to build two courses at a 126ha site near East Coast Parkway - now known as the Laguna National Golf and Country Club.

At the same time, more land was set aside for new golf clubs in a bid to make the game more affordable and accessible to all Singaporeans, including workers and national servicemen.

Pressure to optimise usage

TWO decades on, Singapore's population has swelled some 70 per cent to around 5.3 million. There is therefore growing pressure for more space to be allocated to housing, transport, health care and recreation.

From an urban planning perspective, golf clubs rank low on the hierarchy of land use needs. Private golf clubs here serve an estimated 30,000 members and any argument for exclusivity will be further weakened as population density increases.

What next?

ESSENTIALLY, members are paying for the right to enjoy a club's facilities and amenities for the duration of its lease.

But golf - despite its reputation as being an old man's game - may in fact be gaining popularity.

Based on data from the Singapore Golf Association's website, the number of golfers who registered their handicap with private clubs or golf communities has gone up by nearly 30 per cent since June 2009 to more than 35,000 golfers.

Government agencies should take into account this growing body of enthusiasts who may enjoy the game but are deterred by the high cost of golf club membership.

Already, many keen golfers turn to Malaysia and Bintan for that weekend golf game.

As the authorities work on reducing the number of golf courses and the ideal amount of land they should occupy, however, it is up to the golf clubs to justify the rationale for their existence.

If a minimum utilisation rate for courses is imposed, clubs will have to consider widening their membership base or make golf courses more accessible to a wider spectrum of golfers.

For example, the authorities could encourage a larger proportion of golf courses to be converted to public courses.

Or they could require private golf clubs to open more slots to non-members during the off-peak periods in the week.

In this way, reducing the amount of land for golf courses not only frees up more land, it also means more people get to enjoy existing golf courses.

rjscully@sph.com.sg