Golf losing its swing?

SGA hopes to encourage golf clubs to be more accessible, possibly allowing those without memberships to play at an affordable price.
SGA hopes to encourage golf clubs to be more accessible, possibly allowing those without memberships to play at an affordable price.ST FILE PHOTO

Less 'push' to use golf for networking, and club memberships no longer an appreciating asset

Once a must-have in Singapore, golf club memberships appear to be losing their appeal among young people now, said members of the golfing community here.

The announcement on Jan 4 that Raffles Country Club (RCC) would be acquired by the Government to make way for the Singapore-Kuala Lumpur high-speed rail, as well as the Cross Island Line's western depot, has reignited discussion on golf clubs' attractiveness.

Of the active golfers in the Centralised Handicapping System here, just close to 10 per cent are aged 35 and below, said Singapore Golf Association (SGA).

There is less "push" in some industries to use golf to network, for one thing. Ms Linda Neo, a former business manager in the medical device industry, picked up golf some 15 years ago in the hope of networking with doctors.

But since about eight years ago, a code by the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, a trade group which represents companies in the pharmaceutical industry, required that companies should not provide healthcare professionals with activities such as golf outings. This has made it less advisable for companies to sponsor golf games for clients, said Ms Neo.

  • Membership prices may pick up slowly

  • Membership prices at golf clubs have dipped from 2014, but brokers expect prices to gradually pick up with fewer clubs around in the future.

    Ms Madeline Choo, golf director at Active Golf Services, said membership prices as a whole have dropped by 10 to 20 per cent since 2014, with people not getting into the market as golf club leases got shorter.

    Currently, memberships are buoyed in part by existing club members. "We see a lot of parents buying memberships for their children to pick up golf," Ms Choo said, but this is not a large number. "If their parents are golfers, they automatically become members, until they have to buy a new membership at the age of 21."

    But recent developments have driven up renewed interest in clubs. "Since the news (on Raffles Country Club) broke, prices at other clubs such as Warren and Seletar have gone up," said Ms Fion Phua, a Tee-Up Marketing Enterprises broker. Within two days of the Jan 4 announcement on RCC, the membership price at Seletar Country Club rose from about $42,000 to $43,000 while that of Warren Golf Club rose from $21,000 to $23,500, she said.

    RCC will have to hand over the land by July 31 next year. It is the second club to face closure to make way for the high-speed rail project, after Jurong Country Club. With the closures of Keppel Club and Marina Bay Golf Club when their leases expire in the next decade, there will be 13 golf clubs here by 2030 - down from the 17 now, and 22 in 2001.

    Ms Phua said there will always be some demand for clubs. "Some condominiums have facilities that are similar to country clubs', but none of them here has a golf course," she said.

    Seow Bei Yi

There also used to be more public areas for young people to play golf.

In 2001, there were 22 golf clubs but there are now 17.

"Now, the only chance of playing is if you join a club, if your parents have a club membership, or if you go to Malaysia," added Ms Neo, who bought a weekend membership in a club in Johor about five years ago.

Even so, for professionals like realtor Nicholas Huang, 32, golf is still a way to "build relationships" with business partners.

Retiree Alex Eow, 65, a member of RCC, said not many young people are picking up golf partly due to time constraints, as it can take up to six hours to complete a game.

"It is a different era now," he said.

When he first joined RCC in 1988, he said, "golf was very fashionable, not only in Singapore, but also globally".

Golf club memberships are also "no longer what young people look for as a sign of success", said Ms Madeline Choo, golf director at brokerage Active Golf Services.

And it does not help that golf club memberships have lost some of their shine for investment.

Membership prices have fallen since 2014, but there has been some pick-up recently.

Mr Huang, who plays golf once a month, has no intention of owning a club membership.

"I don't see it as an appreciating asset. It may be a prestige, but I'd prefer to have things that will go up in value, such as property," he said.

He added that his friends who bought memberships at $20,000 or more were unable to sell them off at a higher price.

Cost is another factor keeping young golfers away from club memberships. Marketing manager Cheryl Ang, 24, used to play golf competitively in secondary school and was a junior member at a country club.

Upon turning 21, she decided not to buy a membership. "It's really expensive. As I'm working now, I have to support myself, and don't have time to continue playing."

In the face of such challenges, some clubs here are taking steps to woo younger players.

Singapore Island Country Club is considering renovating and reconfiguring its new course from a traditional two nine-hole layout into a three six-hole format.

This set-up, which is rare, has been suggested as a way to shorten the game and broaden golf's appeal.

Courses are usually designed in loops with players starting on the first hole and returning to the clubhouse after completing the ninth.

This takes some 21/2 hours, with 18 holes taking double the time. Playing six holes requires about 90 minutes.

Mr Ross Tan, SGA's president, said the declining popularity of golf clubs is a "chicken-and-egg" issue.

"If there are more programmes and facilities for young people, I believe there are many who will still want to find a way to play golf."

He added that SGA is looking to introduce golf to schoolchildren, from Primary 1 or 2.

Moving forward, SGA hopes to encourage golf clubs to be more public-friendly and accessible as well, possibly allowing those without memberships to play at an affordable price, he said.

"This is how you breed a new group of golfers," he added.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 15, 2017, with the headline 'Golf losing its swing?'. Print Edition | Subscribe