IT’S a “sacred journey” that has been made by hundreds of thousands of American golfers. Now the wheels have been set in motion for another mass of golf-hungry visitors, this time from China, to start descending on St Andrews in years to come.
Chief executive Euan Loudon claimed the decision by the town’s Links Trust to give the green light for its first overseas academy – it is being built at The Island Golf Club in Haikou and opens next April – had “nothing to do with money”.
Even taken at face value, that isn’t strictly true, of course. The Links Trust has already secured a signing fee, will get another lump sum on a successful completion of the project then continue to receive revenue-based payments. Viewed in a broader sense, it is all about money. In one fell swoop, the Links Trust, the charitable organisation that manages the town’s courses, has tapped into the biggest growing golf market in the world. A timely move, too, given that direct flights from Edinburgh to Hainan are in the pipeline.
China already has 605 operating courses – more than Scotland – and the surface has barely been scratched in terms of participation in a country that has a population of 1.5 billion. According to the latest government white paper on the sport, the vast majority of Chinese golfers – 1.5 million – only play once every two months. Even the “regulars”, a 350,000-strong contingent, get out on the course just once every fortnight.
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The same document estimated growth at 15 per cent every year and that could accelerate if a bid to make it more affordable is successful. At present, the average cost of a green fee at the lower end is around £50, while at the top end it’s likely to be between £200-£220.
By all accounts, the game in China has been mainly influenced so far by the Americans. Courses in gated communities has been the dominant concept along, of course, with mass development. Take Mission Hills, for example. It has 12 18-hole courses designed by some of the game’s legendary names, both players and architects.
The approach being taken at The Island, where a par-72 course has been designed by Tom Doak – the American’s work includes The Renaissance Club in East Lothian – is totally different. The man behind it is White Horse Holdings co-founder Zi Ding Han. He also owns the Golf Channel in China, and is a hugely respected and influential figure in that country.
He wants to use St Andrews, with its history and reputation, as the model for educating Chinese golfers. “He is trying to nudge golf there in a different direction,” observed Loudon after the ground-breaking licence agreement had been signed. According to Han, the Chinese have a bigger thirst for history than many other cultures so is confident they will lap up the St Andrews story.
Steve North, the Links Trust instruction director, has been tasked to ensure the new facility feels like the one operated by the Links Trust in its home town. On the ground, Richard Sheridan, who formerly worked at The Wisley under leading coach Denis Pugh, will head an instruction team comprising of ex-pats and Chinese coaches.
Having strongly defended the use of the “St Andrews” name in recent years, the Links Trust will no doubt be criticised in some quarters for allowing its brand to be used some 6,000 miles away. But, on the face of things, it looks an outstanding piece of business for the town as a whole. “This is about exporting values and authenticity of what goes on around here,” said Loudon. “We will be promoting St Andrews on a broader stage. We want people to come on that ‘sacred journey’ to the home of golf at some stage in their golfing life.”
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