Golf in Asia: Under the Microscope

As the international golf community prepares for the President’s Cup, a biennial golf tournament that pits the best players from the United States against the best non-European players from around the world, Asian countries are putting their eyes on golf.

The game in Asia, full of contradictions and issues that must be resolved, is under the microscope, a sport with US$100 billion spent on travel worldwide. It is popular and beneficial to the countries that focus on it. With that kind of money spent on golf travel, there is no other sport with that kind of tourist pull, because no other sport with its popularity depends so much on the venue upon which it is played.

A world-class golf course can support an entire local economy, as it has the capability of bringing in tourist dollars from all around the world. In 2012, Thailand was ranked as the third largest golf destination in the world, behind only the United States and Spain. That may be surprising, as the United Kingdom is regarded as the home of golf and boasts many famous, ancient destination courses.

But the lure of tropical weather and other non-golf related tourist activities makes Thailand a desirable destination for golfers and aspirants. It’s especially popular with Scandinavians and other Northern Europeans looking to escape their cold climates and enjoy sunny days on the golf course followed by beautiful sunsets on the beach.

The sparkling green golf courses come at a cost, however. Many courses use non-native grasses and thousands of pounds of fertilizers, weed-killers, pesticides, and other chemicals to achieve the look that’s so attractive in tourist brochures. These chemicals can do horrible things to the surrounding ecosystem that may eventually cost more to repair than the economic boost that the resorts provide.

But, as a sport that’s played outside, surrounded by nature, golf doesn’t have to be a negative influence on the surrounding ecosystem. It’s actually uniquely positioned to be a bastion for preservation, as companies like Scotland’s Golf Environment Organization offer advice and certifications for making golf courses more environmentally friendly.

Many courses are now focusing on how to make native grass environments still look and play as attractively as imported grasses. They also create more “native” areas instead of having lush rough that requires tons of water and fertilizer to keep green. These native areas are often more attractive, more playable and play better hosts to local wildlife.

Golf course architects are focusing more on finding effective routings that don’t require overhauling the local terrain, and provide better water and soil management. By effectively controlling water flow and runoff, they’re able to design courses that are more self-sustaining and require less intervention from the greenskeepers.

Natural wildlife habitats are also becoming more and more prevalent as features of courses. This helps minimize displacement of local flora and fauna, and makes for a better experience for the golfer. Spotting interesting wildlife is one of the most fun parts of destination golf.

However, there’s still a lot of work to be done. The “Augusta National Effect” is still widespread, as greenskeepers feel pressure to deliver conditions on par with the course that hosts The Masters every year. If you visit Augusta National, you’ll find the most pristine conditions possible: perfectly manicured fairways, greens and flowerbeds with nary a weed in sight.

But that’s a production put on for one week of the year: by August, the course is fully browned out and play is suspended for the year. Asian courses don’t have that luxury, so there needs to be something of a perception shift on the part of the golfer. Brown spots on courses don’t have to mean bad conditions -- just look at many of the venues that host The Open Championship each year.

Golf has other impacts outside of the environment that also must be taken into account in Asia. While Japan enjoyed a huge boom in the sport’s popularity in the 1980s, participation waned as the global recession hit in the ‘90s. This forced many of Japan’s expensive, exclusive private clubs to either close entirely or open themselves up to the public. Many bankrupt courses were purchased by investors like Goldman Sachs, who streamlined operations and turned the courses public.

But in countries with limited space and ever-growing populations like Japan, Taiwan, and Thailand, the amount of land that golf courses take up can be problematic. Private, expensive golf courses are being phased out and public courses that are more accessible to both residents and tourists are becoming the norm.

Golf courses are expensive to maintain, but maintaining them in an ecologically friendly manner will often actually cut the maintenance budget, as less mowing and watering is required. There are also fewer chemical applications in eco-certified courses. This can help to justify the land requirements for a golf course, which are generally between 75-150 acres. Seeing as how a quarter of an acre can generate enough food to feed a person for a year, some countries may have trouble justifying the land use of a golf course.

However, a single great golf course can sustain an entire community. Tourists need places to stay, entertainment for non-golfing travelers, restaurants, nightlife, and more, all of which makes it easier to understand why a golf course can be an effective use of space if it’s managed properly and productively.

Japanese golfer Hideki Matsuyama will be on the President’s Cup team, as will China’s Haotong Li and possibly Taiwan’s C.T. Pan. Thai golfer Jazz Janewattananond is hoping to garner a captain’s pick, as is South Korea’s Sungjae Im. The women’s golf world is currently dominated by Asian players, with two Koreans topping the Rolex World Golf Rankings and six out of the top ten representing Asian countries. As these popular Asian golfers make more and more inroads on the professional golf scene, it’s important that countries understand the positive economic and environmental impact that courses can have.

There are billions of golf tourist dollars up for grabs, and Asian golf is getting more popular every year. Which makes it imperative that new golf courses are built responsibly, and older courses take steps to reduce their potential negative impact.

Photo from Chris Urbanowicz