Making golf more affordable is key to the growth of the game moving forward. In many parts of the world the cost to play golf is unachievable for many on a low to middle income. This situation has not been helped by:
- significant cost to develop golf courses on land not wholly suitable for golf, requiring additional investment in earth movement, drainage, etc
- designing golf courses that are excessive in every way, e.g. scale of manicured turf, length, bunkering
- building golf courses to the highest specification or wrong specification, which then requires high cost maintenance, in terms of human, materials and machinery resources.
These costs need to be recovered and typically the golfer is made to pay.
Of course, this is not the case everywhere. The golf model in developed countries such as the United Kingdom, Ireland and in Scandinavia still allows the majority of the population access to golf. In contrast, in some of the developing nations the game is only affordable to golf tourists or high income earners and, in part, this is why golf is seen as being an elitist sport which hardly bodes well for the future growth of the sport.
There are some shining lights of course and Myanmar (formally Burma) is one.
Myanmar could hardly be described as a developing golf nation given that it has nearly 130 golf courses. The game was established in 1887 when the 9-hole Thayet Golf Club was created by Colonel Sinfos of the 11th Bengali infantry and military engineer Richard Barwell, specifically for the health and recreation of the soldiers stationed in the city of Thayet at the time. Since then the game has grown exponentially thanks in part to the military junta who saw golf as a favorite pastime and now almost every large town or military garrison has a golf facility.
On any golf project the size and quality of land will play a major factor in the overall cost. In Myanmar a high majority of golf courses are laid out on land owned by the military and much of this land was well suited to golf because it required minimal earthwork, there is water availability and also an abundance of existing features available to utilise in the design. As a point in case the Yay Tagon Taung Golf Course and Shwesaryan Golf Resort, both about a 45-minute drive outside of Mandalay (the second-largest city and the last royal capital of Myanmar), are routed through spectacular natural terrain featuring mountains, rivers and stunning flora like the local flamboyance trees, together with pagodas which reflect the cultural heritage of the country. In both these cases the design is uncomplicated, lacking in excessive design features. This gives the golfer the opportunity to focus their attention on the plethora of existing features which helps define the experience and creates a memorable golf journey.
Embracing natural features on site will always improve the golf course, the golfing experience, the cost of construction and then maintenance. Creating a strong sense of place or identity that is closely linked to the surrounds (and greater surrounds) should be the goal of any golf architect and developer and this is only possible when local features are integrated into the design, including at times man-made features. This is highlighted at the The Bagan Golf Club where up to 14 ancient pagodas, built between 9 and 11 AD, dot the play areas and create the drama. The cost of building and maintaining these features is nil but they are the essence of the course; take them away and the difference would at once be felt. In some cases, features off the site - in the distance - can improve the experience like the Popa Taungkalat Monastery which frames many of the holes at the Popa Golf Club and adds to the thrill of playing this 9-hole course.
The choice of grass is one of the most important decisions that will impact on the cost of maintaining a golf course. If you want to keep inputs and costs to a minimum you would look to choose a local grass - something that already grows in the region with very little intervention. This is certainly the case in Myanmar where almost every golf course is covered in broadleaf carpetgrass or Zoysia matrella (both these grasses are local and thrive in the climatic and terrain conditions). The majority of the golf courses have Zoysia matrella greens which provide an excellent playing surface yet requires minimal care and grows well in the shade. In Myanmar they understand that going local is the best way to limit maintenance costs without compromising the playability of the golf course.
Today golf course superintendents are some of the most highly trained, highly skilled people in the golf business. The equipment that they use is some of the most sophisticated and high tech. In Myanmar, however, a high percentage of maintenance equipment is tailor-made or archaic. Whilst the result may be conditions not as good as those found on “expensive” modern golf courses, they are still very satisfactory and more importantly the cost of maintenance is greatly reduced. Some golf courses I visited in Myanmar like Popa Golf Club had a maintenance budget of a couple hundred dollars a month and this goes for many more like Yemon Island Golf Club just outside of Yangon. Also, to keep costs to a minimum many of the golf courses in Myanmar are managed and maintained by the local community, providing a source of relatively cheap labour, who also use the golf club facility for other recreational purposes.
The R&A has recognised the need for enhancement of the basic stock of machinery at clubs in Myanmar. With the help of the Myanmar Golf Federation, in 2012 The R&A identified nine of the most deserving clubs to be recipients of pedestrian green mowers and trailed gang mowers through its machinery donation programme. Find out more about this programme here
Thanks to the factors I have discussed above, a game of golf in Myanmar is very affordable. At the majority of golf clubs like Thayet and Yemon Island the cost to play 18 holes is approximately $1 for locals. In the case of the Yangon Golf Club (perhaps the most recognisable in Myanmar with nearly 3,000 members and up to 60,000 rounds per year) the cost for 18 holes is as little as $7. In fact, the only cost factor hindering more people taking up the game is the initial outlay of purchasing a set of golf clubs. In my opinion, if we are to grow the game responsibly then we are going to have to look at places like Myanmar as a case study moving forward.
The R&A has produced guidance on the development of affordable golf facilities and you can download this document here
The GEO Foundation has produced a Standard and certification for new golf developments. Learn more about this here
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not those of the R&A.