Teeing off: the changing face of golf

With golf now firmly viewed as a mainstream sport thanks to its inclusion in the Olympic Games, Vision considers the increasing popularity of international tournaments and their economic impact on host cities

When the first player tees off at Rio de Janeiro’s Reserva de Marapendi course in August 2016 it will mark the return of golf to the Olympic Games after an absence of 112 years. It will also symbolise an incredible transformation that has taken place in the sport since the start of the millennium and even before.

“Golf is a sport played by more than 60 million people in more than 130 countries on six continents, with numerous activities and projects taking place around the world to grow and develop the game, attracting people of all ages and providing pathways for them to progress and stay involved in golf for life.”

These words are to be found on the website of the International Golf Federation (www.igfgolf.org), the umbrella organisation for more than 20 national and international golf tours, from the USPGA to the Asian Tour, and the body responsible for supervising golf’s historic reintroduction to the Olympic Games.

“The perception of golf is changing as it’s becoming more accessible, and particularly in countries where it’s not so developed,” says Antony Scanlon, Executive Director of the IGF. “Now that it’s an Olympic sport, the recognition it’s getting from governments and National Olympic Committees is aiding that. By being part of the Olympics, it’s legitimising itself as a sport rather than a pastime in many countries.”

The Dubai leg of the European Tour is hosted by Jumeirah Golf Estates

China is a good example of this: while the number of new players and courses is growing by the day, there is also a boom among children playing golf. “In China we now see it as a school subject, with a pathway being established from schools through to elite programmes,” says Scanlon.

“At the last China Games, each province had to provide a team for golf, and so they’re having to develop a structure which feeds into those teams. In Nanjing at the Youth Olympic Games this year we’re running a sport development programme, and programmes like that are sprouting up across the whole of China. If you don’t have youth development programmes your sport will wither and die.”

Female contingent

Asia, meanwhile, has already become a centre of the women’s professional game, and much of the growth in participation across the world is coming from women. In the Netherlands, it is the fastest growing sport among women and is now the third most popular sport in the country for women and girls. But, as Scanlon points out, the growth is based on solid foundations.

“We’ve always had strong female participation,” he says. “Golf is one of the few sports that females are able to earn a living from and the first time women competed at the Olympic Games, in 1900, golf was one of the five sports to include women competitors. So there’s always been a strong tradition of women participating in golf.”

Golf, of course, remains big business at the top end of the game and nowhere more so these days than in the United Arab Emirates. The 2013 DP World Tour Championship at Jumeirah Golf Estates delivered a US$44 million gross economic benefit to Dubai, according to independent research commissioned by tournament organisers, The European Tour.

And while the city and the country as a whole benefit financially from major tournaments featuring the world’s top players, the game in the UAE itself is also prospering. “I was at the HSBC in Abu Dhabi this year and was amazed at the number of families that were there on the Friday, coming to watch the golf and young kids participating in the other activities there,” says Scanlon.

“By attracting the best players to the UAE it’s promoting golf tourism but also developing the game at the grassroots level. I think young kids seeing players like that have role models to aspire to, and I gather the UAE also has a very good development programme to capture those young kids in order to develop the game.”

So from the very top of the game to the grassroots, golf is reinventing itself the world over in an attempt to make itself more and more sustainable. Asia is leading the way, with players like Shanshan Feng and Andy Zhang on the cusp of global stardom, and Rio 2016 will be a golden opportunity to showcase the changing face of golf.