DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – Listening to Greg Norman here has been a bit like listening to a Bruce Springsteen song.
“These jobs are going, boys, and they ain’t coming back,” Springsteen sings in “My Hometown.” Norman sang a similar dirge with his state of the globe speech here before this week’s Dubai World Championship.
Unlike “My Hometown,” which ends with Springsteen’s protagonist being forced to pack his bags and head to newer territory, Norman at least offers some salvation. However, he made it plain that golf’s gravy train has left the station.
Not that we needed Norman to point out the obvious. One look around Dubai tells you that the global recession has bitten hard. Supposedly a fifth of the world’s cranes are in Dubai. Appearances suggest most of them have mechanical failure because very few are in operation. The economic downturn has turned the power buttons off.
Nearly every villa around the Earth Course is unfinished, as is the clubhouse, while the infrastructure around the facility in particular and Dubai in general is what one local described as “Band-Aid solutions.”
At least the golf course is finished, which is more than can be said for Norman’s other commissions. “We have seen golf courses get put in mothballs,” Norman said.
Norman has gone from successful golfer to successful businessman, so when he speaks, it pays to listen. Despite the recent gloom, there is some movement on golf-course construction.
“We are starting to see a lit bit more of a flow of the credit coming through,” Norman said. “A lot of the projects we had parked all around the world are starting to come back on-line now.”
The closure of golf courses and hotels worldwide, along with other businesses, is not new. For example, it is estimated that some 100 courses will close in the U.S. this year. Hotel closures should be more dramatic, according to Norman.
“It’s all been great for 18 years, and, yes, there’s been a bit of a hiccup. The same can be said of a lot of developments and resorts in the United States. Look at the U.S. in general: 500 hotels are going into foreclosure next year. Nobody writes about that, but that’s a reality. The shared demise of the global economy is not just here in Dubai. It’s everywhere.”
Golf is not immune to what’s happening in the world, and Norman says tours and players are going to have to cut their cloth as a result.
“The PGA Tour is suffering,” he said. “The European Tour has got to work hard. We have all got to step up to the plate. I think the most alert thing that could happen would be for the players to be very alert to that. It’s not going to be like it used to be. It’s tough in business.
“I think players, when everybody was taking cuts in their employment, cuts in salary, I actually made the comment, to make golf look good and responsible to what’s happening with the rest of the world, maybe they (the players) should be, too. I hate the players to look recession-proof. I think the younger players don’t see it because they have never been through it before.”
If there is a bigger silver lining among the storm clouds, then Norman sees it in recent news.
“Golf going into the Olympics (beginning in 2016) was a huge shot in the arm,” he said. “Countries like China, like South America, like India, the Asian countries are really going to come through. That was the best thing that could happen to international golf.
“Just talk about China. By 2020, there’s going to be more golfers in China than in the United States if it keeps growing the way it’s growing now.”
Golf has always been the ultimate Darwinian version of sport. There is nowhere to hide on the fairways, and survival of the fittest is what counts. It will be the same with the business of golf, according to Norman.
“You have to have the flexibility and awareness that when the pendulum swings back the other way, is your business model in place to survive these times? It’s a global situation where the bad times really flush out the weak and the good really survive.”
But one thing’s for sure: There will be no return to the status quo.
“I don’t think the era of the ’80s and ’90s will ever return,” Norman said. “It’s just not going to happen. We are not going to get back to making a lot, a lot of money.”