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A caution sign on the road to Asia

SAN DIEGO – The way Bruce Charlton tells the story, the global business that now is Robert Trent Jones II emerged almost accidentally – the result of slightly different interpretations of geographical boundaries between the firm’s patriarch and his son.

When Bobby decided to follow in his famed father’s footsteps, Robert Sr., known as Trent, set a friendly noncompete: I’ll stay east of the Mississippi, and you stay west of it.

“But what (Trent) didn’t realize was, that if you keep going west, it eventually becomes the Far East,” said Charlton, the firm’s president and chief design officer.

Four decades have passed since the younger Jones first trekked to Asia. Though the opportunity for new business certainly appealed to Bobby, Charlton said, what really sent him packing was a passion for world culture.

It’s a premise that hardly resembles the motivations driving golf’s version of a gold rush to the Far East. Indeed, an anemic U.S. golf market, further weakened by the recession, has triggered a scramble to cash in on golf’s potential in Asia. But Charlton’s insight – shared at Golfweek’s Roadmap to Asia, a symposium co-hosted with Asian Golf Monthly and the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America – needs to be remembered if Asia’s promise truly is to be fulfilled.

There’s a reason why everyone from the PGA Tour to equipment manufacturers to course architects is crossing the Pacific. Asia’s land mass is twice the size of the U.S.’s and holds a population of 3.3 billion – more than 10 times the number of Americans. Yet, in the entire region, there are roughly 4,200 golf courses, which is less than a third of the tally stateside, according to the Asian Golf Industry Federation. Simply put, golf’s growth appears inevitable.

In China, some projections call for the number of courses to increase 30 percent annually. There’s even a golf boom of sorts in Vietnam. One industry expert only half-jokingly describes North Korea as “the Korean Reserve for golf course development” – expecting its communist regime to fall, giving golf a chance to become as popular as it is in South Korea.

But the way the game is emerging overseas is troubling. Already, it’s mostly restricted to the wealthy, and there’s little effort to make it more appealing to a younger generation. (That’s a major issue for Asia’s largest and most mature golf market, Japan, where a startling 60 percent of golfers are 50 or older.)

Blame such shortsightedness on greed or a desperate need to make money quickly. But if golf’s business leaders don’t embrace Asia’s diverse cultures and invest the time to grow the game uniquely in each country, they’ll recognize the Far East as a market they know all too well.

A stagnant one.

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