Course supply in Korea lags behind demand

Locals like to describe this island off the southern coast of South Korea as the “Hawaii of Asia.” To thousands of newly married Koreans and fellow Asians, Jeju is a top honeymooning destination.

In some ways, that’s how people in the golf development industry generally see all of South Korea right now. It’s one big honeymoon.

Since LPGA star Se Ri Pak’s meteoric rise – sparked by her 1998 U.S. Women’s Open victory as a 20-year-old rookie – golf has been as hot on this peninsular nation as its signature kimchee dishes.

“It’s the healthiest market in the world,” says O’Brien McGarey, president of Denver-based Dye Designs Group, whose course design company has almost a dozen projects in South Korea either open or in some form of development. He says the sheer potential of the market isn’t “as big as China, but it’s very healthy considering the size of the country.”

Indeed, with approximately 170 courses for 48.3 million people in a nation that’s only slightly larger than Indiana, Koreans are starving for golf. That’s one reason why there are an estimated 60 new golf facilities in some form of planning or construction, according to several industry experts in South Korea and the United States.

“We can support 400 golf courses,” says engineer and architect Tiger Song of The Golf Design Group in Seoul, who has had a hand in developing more than 70 courses in Korea, along with his former boss, Myung-Gil Kim of Field Consultant. “Everything is going up. There’s more interest and demand. We have a lot of money, but not golf courses. It’s a big problem.”

So much so, the Korean government estimates its citizens took 300,000 golf trips last year outside of the country.

“A lot of golfers go to Thailand, Philippines, New Zealand, even China,” says Song, who estimates there are more than 3 million active golfers in Korea. “That’s a lot of money leaving.”

One reason Korea is experiencing such an exodus of golfers is that it has only 50 public courses for its growing golf population. The other 120 are ultra-exclusive clubs built in the mountainous countryside at an average cost of $80 million-$120 million, where moving 5 million cubic yards of dirt – 10 times the U.S. average – isn’t unusual.

Dye Designs’ Vision Hills Golf Club, a 5-year-old course carved into the mountainside about 30 minutes outside of Seoul, is a perfect example. It is built in tiers, or with fairways on top of each other.

Song, who helped design the property, says about 70 percent of Korea is mountainous, which means only 30 percent is developable land. Such scarcity means gaining approval for a golf course project is extremely difficult. That explains why demand should remain high for years to come.

“Let’s say there (are) 3.5 million golfers and 200 courses that sell 1,000 memberships,” McGarey says. “That’s 200,000 memberships for 3 million-plus golfers. Do the math.”

Jeju Island officials did just that, and have discovered satiating that demand to be lucrative.

A government-endorsed golf course boom on this 1,845-square-kilometer island has helped transform Jeju into a famous destination for travelers from northeast Asia locales such as Beijing, Shanghai, Tokyo, Hong Kong and Taipei. Jeju aspires to more than double its annual visitors to 9.9 million by 2011 and rival Singapore and Hong Kong as one of the top tourist spots in Asia.

The Korean government made its tourism goals a priority when it designated Jeju Island as a “free international city development center” in May 2002. This special designation offers a variety of tax and visa-related incentives for business development, and golf course developers were one of the main beneficiaries. In other words, what can typically take years in permitting and as much as $5 million in taxes for a course on Korea’s mainland can be cut in half on Jeju.

David Smith, president of Los Angeles-based Golf Projects International, knows the island well as operator of the Club at Nine Bridges, one of the swankiest private clubs in the world.

Opened in July 2001, Nine Bridges was developed by Westernized Korean tycoon Jay Lee at a cost of more than $125 million, plus another $25 million for 22 planned Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired villas. Featuring Korea’s first wall-to-wall bentgrass course and employing former U.S. Golf Association agronomist Jim Connolly, Nine Bridges was unveiled to the world during the inaugural LPGA Sports Today CJ Nine Bridges Classic that Pak won in late 2002. The privilege of membership costs $350,000.

“The only place golf is growing is in Asia, and Korea is No. 1 by a mile,” says Smith, who owns and manages about a dozen other courses in England and the United States.

“Japan has over 2,000 courses for twice the number of people. (Korea’s) one place where demand far outweighs supply.”

Just how aggressively is Jeju Island marketing itself as a golf destination? Tourism officials exhibited at this year’s PGA Merchandise Show in Orlando, Fla., touting its 13 courses and 27 facilities under development.

Architect David Dale – who co-designed Nine Bridges with partner Ron Fream of Golfplan, a Santa Rosa, Calif., firm – envisions Jeju Island evolving into a destination similar to Hilton Head Island, S.C., or Palm Springs, Calif.

“I think they’re just playing catch-up,” Dale says. “They’re trying to meet the demand and emerge as an international destination.”

With such exponential growth, of course, comes some understandable concerns. Will the golf bubble burst, much like what happened in Japan?

No, says architect Gary Roger Baird of Global Golf Design in Nashville, Tenn..

“I just don’t see that happening in Korea,” says Baird, who has a handful of projects in various stages here, including a 72-hole facility being planned as part of the new 5,000-acre Incheon International Airport.“People aren’t just running helter-skelter building courses. That’s what got others in trouble.

“The projects in Korea, they plan for years and years because they have respect for the won (Korean currency), and they love their land.”

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