2004: Our Opinion - Needed: Golf missionaries

If any conclusion can be drawn from Golfweek’s three-part series on the “Asian Influence,” which ends this week (page 32), it’s that the region holds tremendous sway over the global game.

Most Westerners still associate golf in Japan with exorbitant club memberships and three-tiered practice ranges packed with fanatics. That’s outdated imagery. With the unexpected collapse of Japan’s golf boom, the nation’s powers-that-be find themselves scrambling to implement grow-the-game initiatives they never thought they would need. If they can transform golf from a corporate experience into a popular sport for the masses, they’ll be able to revive – much to the industry’s relief – the world’s No. 2 golf market.

Korea has staked its claim as the dominant force in women’s golf. There’s little evidence to suggest that Korea won’t continue to produce world-class players in numbers disproportionate to the size of the country. As for its contributions to the global golf economy, Korea has limitations. Course development is restrained by geography and resource allocations, which in turn probably will limit widespread participation because of a lack of accessible facilities. In the foreseeable future, Korean golf consumers likely will occupy the high end of the wealth pyramid.

The future of golf in China is anyone’s guess. It’s population alone suggests it one day could become the largest, if not the most influential, golfing nation in the world. But questions abound. Can China sustain its robust economy? Will golf become an Olympic sport, thus prompting the Chinese central government to promote it as a “people’s game?”

It’s not inconceivable that China could change the balance of power in world golf, in a number of ways. For instance, should China continue to accumulate vast wealth, it would only be a matter of time before it began moving off shore to acquire assets and diversify portfolios. Chinese ownership of a major golf property or big-name equipment brand is hardly far-fetched.

Meanwhile, there are countless opportunities for people from countries with an established golf history to put their golf expertise to work in Asia. Golf “missionaries” could play a significant role in shaping the destiny of the global game.

Such missionaries wouldn’t be sent out to impose their beliefs on another culture, but instead to help emerging golf nations avoid certain pitfalls – such as neglecting to build public courses even when history shows that the high-end, private-only model is risky – and help educate consumers about the values and traditions of golf, the aspects of the game that cross all political, socioeconomic and geographical boundaries.

“In terms of where the rubber meets the road, that’s the golf professional,” says David Fay, executive director of the U.S. Golf Association. “I think there are opportunities for golf professionals, irrespective of what their nationalities are.”

Japan needs help as it attempts to change golf from a status symbol to a mainstream recreational pursuit.

The more Korea succeeds on the world stage, the higher demand will become for public golf – requiring creative solutions to play the game in close quarters.

The China Golf Association has acknowledged that it lags far behind the curve when it comes to administering the game in that country.

With the help of a little missionary zeal, golf indeed can become the “world game,” played consistently around the globe and enjoyed equally by all.

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