Notes from the Asia Pacific Golf Summit

The Asia Pacific Golf Summit in Kuala Lumpur in late October highlighted the degree to which people who make their living in the game are praying that the decision to include golf as an Olympic sport, starting in 2016 in Rio, will revive our moribund industry. The Summit was a pretty typical example of its species—the regional golf show, featuring various industry insiders, most of whom pay for the privilege of parading their expertise before a captive audience. Some of the speakers had interesting things to say, but for most of the industry insiders, sitting though those panels and speeches felt like groundhog day.
The summit was held in the new Putrajaya International Convention Center, a setting whose grandeur dwarfed the event. Looking like a space ship sitting atop one of the highest hills around KL, the PICC was designed with security in mind. There is no possible way that protestors could gather anywhere near the place. The hillside below it is steep, and at its base along the main entry road there are several large lakes—the moat redeployed in the age of stinger missiles.
When Jack Nicklaus came in to speak on the last morning of the Summit, he looked up at the three hundred or so people scattered about an elegant auditorium capable of seating 2,800, and remarked on the sparse attendance. It says a lot about the state of the golf business that Nicklaus would fly halfway around the world to address such a small conference. And he wasn’t the only eminence in attendance. Peter Thomson, the Aussie who won The Open Championship five times and whose design practice has largely focused in the Asia Pacific region, gave the conference keynote (and celebrated his 80th birthday at the awards banquet). Arnold Palmer made a taped video appearance. Gary Player, fit and dapper, came not just to entertain but to engage in some serious discussion. He’s been concerned about managing golf courses with less water for some time. I was on a panel with him in Cyprus several years ago where he spoke passionately about the golf industry’s reluctance to take on the challenge of reducing water consumption. “One golf course,” he said in KL, “uses the same amount annually as 60,000 people.” I’m not sure where Gary got that number but it sounds pretty alarming.
Player ‘s public image mystifies me. Everyone who’s ever heard him speak agrees he’s the most entertaining guy in the business. He’s as friendly and open as someone carrying the burdens of fame can be. And yet among his generation’s triumvirate, he is certainly the least appreciated in America—perhaps because he was a prominent white South African in the age of apartheid. And yet when Charlie Sifford was inducted into the World Hall of Fame, he chose Player to introduce him, and made clear in a moving speech why Player was accorded that honor. Player, who is younger than Sifford, was already a star when Sifford was finally allowed to play on the PGA Tour. Sifford related that Player was sometimes taunted during tournaments by opponents of apartheid. Yet not only did Player not defend apartheid, Sifford said, he was one of only a handful of established pros to welcome Sifford and offer him support. Sifford, who was a tough man, also identified with the challenges Player faced as an outsider—a wonderful irony, all in all. But because I admire Sifford so much—I carried a copy of “Just Let Me Play” to Florida in hopes I could get him to sign it for me, the only time I have ever asked an athlete or celebrity of any kind to sign something for me—Sifford’s admiration elevated Player’s stature for me, and I had already liked him when we had met face to face.
The real goal for the experts at events like the Summit is getting a leg up in identifying potential clients attending the event. During the Summit’s (infrequent) breaks, golf course architects, clubhouse architects, course operators and builders, vendors of irrigation systems and bunker liners and maintenance equipment, all scurried around looking at name badges hoping to identify prospects. Then you have to hide the quarry from your rivals. The best way to do this is maneuver so your back’s against a wall and the client it looking only at you, preventing him from looking over your shoulder and discovering that Gary Player is standing six feet away.
Jack Nicklaus also said something I had never heard before. When he was young, he said, but already the best player in the world, Nicklaus played occasional exhibition matches against club champions. Because they knew their courses well, and could get around in the ideal positions—the A positions—these amateurs would sometimes beat Jack Nicklaus! Now, he said, there is absolutely no chance that a good amateur could beat a top touring pro, because the pros hit the ball so much further, they overwhelm any course’s defenses. It’s better to be long than accurate. Better equipment may make the game easier for hackers, but rather than closing the gap between the duffer and the great player, these upgrades have opened a chasm. Marginal improvement in a great player means more than a even a large improvement for Everyman.

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