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Golf: what's driving the boom
Written by: Monika Mudranincová
Heavily frowned upon by the former
communist regime, golf has become a local phenomenon of late. Some
play it for the joy of the game, some for business reasons, and
others just want to be "in" - but what's behind the boost
HAVE YOU TOO noticed that whenever you open a magazine its social
pages are regularly filled with golf personalities? We all know
who Alex Čejka and Tiger Woods are, and that golf attracts celebrities
such as Jiří Bartoška and Marek Eben. Why has golf received so much
media attention of late? To all but the devoted golfer who couldn't
live without his hobby, the answer is perfectly simple. Under communism
golf was seen as capitalistic debauchery that had to be suppressed.
Once freedom was achieved, there was an unusual "golf boom"
that has culminated in the last three years. According to Czech
Golf Federation statistics, there are 15,000 registered golfers
in this country, and enormous growth is anticipated. In addition,
golf's exclusive mystique attracted the first wave of post-revolution
individuals to whom making useful contacts was important, whether
for promoting their products or simply being seen with the right
Facts and myths
There exist several myths to which avid golfers are allergic. The
first is the claim that golf is a snobbish excess of the rich, and
that golf involves big business. "The public really does perceive
golf as a sport for those of high social standing," says Lenka
Táborská, a lifestyle and image instructor at the foreign affairs
ministry's Diplomatic Academy. "When you say the word golf,
it occurs to you subliminally that it's a sport for the chosen few,"
she observes. Olga Valtrová, a sociologist, the director of UHI
Bohemia, and a passionate golfer understands why golf has come into
fashion. "When you invite businessmen, politicians, and celebrities
to play golf, you help improve your brand's image. For many people
who want to bring attention to themselves, golf pays off,"
Pavel Bakovský, the general manager of Intermedia Grexim, which
is probably the largest distributor of golf equipment in this country,
attempts to contradict another deep-rooted conviction that golf
is unaffordable for most people. "It's not true that the man
in the street can't afford golf. You can buy the basic equipment
for as little as CZK 20,000, and that's comparable to what ski equipment
costs," he notes. What he fails to mention, however, is that
the costs don't end there. Morevover, there are not enough municipal
golf courses to serve people without cars, or without club membership
fees. But Prokop Sedlák, the vice-chairman of the Czech Golf Federation,
refuses to associate golf with the elite. He thinks that golf is
a game for gentlemen, and that honesty is a given, because referees
aren't involved. If someone cheats and is caught, he becomes a pariah
in golfing circles. Sedlák claims that this is why golf brings together
the "moral elite" from the entire social spectrum.
Golf and business
Then there is the claim that big deals are closed on the golf course.
And again, there are those who unwaveringly defend this theory,
as well as those who say that a person has to concentrate while
playing, and that business enters the picture only at the "19th
hole". In general, golfers appreciate the fact that they can
spend many hours in the outdoors, far from the hi-tech world, the
noise, the stress, and the pollution - their only care being to
achieve the best score possible. But there are noteworthy numbers
of people who don't see this border so sharply, who became involved
in golf as a result of business. For example, Eva Kárníková, the
general director of Diner's Club International, which provides VIP
credit cards, explains that it makes more sense for her to be seen
on the golf course than on a tennis court. "Golf is a clever
sport for business," she admits. Markus Platzer, sales and
marketing director of hotel Inter-Continental makes a similar observation:
"With tennis, you don't get that much exposure. In golf, you
have time. One game can go for 4-5 hours easily," explains
Platzer. "In Dubai, where I lived, fifty percent of all the
business was made at the golf course." And Aleš Janků, T-Mobile's
marketing director, points out that the T-Mobile Golf Tour, which
his company organizes, brought him into the game. To him, golf is
a pleasant experience that allows him to get together with business
partners, friends, and colleagues.
According to the sociologist Valtrová, it's true that golf helps
in business. Although deals aren't generally made during the game
itself, the time spent playing makes it possible to observe how
your partner behaves in extreme situations, and this can serve as
an indicator of what you can expect from him in business. "In
the course of four hours you can see whether his reactions are reflexive
or well thought out, whether he's a cheater or honest. One game
can shorten the amount of time it takes to get to know one another,
which you have to go through with each new business partner,"
Valtrová says. But there's more business involved than making deals
on the fairway - golf itself is big business. Country clubs, the
travel industry, shops specializing in golf equipment, the media,
and even the manufacturers of all sorts of luxury goods (see sidebar,
left) have a hand in the profits to be made from the sport.
Migration of golfers
One of the sectors profiting from this new sports trend is the travel
industry. Winters here are long, and playing indoors isn't very
popular, so there's only one solution. Until the snow disappears
from Czech and Moravian slopes, Czech golfers flee for warmer climes
- a fact that large travel agencies have discovered. While golf
tourism is of only marginal interest to them, it makes a nice addition
to their revenues. Věra Kudynová, spokeswoman for CK Fischer, a
company that has been offering trips for Czech golfers since 1997,
claims that golfers are demanding and well-traveled clients who
know what they want and are willing to spend substantial amounts
of money to get it. This usually involves groups that most often
buy one-week stays in Mallorca, Portugal, and Turkey. Kudynová estimates
that 5,000 golfers used her company's services last year, and as
the number of foreign tournaments increases, interest in this type
of product is also likely to grow.
Another travel agency focusing on golfers is CK Intercontact Praha
(see sidebar on page 26). Marie Jehličková, the firm's owner and
general director, claims that six years ago she discovered a niche
in the market, and that she has watched interest grow since then.
But there are other ways to play in warm climates besides buying
excursions from large travel agencies. This may involve individual
tourism or relying on contacts made on the golf course. For example,
Pavel Bakovský, whose golf equipment shop has probably been visited
by every Czech golfer, organizes customized excursions, mainly for
his clients and friends. "We do it primarily for personal reasons,"
he says, adding that the most revenues come from golf equipment
sales, with tourism serving as only a supplementary activity.
Petr Nitra, PGA (Professional Golf Association) president and long-time
golfer, operates the Nitra Golf travel agency, which is used by
both professionals and amateurs. But Nitra's main business activity
is hospitality; in 1999 he opened a small special hotel, Villa Golfista
in Mariánské Lázně, which offers a golf simulator, a sauna, massages,
and other amenities tailor-made for golfers. During the summer mostly
foreigners stay there, while in the winter the clientele is predominantly
Czech. The fact that Nitra is a member of both the Czech PGA and
the German branch (he operates a nine-hole course in Germany) is
of great help to him, business-wise. So he has ben able to build
his operations thanks to contacts, which is borne out by the 75%
occupancy rate at his hotel.
Just as Czechs go abroad during the winter, our golf courses and
hotels are filled in the summer by golfers from Germany, Austria,
Switzerland, Italy, and Sweden - traditionally, Swedes are the most
frequent golf tourists. Oldřich Nechanický, the manager of, and
head pro at the Mariánské Lázně country club, thinks that most of
our courses are comparable to those abroad, and that there are plenty
of tournaments organized in which they can participate. Each year
about 8,000 players visit the Mariánské Lazně course, about half
of whom are foreigners. According to Nechanický, foreigners come
here because of the high-quality course and the pleasant environment.
His opinion is confirmed by Andrea Ferklová, the marketing director
for the Grandhotel Pupp in Karlovy Vary, which also provides lodging
for golf tourists from Germany and Switzerland. "Courses in
western Bohemia are of global quality, as is our hotel," she
says. This year Grandhotel Pupp contacted other foreign tour operators
that offer services for golfers, in order to expand their client
base. CK Intercontact is also trying to draw tourists to the Czech
Republic, but for now incoming golfers rely mainly on contacts between
clubs. "We published an incoming brochure, and we will organize
press junkets for tourists," says Jehličková, pointing out
that during the recession touched off by 11 September 2001 and last
year's floods, it hasn't been easy to attract golf tourists.
Although golf is gradually shedding its label as a sport for the
elite, the fact remains that big money and those with access to
it are involved. It will probably never be a true sport for the
masses, but it is expected that in the future this country will
become increasingly similar to those in the west, where far more
people can afford the game. What will this require? For one thing,
more courses must be built, so that everyone can play, even fans
in small towns. Clubs and courses will then likely become categorized
as more or less exclusive. And as golfing facilities develop, the
game's image will follow naturally from the players and businesses
that support it.
A bit of history
BEFORE WW I, Czech society didn't know much about golf.
The clubs in western Bohemia were German, they were
associated with spas, and they were visited mainly by
Brits and Americans. In 1905, with great ceremony and
in the presence of the British King Edward VII, the
Golf Club in Mariánské Lázně was founded, while the
Karlovy Vary Golf Club dates back to the beginning of
the 20th century. In 1926 the Prague Golf Club was founded.
While in the prewar period golf was a sport for the
very richest Czechs, between the world wars the first
step was taken to make the game accessible to all -
in 1937 Czech golfers co-founded the European Golf Association,
and the level of their play was on a par with that of
the Germans and the Swedes, which put them among the
Prokop Sedlák, vice-president of the Czech Golf Federation,
reminisces: "In 1952 the communists plowed up the
course in Klánovice, insisting that the upstarts were
exploiting poor children by using them as caddies."
The fact was that they employed children from poor families,
thus giving them a chance to earn a living. These caddies
had a chance to learn the game, and in the 1960s, when
new clubs started coming into existence, they supported
the game's revival. The hypocritical period of Husák's
"normalization" endured golf through clenched
teeth, because the western Bohemian courses were a good
source of hard currencies.
The late Hanuš Goldscheider, a former president of the
Czech Golf Federation, was a distinguished figure, legend,
and guru to all Czech golfers. He was also a member
of the St. Andrew's Golf Club Committee, the organization
that sets the game's rules and principles of etiquette.
Following the Velvet Revolution, his standing as an
international authority contributed to golf's rapid
development in this country.
does it cost to tee off?
"You can't make much money with golf, even though it
involves big money," says Prokop Sedlák, the vice president
of the Czech Golf Federation, summing up the opinions of most
insiders. He is thinking mainly of the operation of golf courses
and clubs. True, they aren't very lucrative in and of themselves,
but they markedly make localities more attractive and bring
revenues to other services associated with the operation of
these facilities. This primarily involves hotels and restaurants
(it was no accident that it was hoteliers who attended the
establishment of the first golf courses in this country).
Course maintenance costs are far higher than most laymen could
imagine, and investments are not returned for decades. Buying
the basic equipment, such as mowers, can cost about a million
crowns. But such equipment is absolutely necessary. "The
grass must be cut to the millimeter, otherwise the course
doesn't meet the required parameters and cannot be recognized
by the federation," Sedlák explains.
Since March of this year, the Czech Golf Federation unites
71 golf clubs with a total membership base of about 15,000.
Although there are only 12 regulation courses in the Czech
Republic so far, there are nearly 30 nine-hole courses. Federation
membership allows a club to take part in championship competitions
and participate in the unified handicap system and the unified
rules. So there is no sense in golf clubs existing outside
the federation. According to Sedlák, most clubs' budgets are
well balanced - allegedly no club here has ever gone bankrupt.
On the other hand, many clubs wouldn't survive without donations
and high fees.
It is these membership fees that account for the exorbitant
sums that people interested in golf pay, ranging between CZK
5,000 and CZK 150,000. But membership in top clubs can be
even more expensive - for example, the luxurious Mariánské
Lázně Golf Club charges CZK 220,000 to become a member. In
addition, members pay annual dues that rarely exceed CZK 10,000.
But anyone can come to play - for a greens fee, or admission
to the course. "Payments from guest fee-payers who visit
the course regularly are our largest source of revenues,"
says Oldřich Nechanický, manager of the Mariánské Lázně Golf
Club. "Our club makes good money organizing tournaments,
too, especially corporate ones," he adds. Last year the
first-rate Karlštejn Golf Club organized two tournaments a
week, on average. Its director, Jiří Matějček, is expecting
heightened interest this year.
Sedlák says that it's a lot easier to make money on golf equipment
than on golf course operation. "The motivation to keep
improving in terms of technology and equipment is ever-present
in golf," he says. There are about five large golf equipment
distributors in this country. "I'd estimate total annual
distributor sales at CZK 20-50 million," says Jiří Simbartl,
editor of the magazine Golf. Pavel Bakovský, the manager of
Intermedia Grexim, the leading golf equipment distributor
in this country, doesn't deny that he's in a good business.
He says that one can reasonably expect future growth of 20-30%.
Nonetheless, Bakovský claims that good equipment - clubs,
bags, shoes, balls, and gloves - can be purchased for as little
as CZK 20,000. "People spend CZK 20,000 for ski equipment
without blinking an eye, even if they use it for only one
week a year. But golf can normally be played for six or seven
months out of the year."
Six years ago Marie Jehličková, the owner of the Intercontact
Praha travel agency, discovered two important things: golf
and a market niche, golf tourism. "They are unlike ordinary
tourists," says Jehlička of golfers. "They're willing
to spend big money, but they require complete service and
a personal approach. For example, you can't send a golfer
on an ordinary charter plane, because it could be delayed."
While other travel agencies followed her lead of devoting
themselves to golf tourism, many have given it up due to the
high organizational demands required. Besides arranging air
tickets and hotels, it is necessary to reserve golf courses
and rental cars and to pay fees, and everything must click,
down to the smallest detail.
Golf tourists who use CK Intercontact Praha's services can
be broken down into three categories: small groups of passionate
male golfers; older couples; and families with children. Intercontact
Praha has a suitable product and destinations for each of
these groups, and (not surprisingly) countries with warm climates
are among the most popular. "Portugal, Mauritius, the
Seychelles, and Florida," says Jehličková, naming a few,
and adding that prices are not unreasonable. For example,
an extended weekend in Europe, which suffices for a golf novice,
can cost as little as CZK 20,000, and a ten-day stay on Mauritius
costs about CZK 60,000.
This owner of an agency with 30 employees is glad that she
took advantage of the opportunity that the golf boom provides.
"We started with golf tourism four years ago, and the
demand has increased by 20% every year," she says. Last
year her agency served about 1,000 golfers, accounting for
about 8% of her firm's total revenues, which average around
CZK 300 million a year.
EACH YEAR Union pojišťovna organizes a golf tournament in
Mariánské Lázně. But as the tournaments are exclusively for
corporate clients and brokers, the firm's general director,
Igor Valtr, claims that it's more a marketing tool than sponsoring.
According to him, golf has no need of sponsors. "Every
player pays tens and sometimes hundreds of thousands of crowns
to become a club member, plus annual dues of five to ten thousand,
plus about another thousand in greens fees each time he plays
on some other course," Valtr explains.
Markus Platzer, sales and marketing director of the Inter.Continental
hotel, which boasts its own golf tournament, agrees that such
events are modern marketing rather than selfless support by
sports enthusiasts. Platzer claims that it constitutes an
excellent opportunity to influence significant, but often
difficult to address, clients. "For example, the Japanese
living here. Sometimes it's hard to get them together for
a business lunch, they're always busy. But when it comes to
golf, they have their ears open." Platzer says that golf
tournaments are organized mainly by companies that focus on
VIP clients, which follows from their names: Volvo Cup, Diners
Club/ČSA Golf Cup, Eurotel PGA Czech Open Golf Tour, T-Mobile
Golf Tour, and so on.
Experts say that organizing a corporate golf tournament costs
about CZK 500,000-1,000,000, depending on the course, catering,
possible prizes for winners, and other factors. And what does
the organizer get in return? "Many of our clients are
golfers, or would like to be, so our activities in this field
strengthen their loyalty to the Volvo brand," explains
Petra Doležalová, PR and marketing specialist for Volvo Auto
Czech. She says that her company invests about 5% of its total
marketing budget in golf, which comes to several million crowns
Diners Club International spends about two million crowns
a year on golf-associated activities. "We know that we're
investing in our brand's image, because through golf we address
clients we're interested in. It definitely pays off for us,"
says company general director Eva Kárníková. Although firms'
tournaments are mainly in their marketing interests, they
also help golf's development. "Corporate tournaments
account for 20% of our revenues," says Radek Exner, the
chief of operations of the oldest Czech golf course, in Mariánské
Lázně, where daily course rental on weekends is CZK 250,000.