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 in popularity?
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 people.
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,” she says.
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.
|How much 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.
|Branding the ball
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.