Ahead of the 2017 Philippine Golf Course Management Conference, Conrad Benitez, President of The Orchard Golf and Country Club and Vice-President of the National Golf Association of the Philippines and the Federation of Philippine Golfers, reflects on the state of the game in the Philippines and the challenges it faces.
Q: Let’s start with an update on the general state of the golf industry in the Philippines. What are the current positive vibes about the game?
Conrad Benitez: We have an aging population of avid golfers, with not very many new golfers coming on board, unlike in the second half of the last century when we had Filipino world-class golfers and the country could host prestigious international tournaments, which gave rise to a further increase in golfers. These numbers are unfortunately dwindling fast.
On the positive side, however, our young women golfers are starting to make their way into the international scene. This is not quite at the level of the South Koreans, Thais and Taiwanese, but certainly in bigger numbers than our male golfers. Hopefully, this will be the start of our renaissance.
Q: Are there any official figures related to the number of golfers in the Philippines and a percentage breakdown between men, women and children?
Conrad Benitez: We do not have any reliable figures on these at present, but part of my work as Vice President for the National Golf Association of the Philippines (NGAP) and the Federation of Philippine Golfers is to establish these numbers through the work we have been doing to establish the Unified National Handicapping System (UNHS), which will lead us to these category numbers.
Presently, there are only a little over 23,000 unique golfers registered in the UNHS who have established handicaps. I would estimate there are about another 30,000 golfers who do not play enough to bother to pay even the minimal fee to establish their handicaps. I don’t have a breakdown yet of how this UNHS number is arrived at by gender and age, but we are working on this.
Q: Can you give us a sense of the importance of attracting newcomers to the game, especially women and juniors?
Conrad Benitez: More young boys and girls are not coming into golf because there are so many other alternative leisure and sports attractions open to them, in addition to travel and other less time-consuming interests, social engagements and career opportunities.
Married women in the middle and upper strata of society, however, have more free time and money to get into the game, and should be a principal target market that can be gotten to interest themselves in golf.
Juniors of both sexes must be motivated to get into golf as a better, healthier and safer venue for their leisure time. This can work out even better if they can find other juniors with the same golfing interest and if opportunities for camaraderie and competition can be made readily available at reasonable cost.
Q: Is enough being done in the Philippines to make the game more affordable and accessible to the masses and what are the major challenges to growing the game – lack of facilities, lack of funding, lack of marketing?
Conrad Benitez: The NGAP and the Federation are trying to get their member clubs to make golf more affordable to the masses. Our club, The Orchard, has been offering any and all youths, 17 years and under, free access to our driving range, and all the golf rounds they want for a very minimal fee. But this has had very few takers. Only the relatively more affluent can afford the frequent, continuous expenses attendant to playing – food, equipment, caddies, transportation. The list is prohibitive for the masses, even if we allow juniors to carry their own bags or to get one caddie to carry two bags to reduce their caddie fees.
There is more hope for the less well-to-do sectors in the provinces as they can start off as caddies and be allowed to play when they are not caddieing. The NGAP has, with the help of The R&A, been distributing junior and regular golf sets to its member clubs for the free use of beginning golfers and regularly contracts local teaching pros to conduct seminars and group lessons in the provincial clubs to try to grow the game.
Philippine Airlines (PAL) has an annual two-week tournament where more than 1,500 golfers from the Philippines and abroad play in a provincial city which has two golf courses. This has been the breeding ground for young provincial golfers to start making names for themselves in the hope of attracting support and sponsorships from the more affluent clubs who build up their teams to compete at the highest amateur level.
Q: Apart from Vietnam, there’s been little growth in golf course construction across Asia in recent years. Are there any indications that we’ll see more new courses cropping up in the Philippines in the near future?
Conrad Benitez: The affluent have all the golf courses they need, while semi-public and even a lot of private courses have to depend on foreign tourists to survive as very few courses can be supported purely by local player patronage. One major real-estate developer, Sta Lucia – our partners at The Orchard – continues to build provincial courses as centrepieces for their real estate developments, but otherwise, investors have more attractive projects with better returns.
Q: It’s been widely reported that the Singapore Government is taking back land on which golf courses existed for major infrastructure projects. Is there any danger of clubs in the Philippines suffering a similar fate?
Conrad Benitez: While we have way more land than Singapore, Bonifacio Golf Course was closed for commercial development several years ago, and Veterans, a public course in Quezon City, is now in danger of being closed up. Ayala has put up a public course, South Links, which has gained some popularity but this is mainly a medium-term land banking scheme that will eventually be converted also to real estate development.
Q: Over the past 50 years, the Philippines has been blessed with world-class golfers such as Ben Arda, Luis Silverio, Frankie Minoza and Jennifer Rosales. Is Miguel Tabuena the player to continue that trend and how would international success for him boost the game among youngsters in the country?
Conrad Benitez: We hope Miguel Tabuena succeeds way beyond expectations. Player development here is relegated to the provincial boys who start off as caddies, as the more affluent youth are not inclined to put in the hours and hard work to compete at the highest levels. They don’t have to. Does this mean that an individual will not ascend from these? The more realistic expectation for the masses would be boxing and billiards – it does not cost anything to play. In fact, many make a living at it, although the prize money pales in comparison with pro golf, except at the absolute top level, like Manny Paquiao.