End of Paradise?

With a climate offering year-round warm golf, twenty-plus international-standard courses within one-hour’s drive, and a value-for-money index better than anywhere else on the planet, Pattaya was indeed a golfing paradise, but for how much longer?

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Siam Country Club, Old Course – hard to find a better presented course, anywhere.

Remember when 1000 baht would buy a green-fee/caddie fee at most courses around Pattaya? When a 200 baht caddie-tip was genuinely appreciated? When the entire golfing day, including a drink or two at the 19th, would not exceed 2000 baht? Well you should, as that time was not so long ago.

Prior to the Global Financial Crises (GFC) of 2008, most local courses still regarded Farang golfers as customers worth cultivating, compulsory hiring of golf carts was rare and the annual subscription at Siam Country Club was 15,000 baht.

Today, Farang are not the customer-base that many courses are wanting to attract, more and more courses are making hiring of carts mandatory, and a one-year subscription at Siam Country Club is now 30,000 baht; a 100% increase in seven years.

Who cares what happens at Siam Country Club as it has little or no effect on the other 98% of Pattaya’s Farang golfers who don’t play there. Nor should the great majority be overly concerned with what has happened at Phoenix Golf Course either.

Or should they?

To recap; Phoenix Golf had new owners last year. Changes proposed included green-fees of 2,500 baht (3,000 weekends), compulsory cart hire at 600 baht (one per Player), and caddie fee of 350 baht.

Phoenix Members fared no better; a new 400 baht maintenance fee (per round), was added to compulsory cart hire and increased caddie fee, as above. However, to make members really feel at home, the new owners imposed a 200,000 baht membership transfer fee in the event a member wished to sell their membership. Not surprisingly, some of the proposed changes have goaded some into seeking legal advice.

Unsurprisingly, Phoenix Golf has been off the playing schedules of Farang golf societies since these changes were introduced. Clearly, local Farang golfers, whether members or not, are no longer regarded with as much respect as certain other customer groups.

Siam Country Club is a little different. Unlike Phoenix, Siam has never offered golf societies attached to IPGC or PSC discounted green-fees. Like Laem Chabang International Country Club, it hasn’t had to. Justified or otherwise, these two clubs regard themselves as the best Pattaya has to offer, and price accordingly. Neither wants for customers.

By introducing the changes they have, Phoenix management have priced their course close to Siam and Laem Chabang. Most Farang I know would regard the latter two as top-drawer, but Phoenix?

Back to Siam and its recent changes. This club is owned by one of Thailand’s wealthiest families. Unlike other golf courses, if numbers fluctuate, it’s hardly going to bother them. Similarly, their concern over what members think regarding the running of “their” course will not keep them awake at nights.

Some evidence of this can be found by the manner with which members are treated in February of each year, when Siam hosts the Honda LPGA. The tournament, which this year ran from 20 – 23 February, saw the course closed to members for the period 04 – 27 February. In recognition of the hardship caused, members were given the guest-rate green-fee (2,650 baht) should they wish to play sister club, Plantation. Of course the compulsory cart hire of 650 baht would apply, as would the 400 baht caddie-fee.

In fairness, members were given free passes to the 4-day tournament, but were told the clubhouse was out-of-bounds. Two-hundred-thousand baht, for a 20-year membership – in return for a free pass to the Honda LPGA, as well as playing rights for any month not beginning with “F.” Oh, and the justification for the annual sub is what, exactly?

As stated, the new annual subscription for Siam (Old Course) will be 30,000 pa. With effect from 1 May 2014, green-fees increase to 3,600 (weekday) and 2,400 as a member’s guest. Golf cart hire (compulsory for non-members) rises to 750 (1200 if sharing).

Currently, members may walk on weekdays, but are required to take a cart if they play on weekends or at sister club Plantation, or the soon-to-be-commissioned Waterside Course. The rumour is that it is only a matter of time before members at the Old Course will be required to hire a cart, regardless. Oh, and one other matter regarding carts at Siam; they may not leave the cart path.

The manager of Burapha Golf, who is also Chair of the Eastern Seaboard Golf Course Association, has been pushing for compulsory carts on all courses for some time. His reasoning is that he can’t accept the disparity in golf revenues between Phuket and Pattaya, and is encouraging his peers to use compulsory cart hire as one way to increase revenues.

Notwithstanding, the likes of Siam and Laem Chabang will do what they think appropriate, regardless of what anyone else does, and this brings us to the crux of the matter – preferred customers and what they want.

Imagine two four-balls, one is a typical Farang grouping, playing out of any one of a dozen or so society outlets, and the other is East Asian; perhaps Japanese, Korean or that new golfing phenomenon – Chinese.

The Farang, if they are like me, will arrive with their mates, pay the IPGC/PSC heavily discounted green-fee, change into their playing gear, and be ready to tee-off within a short space of time. He will likely walk the course.

Out on the course, the average Farang will contend himself with his own refreshments; including drink he pre-mixed prior to leaving home. The only time he will spend money at an on-course drink-stop will be to shout his caddie. Once the round is over, he will shower and may or may not partake in a drink or two in the clubhouse, but his spend will be minimal. He is certainly conscious that the beer price at his local, back in Pattaya or at places in between, will be half the price the clubhouse charge.

Now to the Farang’s East-Asian equivalent; who are booked in to play golf at the same course. They most likely paid their green-fee/caddie-fee back at their home, as part of a package tour. The fee would have included the cost of a cart. The discount off the rack-rate will be minimal. They arrive in big numbers and have block-booked the tee, with some five-balls and some four-balls. Drink stops are treated as that; a place to stop and drink, and eat and spend. After their round, they will partake in more food and drink in the clubhouse, as they wait for those who played behind them to finish their rounds. Elapsed time between the first and last groups entering the clubhouse restaurant – two hours – with more to come.

Let us assume for a moment that this particular course hosted a similar number of Farang and East Asian golfers, which often happens at various courses in high-season. Which group, on average, provided the course with the most revenue?

The answer is obvious, and it’s not us Farang. What may not be so obvious is the amount of difference; it is huge.

In defence of the Farang is the notion that they are here all year, playing two, three times per week, compared to the six-month window used by the East Asian golfer. Whilst that helps account for part of the difference in spends, it’s still way short of where it needs to be to counter the argument. Simply put, the spend of the East Asian, year-on-year, is what defines the commercial success of Pattaya’s golf courses more than anything else.

Ever wondered why Siam Country Club goes to the bother of hosting the Honda LPGA year after year? The cost of staging such an event is big, let alone the cost of closing the course for a month of preparation. The answer in one: kudos.

When selling golf packages to East and Southeast Asian markets, the one feature a course must own is prestige. The name of the course designer is important. As is the perceived place that particular course occupies in the local market. Being perceived as the cheapest deal in Pattaya just won’t wash to the markets of East Asia. But sell the notion that your course is special, has superb design features, enjoys a lovely climate, is wonderfully presented, with a top-notch reputation for service, and your message will be well received. Naturally, being a top-rated course, carts are compulsory, as one would expect.

Siam Country Club will soon have three courses to fill – Waterside opens next month. What Siam management have signalled, with their continued sponsorship of the Honda LPGA, coupled with their somewhat offhand treatment of members, is that they have their eye firmly set on their future customer base. Currently, members, providing it’s a weekday, may walk. The moment that privilege is removed will be confirmation that the East Asian market is the only one of importance.

Pattaya’s other courses, those with eyes also fixed firmly on the East Asian markets, will be watching developments. At the moment, other courses where carts are compulsory include Plantation, Phoenix, Laem Chabang, Burapha and St Andrews. And the trend continues.

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Greenwood – still high on the best value-for-money matrix, and long may it continue.

One answer may be for Farang golfers to arrange for one body, one voice to represent their joint interests. This voice could represent all golfing outlets hosting Farang golfers; whether they be competitive or social, Scandies or Irish, IPGC or PSC, or even the Traveller’s Rest.

The goal of this notional body would be to secure the best deal for Farang golfers on those courses where our numbers still count for something. Delaying the inevitable compulsory cart event, if only for five years, would be worth the cost of subscription alone.

Next thing in this fantasy would be one universal handicap system for all Pattaya golf societies; yeah right.

Unfortunately, this is unlikely to happen in my or the reader’s lifetime. In the meantime, our negotiating power with the courses becomes less and less.

Please tell me I’m wrong – on all counts.

Golfnutter

About golfnutter

Born in Wellington, New Zealand over 60 years ago. Introduced to golf - Thailand style - in 2004 and never recovered. I believe Thailand, Pattaya particularly, offers a unique and wonderful golfing experience for all golfers, whatever their handicap. If I can help embellish that experience, I will.
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3 Responses to End of Paradise?

  1. Simon Hirst says:

    The cost of golf is always an interesting subject and it varies depending on what side of the coin you are. A member, a resident but non member and a holiday visitor.

    As a member of a course in England I can say that Pattaya is cheap. 20,000 baht a year for Siam is peanuts. Pick that course up and put it in surrey and it’s going to cost you 150,000 baht + a year or 15,000 a round for a visitor.

    I was in Turkey last year where a round of golf cost as much as 7300baht and a cart was 1600baht. And the courses were end of season knackered. And don’t get me started on 500baht for a beer!

    As an ex-pat on a meagre pension I can understand the concerns of ever rising prices and some of this will no doubt be connected to the ever growing labour costs that the far east worker now demands. But in reality you still have a long way to go before you are paying european prices. The upside is the courses you play are very presentable. I pay 40,000 a year to be a member of a crap hole whose greens “will be good in 2 weeks time” but never are.

    Things could be worse. We could be pushing up daises and our favourite putter consigned to the bin.

    Simon

  2. Wade Thomas. says:

    What No.of Farang golfer’s are we talking about on a weekly basis ? What % would this be ?
    I certainly agree if the Farang had some sort of clout, by way of an organised & ruputable body representing them, it must be to their advantage!
    The biggest hurdle i see, is can you get unity in the Farang golfer to present a united front ?
    It is an idea that warrant’s taking to the next stage. I wish you well.

    Wade.

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