MYRTLE BEACH — The request from the U.S. Department of Commerce about six months ago to provide promotional material for a trade show in Asia was a bit of a surprise for Myrtle Beach Golf Holiday.
Officials from the marketing cooperative were skeptical of the response they’d receive since they wouldn’t be there in person, but nonetheless sent along golf planner magazines, DVDs and other information.
Little did they know it would result in an opportunity to gain a foothold in a country with the world’s largest population – perhaps the one country where the game is truly growing.
The information about the Golf.com World Amateur Handicap Championship, which will be held on the Grand Strand in August for the 29th year, intrigued executives with influential Chinese sports marketing company Olle Sports Group.
The company is staging a series of one-day tournaments across the People’s Republic of China under the World Am umbrella this year and will send nine players and other guests to the five-day tournament Aug. 27-31. In addition, it is exploring organizing future golf vacations to the Strand.
“Just to be able to have a relationship with somebody over there to begin this process is light years from where we were two months ago when we didn’t know anybody over there,” Golf Holiday president Bill Golden said. “I think it’s great for the destination, it’s great for the tournament.
“… It’s a fascinating opportunity; one that is probably going to take a long time to develop and be years in the making, but we’re certainly a lot further along knowing that market than we were two months ago. That’s interesting, and it’s exciting.”
World Am tournaments are scheduled in 20 Chinese cities, and Olle Sports is promoting them with an extensive media campaign involving television, newspapers and magazines.
“Certainly, this is just the beginning,” Olle Sports vice president Winsen Chin said in an email. “Myrtle Beach is a golfing holiday paradise that will attract more and more Chinese golfers in the future. We see a great potential for further cooperation with Golf Holiday. We are determined to take more and more Chinese golf fans to the United States to enjoy golfing vacations.”
The World Am connection is immediately beneficial to the tournament. But of greater significance to the Strand golf market is the long-term potential for a consistent golf package pipeline from China.
“What is the reality of that opportunity? We don’t know,” Golden said. “It’s easy to say it’s a great opportunity. The reality is we don’t know what our brand awareness is over there, what their expectations are in terms of travel. Can we overcome the reality of the distance of travel? We’re being told in conversations they think this is a great opportunity, a great destination for them.”
Golf in China
Golf is a stagnant, if not declining game in the United States and most places in the world. But that’s not the case in China, which has a population of approximately 1.4 billion.
The sport is relatively new in the communist country, considering the first modern course there was built in 1984. Only rudimentary designs existed prior to that, said Kun Li, the chief representative in the U.S. for Forward Management Group, a Chinese company that develops, designs, builds, manages and markets golf courses, operates golf tournaments and conducts golf-related studies.
Forward Management Group’s report on the golf industry in China found there were 543 18-hole-equivalent golf courses in the vast country at the end of 2011, with more than 600 either under construction or planned.
“When people ask me about golf course development in China, I can only call it ‘crazy,’” Li said. “Everywhere you go they are building golf courses.”
Renowned course designer Rees Jones said more than half of all current golf course design and construction contracts in the world are in China. “I didn’t want to travel that far if I didn’t have to, but now if that’s where the work is, that’s where you have to go,” said Jones, who recently completed one course in China and has two others contracted.
Jack Nicklaus recently announced the formation of Nicklaus-China in partnership with Finergy Capital, a private equity firm based in Beijing. Nicklaus Design already has 19 courses open in China, 12 under development and another 10 projects contracted. Many major golf equipment manufacturers also have operations in China.
Li said there are 370,000 core golfers in China, and that number has been increasing 10 percent a year in recent years. The U.S. has approximately 14.8 million core golfers (eight or more rounds per year) according to the National Golf Foundation. “This shows that there is a lot of potential to be tapped within China’s golfing market,” Chin said.
Forward Management Group estimates 9 million rounds were played in China last year, up 14 percent from 2010. The Strand’s approximate 100 courses host more than 3 million rounds a year.
Former Brandon Agency public relations program coordinator Phil Werz taught for six months in 2009 at the Cindy Reid Golf Academy at Mission Hills Resort in Shenzhen, China, about an hour north of Hong Kong.
Though he often taught through an interpreter, Werz said there was a significant difference in the fervor and excitement Chinese players brought to lessons compared to U.S. students.
“They want to absorb everything you know,” Werz said. “They are extremely excited about it. They are just hungry to learn more about the game and become better players. Their enthusiasm is through the roof.”
It’s believed the Chinese government will increase support for golf because it becomes an Olympic Games sport in 2016.
Golf Holiday and Olle Sports are trying to determine all World Am cross-sponsorship opportunities.
“They really wanted to align themselves with our event,” Golden said. “They saw an opportunity over there to create similar events, certainly saw an opportunity to sell sponsors for those events, and they further saw opportunities to sell corporations there on a global basis to even sponsor our event.”
Golf Holiday sent Olle Sports 30-second promotional videos of both the World Am and Myrtle Beach golf, as well as welcoming videos from Myrtle Beach Mayor John Rhodes, Golden and World Am tournament director Jeff Monday. Where are they being aired? “We don’t know, that’s the thing,” Golden said. “They call it propagandizing Myrtle Beach.”
Golden was invited to China two weeks ago to witness the first World Am tournament there, but couldn’t make the trip on short notice. He plans to go later this summer, however.
Olle Sports has a significant influence in the Chinese sporting world. It works closely with and promotes several national teams under the Chinese General Administration of Sport; collaborates with Olympic committees in several Asian countries; organizes training programs in several sports including basketball, swimming and shooting; and provided professional sponsorship and marketing services for a number 2008 Beijing Olympics sponsors.
In terms of golf, Olle organizes and runs corporate tournaments, is creating a golf magazine and affiliated website, and plans to hold at least three annual national championships, including its version of the World Am.
The first 18-hole event was held June 12 at Dragon Lake Golf Club in Guangzhou, where 100 participants were selected from many applicants, Chin said.
“With our efforts, we believe that this tournament will become the most popular amateur event for Chinese golf fans,” Chin said. “… We hope that every year there will be thousands of applicants, with more and more of these being brought to Myrtle Beach for the tournament and holidays.”
Olle will select nine golfers for expenses-paid trips to the World Am this year, and bring additional guests and representatives of sponsor Pabst Blue Ribbon beer.
Beginning next year, Olle plans to have open registration for anyone willing to cover their own expenses, and hopes to have sponsors cover costs for an increasing number of participants in the future. “We hope to expose more and more golf lovers to the championship and to Myrtle Beach,” Chin said.
Neither Li nor Chin believe it will be difficult for Chinese golfers to acquire visas. Golf Holiday will send letters of invitation to participants to aid the process.
Olle Sports will send chaperones with World Am groups, and Golden said Golf Holiday could also easily provide bilingual group leaders for future groups of golfers, if necessary, though Chinese golfers are generally affluent and often speak some English.
“Twenty years from now, what’s going to be the landscape of international golf, and what will that opportunity be then?” Golden said. “We’ve got a long way to figure all that out.”
Contact ALAN BLONDIN at 626-0284.