Don't make golf clubs take a sad stroll to finishing hole

Members of Jurong Country Club (JCC) were shocked on Monday afternoon to learn that they will lose their newly renovated course in late 2016. And even more distressing to the 2,700 members is the fact that they will not be offered any alternative site after their 18-hole course and vast clubhouse are taken away.

The Singapore Land Authority simply announced that the club's 67 hectare site would be acquired to make way for the Singapore-Kuala Lumpur high-speed rail (HSR) terminus. Although the project itself would occupy only about 12 ha - or around 18 per cent - of the total area, the remaining land will be transformed into a mixed-use development comprising offices, hotels, retail and residences.

The club - whose land sits on a lease which still has some 20 years to run - will be compensated. But whether this will be enough for the club to afford another clubhouse elsewhere remains to be seen. But any new facility will have to do without a golf course.

This is a bitter pill to swallow for a club which just two years ago coughed up some S$24 million to refurbish its course, leaving its balance sheet somewhat weakened.

It is also unclear if any of the compensation JCC receives can be redistributed to members. While some lawyers argued that a case can be made for such in-specie distribution of funds, others note that existing laws specify that unused monies must go to a national charity.

The JCC chapter is just the latest in an uncertain story facing Singapore's golf clubs. Within the next five years, at least three golf courses will lose some or all of their property.

Keppel will be the first to go as its Bukit Chermin land will be taken over by SLA for mixed-use development. The club, which has 4,700 members, will not get any compensation as its lease expires in 2021, and will not be renewed. And like JCC, it has not been offered any alternative site.

The popular public course at Marina Bay will also make way for development. But in this case, it will get a new site in the form of the Singapore Island & Country Club's Sime Course at the club's Bukit location. That means SICC will be left with just three 18-hole courses after 2021 - the Bukit Course next to the Sime Course and the Island Course and the New Course at its Island location in Upper Thomson.

But the story does not end there.

By 2030, SICC could also lose its Bukit Course. That is also the year when the union-owned and operated Orchid Country Club will lose its 27-hole property in Yishun.

Given the timing and Orchid's status as a quasi-public course, there is speculation within the golfing fraternity that it could end up being given the Bukit Course.

If so, that would leave SICC with its two 18-hole Island location courses.

Meanwhile, over at Tanah Merah, the 27-hole NSRCC course has lost its 9-hole Airforce Course. Across the road, the Tanah Merah Country Club's once-challenging Garden Course has had to give up precious land to the Changi Airport extension project, leaving it a simple and short par-70 18-hole course.

Developments over the past year have shaken the Singapore golfing fraternity and the golf market. And many golfers are losing serious money.

JCC membership sale is all but frozen, while prices of other clubs have fallen further.

Market insiders estimate that Jurong members would have lost some S$150 million of their membership investments. More, if recent debentures are counted.

Over at Keppel, members are resigned to writing off over S$200 million they invested in the club. TMCC's membership price has slipped from about S$175,000 to just under S$120,000 following the changes to its prized Garden course. Over at SICC, the value of membership has fallen from about S$220,000 a year ago to under S$185,000 now.

All this has had the predictable impact on the morale and confidence of the golfing fraternity here.

While one cannot argue with the needs of development, the relevant authorities should strive to provide more clarity on land use plans to clubs that could be affected some years down the road. Which golf courses around the island could lose their land in, say, 20-30 years?

Which ones will be allowed to renew their leases, and for how long. And at what cost? Which locations - if any - around the island will be permanently designated for the sport?

These are useful planning parameters for an industry that employs several thousand people and has attracted S$3 billion in investment and membership fees.

As it stands, the sad reality for the Singaporean "weekend warrior" - many of whom are already pushing 50 or 60 - is that the outlook is as clear as a misty morning on the first tee. In the absence of any clarity, it could be a sad stroll to the finishing hole for many of the 35,000 club members here.

This article was first published on May 13, 2015.
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