New golf courses continue to emerge in some far-flung outposts. According to the most recent NGF count, the game is played in 208 countries, and that number will expand by at least one later this year when Jack Nicklaus opens Ashgabat Golf Club in Turkmenistan.
The president of the Central Asian nation, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, wanted a championship‑caliber golf course ready for play before the start of the Asian Indoor Games held this September in his nation’s capital city of Ashgabat.
Turkmenistan is situated north of Iran and framed by the Caspian Sea to the west and Afghanistan to the east. Nicklaus said he could build as many as 10 courses there in the next few years.
“He wants a course in every province,” Nicklaus said of Berdymukhamedov, noting the project will include golf courses in Awaza, a tourist zone along the Caspian Sea that is home to 33 five-star hotels.
Turkmenistan is the latest of the former Soviet central Asian republics to use sport as a vehicle towards international visibility. Nicklaus has witnessed the wonders of golf’s potential to lift tourism in a country or region, none more successfully than in Los Cabos, Mexico, which was a sleepy little fishing village when he first visited in 1964. For the next quarter-century, the weather and some of the finest deep-sea fishing kept him coming back.
“You could slip down there with a bathing suit and $20 in your pocket and seemingly live for a week,” Nicklaus said. “Now, $20 might not get you out of the airport parking lot!”
Through 1992, Cabo had only a nine‑hole municipal course doing 5,000 rounds. The runway where Nicklaus landed during his first visit is now a fairway at Palmilla Golf Club, which opened in 1993 and is one of seven Nicklaus courses now open in the Cabo market.
The year prior to Palmilla opening, there were only five commercial flights per day into Cabo and the average hotel occupancy rate sputtered around 39 percent. Today, hotel occupancy has doubled and 700,000 golfers from the U.S. alone travel to Mexico each year, making it the No. 1 international destination for U.S. golfers. In all, 2 million passengers annually pass through the airport in Los Cabos and one of Nicklaus Design’s next projects is a second 18‑hole layout at the stunning Quivira Golf Club, where several holes are perched on granite cliffs more than 200 feet above the Pacific Ocean.
“Depending on your perspective,” Nicklaus said, “I am the man who either ruined Cabo or the man who helped build Cabo.”
A similar story played out in the Dominican Republic after Pete and Alice Dye opened Casa de Campo’s Teeth of the Dog with three, one‑of‑a‑kind oceanside holes in late fall of 1971. It ignited a tourism boom that led to seven international airports that are responsible for nearly 6 million visitors annually, including 42 percent coming from the United States. With its 27 top‑flight golf facilities, the Dominican Republic has become one of the most popular destinations for golf in the Caribbean and Latin America.
The days of “build it and they will come” may have come and gone, but golf still can be a catalyst for development as these examples illustrate. From the Grand Cayman Islands to Nigeria to Morocco, a vision of golf as an economic engine is driving the game’s expansion in various ports. According to NGF data, there are currently 556 projects (measured in 18‑hole equivalents) in planning or under construction in 103 countries outside of the United States, with over 30 percent of new development situated in Asia.
China and Hong Kong
In 1992, Mission Hills Golf Club founder David Chu chose a wasteland on the border of Shenzhen and Dongguan to establish the world’s largest golf complex in a region where the game was virtually unknown. The project coincided with the Chinese government’s commitment to open its economy to the outside world.
When the first golf course debuted, it took more than two hours to drive to Mission Hills from Hong Kong, and twice as long if it rained. But that changed when Mission Hills landed the right to host golf’s 1995 World Cup, prompting local leaders to expedite plans for a spiffy four‑lane highway connecting Mission Hills to Hong Kong’s border.
“That’s when I realized the power of golf,” said Chu’s eldest son, Ken, who succeeded his father as chairman.
His father, who died in 2011, understood that Westerners, in a vibrant region known as the factory to the world, needed a place to relax and conduct business, and that members of China’s growing business elite would adopt the game to flaunt their newfound wealth.
Starting in 2007, course architects Lee Schmidt and Brian Curley sketched the master plan and began transforming Hainan Island, China’s southernmost province, from a remote military outpost to “the Hawaii of the East.” This mega‑resort with 10 courses sprouted quickly. Though a moratorium on golf‑course construction was established in 2004, the government is firmly behind promoting Hainan as the sports and leisure capital of Asia.
These days, the Schmidt‑Curley duo are spending much of their time in Vietnam on projects for FLC Group, a Hanoi‑based developer of apartments, shopping centers, industrial parks and resorts, which announced plans to build 20 new courses in Vietnam over the next five years. “They see themselves as the Mission Hills of Vietnam,” Curley said.
Before Vietnam opened to international commerce in the early 1990s, golf was frowned upon by the country’s communist leaders and all but disappeared. With visiting foreign businessmen came demand for new courses, but now the game’s expansion is being driven by domestic as well as international enthusiasts. Vietnam has 41 facilities and 33 courses in development, primarily driven by tourism. “There will be 100 in no time,” Curley said.
To illustrate his point, he recounted an incident when a hotel general manager noticed his roll of architectural plans. As soon as Curley informed him of his job, the hotelier begged him to build more courses.
“He said, ‘I have all these guests who want to play and there is nowhere to put them because the courses are all packed,’” Curley recalled. “I’ve been in the business for a long time and I’ve never had a hotel employee tell me they need more golf courses. There are always too many.”
A new international airport terminal, a slew of world‑class hotels and resorts, and some of the finest beaches in the world are helping to make Vietnam’s Central Coast Asia’s new hotspot and a golf destination not to be missed.
FLC has invested $152 million alone into Halong Bay Golf Club, a project comprising an 18‑hole golf course designed by Curley‑Schmidt, a five‑star hotel and conference center, and high‑end villas. The project is expected to increase the diversity of the tourism industry in the northern Quang Ninh province, making it more attractive to local and international visitors and provide more job opportunities while boosting economic growth and social development. It will be followed by another golf course and resort in central Quang Binh province.
“Vietnam will be a dominant player in the destination golf market for Asia,” said Brian Curley. “If you could buy stock in the future of golf in Vietnam, I’d say that’s a pretty good bet.”
Africa has the golf bug, too. Nigeria’s Cross River State government is investing $200 million in building a golf resort.
“We now see a new emerging middle class, what they used to call the yuppie class,” Cross River State’s governor Liyel Imoke told CNN. “The yuppie generation is here, and they play golf.”
Nine courses in Nigeria alone are under development as well as six in Morocco. Gary Player is also building his first course in Congo.
Golf course architects will continue to earn boatloads of travel miles in their pursuit of spreading golf to all corners of the globe. It is in these long overlooked, unspoiled terrains where Mother Nature has helped lay out some of the best possibilities for golf to grow. Nicklaus said he often thinks back to the grand opening of Eldorado Golf Club in Los Cabos. It was December 1999 and having hosted a press conference there, he took a moment to gaze at the emerald‑green 18th hole that hugged the beach. In the distance, a fishing boat was anchored in the sparkling, blue ocean. Just then, a writer broke the silence and asked, “Jack, why Mexico?”
Said Nicklaus: “If there was ever a question that didn’t need an answer.”
Adam has written about golf since 1997 for the likes of Golfweek, Golf World, Morning Read, LINKS and The New York Times. The New York native is also the author of Deane Beman: Golf’s Driving Force.