IT IS heartening to see that more and more visitors are playing golf in Brunei Darussalam of late. Such increase in visitors, especially from South Korea, is significant in terms of sports tourism development, however, their golf activities are limited to two golf courses – one at the Empire Golf and Country Club (EGCC) and the other at Royal Brunei Golf and Country Club (RBGCC) – both in the Brunei Muara District.
This is undoubtedly a good sign for Brunei’s tourism and economy in general. Golf is one of the mainstays of tourism in our neighbouring countries like Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia and Singapore. Their age-old golf tradition, infrastructure and investment have been constantly refined and developed to a splendid fruition as tourists globally have acknowledged.
In fact, golf in these countries has been elevated to a higher level and now they have the capacity to host major international golf tournaments in collaboration with the Professional Golf Association (PGA). Furthermore, they have produced many budding golf professionals, some of whom have already established themselves on international circuits. In nutshell golf in these countries has progressed so much, contributing to their economy and creating employment opportunities.
Golf, as any other sport, needs good infrastructure, both physical and institutional. Develop golf is not merely about constructing golf courses albeit they are de jure starting points. Golf is governed not only by rules and regulations but also ethics. A common dictum in golf is that playing golf is against the golf course rather than fellow golfers. Under golf etiquette, any golfer must have conforming behaviour towards others and each course being played. This code of ethical behavior is to ensure integrity of play, safety of players and the public, soundness of golf courses and their assets and the golf fraternity as a whole. Weak subscription to golf ethics normally leads to difficulties in upholding discipline among players and creates bad milieu and tradition.
If Brunei were to excel in golf and thus golf tourism, in addition to having enough championship courses in the four districts, superior golf course management and development of golf-related institutions have to be in place. In the area of golf course management, apart from its costly maintenance work, the running of golf club activities in full conformity with universal rules and regulations and golf etiquette is crucial. The status and full functionality of relevant golf-related institutions, especially those under the ambit of PGA, are crucial systemic complements. Each of them needs to work towards establishment of an ideal golf tradition that underlines discipline, integrity and excellence. This includes regional and international golf networks especially the one under the ambit of PGA.
Brunei was in fact already on the world golf map when we secured a collaboration with PGA in hosting golf professionals from overseas for our full-fledged Brunei Open in 2005 at the Empire Golf and Country Club. Although the prize money for a start then was indeed a modest one, the long-term goal was to make Brunei Open more competitive in terms of prize money and a conduit to bring in more world-class golf players and tourists from all over the world and step up local golf development.
Naturally, the achievement of such noble long-term goals was not a quick and dramatic one. Unfortunately, the government failed to appreciate the mileage achieved so far with PGA as a foundation for better golf development in the future including golf tourism. May be for lack of immediate and dramatic financial returns as expected by the government, it stopped its financial support after the fourth Brunei Open in 2010. This was indeed a shocking experience for golf in the country.
In fact, to be fair to the relevant agencies in the government responsible for the Brunei Open, their initiatives thereof had already led to some strategically important august tours being hosted by the Empire Golf and Country Club such as the Aberdeen Brunei Senior Masters European Tour in 2009 for three years and in 2012 the same venue hosted the Royal Trophy between European and Asian Tour Players.
Brunei was in fact on its way to a golf pinnacle when the government stopped its support for the Brunei Open. The uninitiated may not have appreciated all the building blocks that the Brunei Open have had achieved to pave the way for a greater golf future in this country. During the time of the Brunei Open for five years, the country had its first few professionals playing in Asian circuits. Never underestimate how the locals responded positively to the support that the government has given to have the Brunei Open. Alas, it has been stopped.
Now it is time to reflect on whatever shortcomings this country has had. First and foremost, considering the increasing popularity of golf among the youngsters and golf tourists, the country seems to be a bit behind in its provision of new championship courses outside Brunei-Muara District, especially in Temburong District, the main promoted site for eco-tourism. Indeed, at least a championship course in each district and a strategic positioning of golf tourism seem desirable.
With the construction of the bridge to Temburong and the near-completed bridge to Sungei Kebun, the whole country seems duly connected all over. Now if we were to talk and promote golf tourism as one of the country’s mainstays of tourism, the focus has to be on the whole four districts.
The Brunei-Muara District is blessed with four 18-hole golf courses, Belait District has one while the Temburong and Tutong Districts have none. The situation seems to be rather lopsided and obviously not in tandem with the on-going flurry of talk to promote golf tourism. Empty talk has to stop. The government has no choice but to take the lead by supporting appropriate mechanisms like public-private partnership (ppp) to construct more golf courses in all four districts.
All golf associations in the country need to pull themselves apart. Brunei National Golf Association (BNGA) needs to function fully as the umbrella to the other golf associations including golf academies. BNGA, as a golf fraternity, needs to uphold its main responsibility ie to promote the common purposes and interests of its members including affiliated ones in the context of golf development proper. The association needs to oversee decisions made at club level pertaining to golf handicap regime, disciplinary enforcement, golf tournament organisation and educative golf programmes. Leaders of any golf association, especially BNGA, must be the ones who can under any circumstances uphold golf integrity in all respects. Cheaters and scoundrels should not be allowed to find their way into leadership.
A golf academy, an organised group for the advancement of golf, must be established and do a good deed. The Empire Golf and Country Club has its own golf academy but little is known of its accomplishment so far. Such academy must play a pivotal role in developing young golfers to realise their goals. The Sports School under the Ministry of Education can also take the initiative to develop golf in their sport development repertoire.
Seriousness is needed to mobilise golf tourism in this country. Enough in the past that we put square pegs into round holes. Relevant parties now cannot afford to repeat such a mess. We need to humble ourselves by going back to the PGA to revive the Brunei Open as soon as possible. New championship courses must be constructed outside Brunei-Muara District.
The BNGA must be made to function fully as an overseer. The leadership in other golf associations needs to be stepped up. Golf academies must be set up and run by dedicated professionals. At club levels, enforcement of golf rules and etiquette must be made second to none. Golf must be turned into a generator of job opportunities. The government must lend its support to the development of this sport.