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  • Writer's pictureRichard Mandell

The U.S. Golf Model Not a Paradigm for Latin Americans

I just returned from the 2008 Urban Land Institute Fall Meeting currently underway in Miami, Florida, focusing my time on the component entitled Latin America: Opportunities in Real Estate Development, Investment, and Finance. Considering the slowdown in opportunities here in the United States, most of us are enticed to look past our own borders for golf course design projects. International development is as strong now as it may ever have been in history yet it is just getting started.

If a golf architect is motivated enough and doesn’t mind the travel (a requisite for this business here or overseas, so what do a few more hours in a plane matter, right?), numerous opportunities throughout the world wait. Many who have followed the trends already know two of the biggest hotspots are in the Middle East and China. The war on terror continues in Iraq and Afghanistan, but on the opposite tip of the Persian Gulf, The United Arab Emirates continues its own Disneyfication, creating whole city-states that make ole Walt’s efforts look like a third-grader’s diorama. Islands mimicking the world’s continents and other abstract forms such as palm trees or seahorses are being created from scratch literally in the middle of the Gulf.

Slightly smaller than the State of Maine, the U.A.E boasts new resorts in the Capital of Abu Dhabi, Dubai, and elsewhere with the prime economic thrust being tourism. Thirty golf courses are already built or proposed for Abu Dhabi alone, with many of the biggest names in golf lending their reputation to the efforts, none bigger than Tiger Woods. All this just a mere 540 miles from the southern tip of Iraq (about 100 miles less than a drive from D.C. to Atlanta).

As China continues its slow ascent up the world’s GDP rankings, the future of golf looks bright there as well. A new middle class is expected to take up the game in droves, creating many opportunities for the locals. This Golf Architect has already teamed with a large engineering firm based in Beijing who is lining up projects from there to Liuzhou.

But the area of most interest to me is Latin America. Kept out of the industrial loop for the entire 20th century, Central and South America are priming themselves to make up for lost time through economic democratization. The biggest hotspots for economic growth and golf opportunities lay in Brazil and Mexico (as well as a few other gems I’ll keep to myself for the time being). Economic indicators such as rising exports and GDP mean a burgeoning middle class is poised for recreation of their own in addition to increased resort activity.

Developers of almost every country in Latin America were in attendance (with the exception of Venezuela, Ecuador, and Bolivia). The ULI Land Expo was full of booths boasting new resorts from Panama to Chile. The standard golf model includes the typical golf pro as architect and the rally cry was to follow the model north of the border. That is where the problems will start.

The United States golf model is not what a new economy should chase but that is exactly what many countries plan. Although the resort market has somewhat been established in Latin America, the competition is now forcing developers to move up a level from the old design standard to something more impressive. For years, Latin American golf courses were designed as afterthoughts by architects who ignored the great possibilities that many sites offered. Now as a counter-measure, developers are hiring big names with no regard for the site, instead relying on reputation and lots of money. No doubt these resort courses will be showstoppers but they may also lack in the strategic vein.

The secondary market (which is still a few years away) will be residential golf course development for those locals who have helped define the new middle class. It is here where the potential for a large disconnect between the end user and the final product lays. The standard American golf course development is designed purely to sell homes or gain rankings. This often comes with a sacrifice of playability and affordability. Although many of the first wave will be developed unopposed, it is the second wave of golf courses that will begin to compete for home sales and not golfers.

Working as a designer in Latin America requires a thorough understanding of the culture not only of the peoples of the region, but of the indigenous character of the land as well. This requisite is not unlike the way we design golf courses in general– through a detailed study and respectful response to the ground. A great golf course should always be defined by its maximum use of the natural features of the land, culturally as well as physically. It should never be solely defined by the manipulation of the earth to create eye-catching landforms, many of which are not indigenous to the ground. Actual landscapes are just as important to respect as cultural landscapes in Latin America and elsewhere. Binding the two together is vital to a successful project in this climate. Great strategy, challenge, and playability will be achieved in the process.

Hopefully the American model will not be followed in Latin America. My plan is to introduce the characteristics that all great golf courses have to the peoples of Central and South America, to show these cultures what memorable golf courses are all about – and that is simply a respectful response to their own landscape and culture.

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