For a country where the sport is not even 20 years old, Turkey has done remarkably well to establish itself as one of the most sought after destinations in the world for golf aficionados. It is now ready to overcome its next challenge – developing the local golfers.
The first golf course in Turkey was built in 1895 – Istanbul Golf Club is a nine-hole facility in the middle of the city – but it took the country almost 100 years to get its next one (Kemer Golf & Country Club in Istanbul and the Old Course at National in Belek opening in 1994).
One of the decisions that changed the golfing landscape of Turkey forever was taken by the government in the early 1990s, when inspired by the success of some of the golf resort clusters in the United States and Spain, Belek in Antalya region was chosen as the site for the first Turkish golf cluster.
Since then, golf has enjoyed an upward curve in the country, and during the week of the Turkish Airlines Open, a KPMG report was published which called Turkey the ‘Rising star of golf’.
According to Ahmet Agaoglu, the charismatic President of the Turkish Golf Federation, his country is now on the verge of making another quantum leap because of a variety of factors.
“One of the things we haven’t been able to do well, and I think I must take some blame for it, is we do not have many local golfers,” said Agaoglu.
“But things are going to change. We already have the highest percentage of junior golfers in the whole of Europe, and we are putting in place a long-term plan to develop junior golf further.”
Agaoglu said the growth could have been faster but for a couple of obstacles, mainly lack of playing facilities across the country.
“I think one major obstacle came around 2006 from the constitu- tional court because of environmental organisations and NGOs. It is a problem that many developing countries face, with these organisa- tions thinking golf is not right for the environment,” he said.
“I completely, absolutely, 100 per cent disagree with that. Look at the Scandinavian countries. They are most environmentally sensitive.
And if there are 108 golf courses in Sweden, and 120 courses in Fin- land, then golf is not dangerous for the environment. It takes time to make these NGOs understand that golf is safe, and in fact good for the environment.
“So, a rule existed from, I think 2006 to 2013, that land owned by government cannot be used for golf courses, and it was luckily lifted.
“Right after that, there is a very good plan by the Ministry of Tourism and Ministry of Forestry, and 23 new golf course projects have been approved in Antalya region alone and 10 in Turkish Riviera, Ankara and Samsun region.
“The other reason why golf is not growing at the right pace is because 90 per cent of the golf courses are commercial golf courses. So, only two golf courses in Belek out of 11 run our junior golf programmes because the others consider them- selves commercial golf courses.
“I appreciate their business model, but they are not helping grow the game in the country. We are running our programmes through the golf course in Ankara, in Istanbul and there is a nine-hole golf course coming up in Samsun which will be operational from May 2016, and this will help increase the number of golfers in the country.
“I also think that the municipalities should be involved with sports, and also golf. That is their duty to the citizen. They should build at least one public golf course in each city. The Samsun course is actually a brainchild of their mayor and he has taken the lead in getting it built. Other cities must follow his example.”
The visits of golfing icons like Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy for the Turkish Airlines Open has also played a huge role in ramping up the interest in the sport among the local population and in consolidating Turkey’s position further in the world golfing map.
“I think the best way to illustrate the impact of the Turkish Airlines Open would be to have a look at the statistics about the number of golfers coming to Turkey,” said Agaoglu.
“In 2011, we had 529,000 rounds played in Belek, which dipped by nearly 10 per cent in 2012 for a variety of reasons.
“But more importantly, after we hosted the first tournament in 2013, that number has started to climb again by four to five per cent every year. This comes at a time when tourism numbers in most markets are going down.
“This jump in the number of rounds played is only because of the tournament. We are back to 2011 numbers. The tournament has played a huge role, and I must say that the support of Turkish Airlines has been vital in this process.
“We would not have gone anywhere if they did not share our vision. To have a big name backing your event is very important. When you speak to a player like Tiger and invite him for your event, the first question they tend to ask is who is the title sponsor?”
Agaoglu pointed out various other points on how golf is benefiting the Belek region and why more golf courses will be good for Turkey.
“There are almost 50 staff employed by an 18-hole golf course, and then there is the staff at the attached resort,” he said. “These are all permanent employees. This is fantastic for any region to have so many employment opportunities.”
Andrea Sartori, Global Head of Sport at KPMG, said during the release of their report: “Our findings show that Turkey has great development potential. With a progressing tourism industry, fantastic climatic conditions, a highly successful junior programme, and the commitment of stakeholders and sponsors to continue to sup- port the game, golf in Turkey looks to have a very bright future.
“But there are other avenues which haven’t been even explored at the moment.
“All golf course development has been done around golf resorts in Belek. They are yet to experiment with golf course development around real estate. Now, the purists may scoff at the idea of housing around a golf course, but some of the most successful developments in recent times have been based on that model.”
Agaoglu has no doubts the future of golf in Turkey is extremely bright.
“We started to seriously think about golf and how we can use the Belek region with the KPMG Conference that was held here in 2010. At that time, nobody even thought that we will have an event on the Final Series of the European Tour and we will have players like Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy coming and playing here,” he said.
“However, we have done that in such a short period of time, and I am sure we can overcome all other obstacles soon.”
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