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The Success Formula for Pay-for-Play Golf

The Success Formula for Pay-for-Play Golf

Paul Myers

March 31st, 2014

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Waterside 9th (2)

What Prasertchai Phornprapha (Khun Chai as he is known), the managing director of Siam Country Club near Pattaya, Thailand, lacks in physical size he more than makes up for in vision, tenacity and belief in the region as a world-class golf destination.

For the past 42 years, the Phornprapha family’s Siam Motors Group, which owns and operates Siam Country Club and more than 50 other companies, has put immense faith in building world-class golf courses that attract foreign and domestic golfers to Pattaya.

Each time the family has made a substantial investment in golf development, it has paid off. Three times previously, in fact: initially, in 1969 when Khun Chai’s grandfather, Dr Thaworn Phornprapha, planned and subsequently opened (in 1971) Thailand’s first privately-owned course, now known as Siam Country Club Old Course; second, in 2005 when K. Chai’s uncle, Phorntep Phornprapha, who became head of the company in 2001 following the patriarch’s passing, remodelled the Old Course; and third, when, soon after, he commissioned Schmidt-Curley to design the 27-holes Plantation Course.

Khun Chai, who joined Siam Motors in 1998 after selling a seafood business he owned, initially worked in corporate debt refinancing, never intending to become involved in golf operations. But for the Phornphrapa family it was his English ability, gained from obtaining a Master’s degree in geology in the United States and working overseas after graduation, that was the tipping point.

He came on board as managing director immediately before Plantation was built, “when the plans were all on the table” as he explains, and has since grown the business to 100,000 – mostly pay-for-play – rounds a year.

Now, under his guidance the company is completing its fourth golf development project, the 18-hole Waterside course, situated between the Old Course and Plantation. Designed by IMG and built by Golf East, headed by Thai course architect Pirapon Namatra (Khun Ope), it brings to 63 the number of holes at Thailand’s largest and most successful golf complex.

If this isn’t enough, an 80-room boutique golf lodge on the Old Course is on the horizon. It will mean golfers won’t have to travel to and from Pattaya or Bangkok and encourage those who wish to soak up everything Siam CC has to offer to stay on course.

What is the Phornprapha family formula to such success in a business – pay-for-play golf – that has evaded many others?

“Happiness,” says Khun Chai. “We sell happiness and an enjoyable experience. We don’t sell the golf courses. There are a lot of good golf courses in Thailand and around the world. We want people who play our courses to have a great time and remember their round.”

And come back again and again, as many do.

“When Waterside opens, there will be 26 golf courses between Sukhumvit Soi 15 [where Khun Chai lives in Bangkok] and Siam Country Club,” he explains. “There are plenty of other options, many of them very good. So why do people come all the way to visit us?”

He doesn’t need to answer his rhetorical question. The answer is obvious: people love playing Siam Country Club’s existing 45 holes.

The current 100,000 rounds now played at the Old Course and Plantation annually will become 130,000 rounds during the next year and as many as 150,000 rounds when Waterside is running full steam.

But the numbers only tell part of the story. Course grooming, service, the presentation of each clubhouse and attention to detail are impeccable. Golfers invariably stay after the game, sharing a drink and a chat, as they watch others come in after their round. Indeed, encouraging players to stay after the game and soak up the atmosphere and enjoy the club’s top level facilities is very much part of the success story.

It’s little wonder Siam Country Club has become the jewel in the crown of golf in Pattaya, where there are 23 courses. No-one, however, would ever argue that Siam CC is easily the best.

Even so, K. Chai actively promotes the Pattaya region as a golf tourism destination. He strongly advocates that visitors play Laem Chabang International Country Club, which is just across the main road leading to the Plantation clubhouse, as well as Thai Country Club.

It’s got nothing to do with arrogance or paternalism, but a strong belief that what is good for Siam CC is good for golf in Pattaya.

Indeed, history shows this to be true. The classic Old Course, initially designed by Iko Izumi, and remodeled by Schmidt-Curley, started a revolution in golf in Thailand, far beyond Pattaya. Prior to its opening, all of Thailand’s courses were owned by State-run entities – the police, military, railways and electricity companies. Now, most courses are privately owned. Not only have standards risen, but so have commercial outcomes.

When K. Chai’s grandfather, Dr Thaworn Phornprapha, had the vision to buy the land that is now home to the 63-hole, three-clubhouse complex he could not have envisaged how golf would become one of Pattaya’s man attractions.

Formerly comprising sugar cane, tapioca and pineapple farms, it is now home to arguably the best multi-course complex in Thailand and one of the most impressive and commercially successful in Asia.

So what about Waterside? How does it stack up against its two illustrious siblings?

The IMG-designed course is a par-72 layout featuring paspalum fairways and Tiff Eagle greens. It will play 7454 yards (6816 metres) from the championship tees, 6608 yards (6042 metres) from the blue tees and 6058 yards (5539 metres) from the whites.

Following in the footsteps of the Old Course and Plantation, which have both hosted the LPGA Honda Thailand championship, building a third course may seem a hard act to follow.

As it was being built, Khun Chai played down expectations, telling people Waterside my not be as good as the others.

While to some extent this is true, especially as far as challenge is concerned, Waterside may become the most popular of the three layouts.

For a start, it doesn’t have the elevation changes, being built on a flat section of land that has been shaped to give some perspective. Second, it doesn’t have the severe run-offs or bunkered green approaches of the Old Course and Plantation. And third, it has wide, generous fairways that will ensure most players have good second and third shot options.

But there is water in the form of lakes, ponds and creeks on 12 of the 18 holes. The water doesn’t often come into play, unless you take it on. The 9 th hole, for example, a 320-yard par 4, plays dogleg right over a large lake from the tee. How much of the lake you take off on your drive will determine how difficult the hole will be judged.

“There’s a lot of room,” IMG’s associate design director, Steve Shepherdson, who headed up the project, explained during a pre-opening inspection in mid-February.

“The bunkers aren’t as deep as on the other two courses and there is not as much run-off from the greens. Also, there’s only 12 or 13 metres of elevation change, compared with 40 metres at Plantation.”

A separate clubhouse, overlooking the greens on the spectacular 9th and 18th holes, will be ready by the end of April. Among notable other features are a 2300 square-metre practice putting green that is four times the size of a normal green, a 330-metre driving range and separate chipping green.

Siam Country Club is a member of Golf In A Kingdom, www.golfinakingdom.com, a collective of Thailand’s best golf courses, hotels and resorts.

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