For the typical sports fan, golf is the sporting equivalent of watching paint dry. It’s only ever on your TV screen if it happens to be on when you switch to the sports channel. Or it’s next to the report you’re reading about last night’s football match. And yet, when you listen to a golf enthusiast describe the game in its full, unvarnished glory, you begin to wonder if perhaps you’re missing out on the magic of the perfect swing.
That’s how I felt while listening to Patrick Feizal Joyce, who was lamenting to me about how rarely he picks up the putter now – only five times last year, according to him. Previously, he used to hit the greens thrice a week. It is rather ironic considering his day job. Joyce is the vice-president of golf in Lagardère Sports, formerly known as World Sports Group, and oversees the development of the game in the region. His responsibilities are multi-faceted, but they are focused on achieving one goal: transforming sport into spectacle. And there is none bigger than the SMBC Singapore Open that tees off at the end of this month.
Last held in 2012, the golf tournament has quite the tumultuous history. It started in 1961 and was an annual event on the sporting calendar for four decades before being cancelled due to the lack of sponsorship. It was revived in 2005 and managed to grow year on year, only to face an uncertain future once again after Barclays Bank withdrew from the competition.
“Finding sponsors for any professional sporting event in the current economy is incredibly difficult, especially for a massive tournament like the Singapore Open. It had a huge prize purse of US$6 million and the budget to hold it was astronomical. To some degree, it was not sustainable,” said Joyce.
It was a return to the familiar drawing board and this time Joyce was determined to sink the ball at the third time of asking. With the Sumitomo Mitsui Banking Corporation, he reckons he’s found the perfect long-term partner. Singapore and Japan have strong deep business ties, and SMBC and Lagardère Sports share the same vision.
And while the prize money took a significant hit, dropping to a mere US$1 million, Joyce managed to snag the hottest golfing sensation on the planet, Jordan Spieth. “If we were to make the purse higher, we wouldn’t be able to get him or any of the other athletes we’ve lined up, people like Darren Clarke and Yang Yong-Eun, to come. While they love this city, they will not come for free. We had to provide incentives.”
The straight shooter admits that his love for golf can occasionally come into conflict with the business of sports marketing. A decision that is good for the bottomline might not necessarily be welcomed by fans. But it’s something he has to come to terms with on his own time.
Another contentious debate he frequently finds himself mired in is the game’s stature in the country. Golf is seen as an elitist sport here and it’s a view Joyce desperately wants to change for the sake of the health of the game. Unlike most other countries, where a majority of golf courses are open to the public, most courses in Singapore are only accessible to members, who pay a hefty fee for the privilege. It doesn’t help that golf courses take up a lot of space, which is a premium in land-scarce Singapore.
“The country is losing golf courses and the ones that remain are too expensive for the average Singaporean to play on. That’s why the game is struggling to grow,” said Joyce. “Golf should be made more accessible but I know that there is some resistance to this. There are a number of people who want golf to remain as it is. They want the sport to remain ‘prestigious’, so to speak.”
Joyce isn’t backing down. Leading up to the SMBC Singapore Open, he worked with the Singapore Golf Association to organise junior clinics for schools and interested children. He has also enlisted young upcoming Singaporean golfers to work with these kids and foster a close bond. And with the Open as a catalyst, he hopes to reignite interest in the game.
“I am cautiously optimistic that we will have a couple of Singaporean pro golfers who will play the game at the highest level in the next few years. It’s time for Mardan (Mamat) to not be the only flag-bearer,” said Joyce, laughing. Perhaps then viewers will stop flipping away from the sports channel when a golf tournament is on.
Catch the SMBC Singapore Open at The Serapong Course 28-31 January