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PASSENGER SERVICES Last modified on March 25, 2011

Anyone for golf?

Robin Stone fifi nds out more about the growing popularity of airport golf courses.

The popularity of golf ensures that rarely a month goes by without an airport unveiling plans to open a course – Amsterdam Schiphol is the latest to join the list.

Schiphol Real Estate has signed a contract with Amsterdam International Golf Club for the construction and operation of an 18-hole course with clubhouse in the Nieuwe Meer area just north of the Dutch airport.

Investments in and operation of the 75-hectare golf course will be the responsibility of Amsterdam International Golf Club, although Schiphol Real Estate will retain ownership the site.

“The area is a premium location for the new golf course and will help contribute to our aim of transforming Schiphol into Europe’s preferred airport, offering both business and recreational facilities and services,” enthuses Schiphol Real Estate director, André van den Berg.

While Marcel Welling, director of Amsterdam International Golf Club, adds: “The golf course will be absolutely world-class and conform to the highest international standards.

“The clubhouse will also meet the most stringent quality criteria and offer a range of deluxe services, such as meeting facilities, a gym, bar and restaurant.”

The fact that it sounds impressive should come as no surprise to anyone, as there are already a host of top airport golf courses out there.

Deep in the desert of Abu Dhabi lies a golf course where the greens are known as ‘browns’.

It also throws up one of the more unusual hazards to be found on any course in the world – myriads of burrows dug by desert lizards which can swallow up an unwary ball in a trice, making even the most sweetly struck shot either out of bounds, unplayable, or plain lost.

This is the reality of playing a round at the Al Ghazal Golf Club, opened 11 years ago at Abu Dhabi Airport – just one of hundreds of airport golf courses scattered across the world.

Thousands of miles west, you can stand on the fifth tee of a mature golf course bordering Ohio’s Big Walnut Creek, and actually see the passengers looking out of the windows as they come in to land at Port Columbus International Airport. For golf-playing plane-spotters, this, surely, is seventh heaven.

It may seem paradoxical that while golfers are a notoriously tetchy bunch who will glare daggers at the unfortunate spectator who does so much as cough as they are addressing a tricky 10-footer on the 18th, they can put up with the roar of a couple of Merlin engines directly overhead.

Lining up a birdie putt as a B747 ‘buzzes’ you seconds before touchdown might even faze Tiger Woods, but there are plenty of players who are more than happy to put their  concentration to the ultimate test.

Today, golf courses are frequently an integral part of the airport city concept, and substantial sums are being spent. The Skycity Nine Eagles course at Hong Kong International Airport (HKIA) was the result of €8 million development project financed and operated by Airport Management Services.

Located east of the existing passenger terminal, and set within a landscape of undulating greens, an artificial lake and extensive sand bunkers, it is Hong Kong’s first nine-hole golf course featuring an ‘island green’.

Former airport authority chief executive, Dr David Pang, describes it as “another magnificent amenity to serve the growing population of passengers, visitors and the airport community.”

Adding: “This is a further illustration that HKIA is more than an infrastructure. It is a place where people encounter a unique and memorable total airport experience.”

Course facilities include equipment rental, luggage storage, a pro shop and even on-course lighting – making it the only course in Hong Kong to cater for golfing ‘night owls’.

It has been designed to integrate with other areas of the airport development, including SkyPlaza, AsiaWorld-Expo, and the SkyPier, and together with other tourist attractions on Lantau Island such as Hong Kong Disneyland and the Big Buddha, increases the number of entertainment options available both to visitors and the local community.

If proof were needed of the popularity of airport golf courses, Big Walnut Creek can provide it, claiming that more than 55,000 rounds are played on the Ohio course every year.

It’s even linked to a website called The Weather Channel, giving players access to a mine of information before teeing off, such as current wind speeds, humidity index and prevalent temperatures. (Aircraft take-off and landing times are not included in this data – something for the future perhaps).

The spread of airport golf courses is difficult to fathom, and no real pattern emerges as to whether airport planners, finding that the earmarked site contains more land than they need, are utilising the extra space to generate some extra cash by designing a golf course, or whether the golf courses, invariably located some miles outside the nearest built-up area, were in existence well before airports had the cheek to start springing up next door.

Indeed they were playing golf at Prestwick, Glasgow, before the Wright brothers were even born. The first Open Championships were held at Prestwick golf course in 1860.

Since then, of course, golf has become one of the few truly international sports, and today airport golf courses can be found the world over, from Canada to China. Many are the brainchild of the world’s leading players, past and present.

The sea-facing course at Shenzhen Huangtian International Airport, for example, was designed by Ian Woosnam and the planned new course at New Songdo City next to Incheon is being designed by the legendary Jack Nicklaus.

So why are airports interested in golf courses? It’s not because a good wide fairway can be used as an emergency landing strip, although oneactually was a few years ago in the UK when a pilot in Newcastle was forced to land his two-seater Cessna 152 in a hurry.

In many cases, public golf courses have been developed by airports as a means of converting excess, unused land into a profitable business.

The key to success invariably lies in attracting a reputable golf club operator on to the site by offering a long-term lease.

A couple of years ago, for example, the 36-hole Hamilton golf course in Vanderburgh County, Indiana became the property of the local Evansville Airport Authority, which is now asking for bids from operators interested in running it on a minimum 20-year lease.

The airport authority wants to keep most of the property as a golf course, because it lies under the glide path of approaching aircraft, and is an FAA-designated noise zone.

The potential economic benefits are substantial.

A golf course is a big marketing plus for hotels and conference centres, giving them a strong incentive to lease land and build at or near an airport.

Having an on-site course can often persuade business travellers attending conventions or other events to lengthen their stays to take in a couple of rounds of golf.

It’s a major benefit too, for companies operating in and around an airport to have a golf course on their doorstep.

It provides an aesthetically pleasing landscape, and gives their employees easy access to a ready-made recreational and social environment.

And for the golf club operators, airport sites present a number of advantages.

Firstly, they’re not faced with having to make a large initial investment to buy land. Secondly, lease payments normally start only after the course is open and already generating revenue.

Thirdly, airport staff and corporate tenants represent an important source of revenue – as do stopover passengers and pilots. Fourthly, busy airports are more likely to be profitable locations because they have a large local base of potential golfers.

Bill Amick, a professional golf course designer based at Daytona Beach, has no doubt that airport golf courses are here for the long-haul.

He believes that there are plenty of travelling golfers out there who would jump at the prospect of being able to grab their clubs off the baggage carousel and stand on the first tee within the hour.

Amick, who has been designing golf courses for more than 40 years, enthuses: “This is becoming a reality for more and more golfers because a growing number of airports are now including golf course projects on their property.”

Bear Creek Golf Club, for instance, boasts a 36-hole course located inside Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport (DFW) – and that’s just one of 35 airport courses listed by Amick in the US alone.

And they’re not necessarily, short, flat, tightly designed courses restricted in the facilities they can offer by airport development.

Melbourne Airport Golf Club, for instance, which lies adjacent to the north-south runway, is a par-70, 6,000m, 18-hole course with water features, 37 bunkers and elevated greens. It has a fully equipped pro shop, clubhouse and practice nets, fairway and putting green.

Players who momentarily forget that they are testing their skills on an airport course are rudely reminded of the fact when they reach the 16th green at Melbourne, when they stand less than 60 metres below busy flight paths, including daily B747s flying the Kangaroo Route.

The growth of airport courses is spawning a wide range of other activities and industries. Scientists are currently designing strains of grass that could, one day, keep birds, insects and livestock away from golf courses and airports naturally.

They’re searching for the right combination of grass and fungus that will keep insects away and, therefore, the birds that feed on them.

In the case of airport golf courses, the argument runs, the result will be a reduction in the incidence of bird strikes, and may also deter Canada geese, whose droppings, it transpires, can spoil the greens.

Richard Curtis, business development manager at Ag Research New Zealand, says: “It won’t solve all the problems with birds around airports, but it’ll be a part of the overall bird management armoury. There is a lot of interest from airport companies around the world.”

But as Newton’s third law of motion states, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, and teeing off within sight of the terminal building or runway is simply not to everyone’s liking.

One disgruntled player, on tackling Oshawa Airport course in Ontario recently, was decidedly unimpressed. “The greens are yellow,” he moaned. “The course is in terrible shape, and the sound of the airplanes going off is bad when you are shooting.

For $35 this is terrible – it should be $5 to play.” As another wise man once said, you can’t please everybody all of the time.

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