Talk of Russian birdies, eagles and albatrosses might make you think you were deep in a discussion on Russian wildlife. More often than not you would be right but, as Etan Smallman discovers, the rise of new Russian golf courses all over the country is now changing that conversation. Here he talks to one of the leaders of that change, Keith Haslam; managing director of UK based Braemar Golf.
As odd couples go, it’s up there with Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau. Russia and golf are two words one does not readily expect to hear in the same sentence. But the sport is gaining a surprising foothold as the perfect game for any aspiring (or indeed fully-fledged) oligarch. The first 18-hole golf course was only built there in 1994 and the sport only really started to gain momentum in the 2000s. It still remains very much a rich man’s sport in Russia – with memberships ranging from £14,500 ($25,000) a year to more than £176,000 ($300,000) – but as it gains wider recognition, and Olympic status in 2016, it looks like golf could soon be a pastime for the Russian masses.
Many foreign companies are being drafted in to design, build and maintain world-class courses there – despite huge cultural differences and a climate that means, in most parts of the country, members can only enjoy five or six months of play per year. One firm at the forefront of this sporting revolution is Braemar Golf, based in St Andrews, Scotland, which has been involved from concept to the operation of a PGA branded facility in Russia, advised the owners of the highly anticipated Skolkovo Golf Club and is about to commence project managing the building of another club in St Petersburg, with one or two more similar projects in the pipeline.
The firm, established in 2000, has offices in Scotland, Russia, Bahrain, Bulgaria and Morocco. Braemar helped build and now continues to work with the owners of the PGA National Russia in Zavidovo, 90km from Moscow, which is the only club in Russia that carries the prestigious PGA brand. Opened in September 2012, the course actually has the look and feel of the ancient traditional golf courses to be found in Scotland. Meanwhile, just 25 minutes from the Kremlin, Skolkovo will be one of the most easily accessible golf clubs in the Moscow region. The club is located close to one of the most high-profile development projects in Russia, the Skolkovo Innovation Centre, which is being hailed as Russia’s Silicon Valley.
Managing director Keith Haslam, who grew up in Bolton in Lancashire, north England, has been obsessed with golf since he caught the bug aged just 14. “I was a keen sportsman as a child,” he says. “I used to play football, cricket, tennis, table tennis…but I didn’t take up golf seriously until I was 14 or 15 – after realising I was never going to make any money as a sportsman. The fact that it was an individual sport appealed to me. I liked watching it on TV and it was a ball game. I liked all ball games really. Then I went to university in Sheffield at 19. After I graduated, I went to Scotland and I’ve been here ever since.”
The 43-year-old studied leisure management at university, which culminated with a work placement at the world-famous Gleneagles resort, followed by a two-year golf management training programme. He has now been with Braemar for 11 years. Haslam says his company is currently working in nine or ten countries at the moment – including projects in the UK, Portugal, Morocco, Gabon, Montenegro and Bulgaria. And, of course, two – “and about to become three” – courses in Russia. “I think when we say we do work in Russia it definitely surprises people,” he says. “Golf in Russia is still very much in its infancy. We started work there in 2008/9 and there were only five or six courses in and around Moscow. They were all very private and exclusive clubs, therefore there wasn’t very much of an interest in golf in the rest of the country and very little from outside. It would still be fairly down the list of places people would expect us to work but, with golf now part of the Olympics in 2016 in Rio, that could easily change.”
With the sport still so new in Russia, just how much competition does Braemar face? “Some of the other golf management companies are definitely there. But we’ve taken the steps of setting up a branch office in Russia so that, administratively, we can invoice in roubles and employ people with proper work permits. Because of the hard work we’ve done it’s definitely allowed us as a relatively small company to punch above our weight. I think we’re very much seen as one of the big players in Russia now which we’re really pleased about.”
Having said that, making golf a viable business venture does not come without manifest challenges. As Haslam explains: “The climate is one of the big issues. Golf courses only open in St Petersburg and Moscow after the snow has melted. In an average year, you’re looking at May before the courses are really open for business. And once you reach mid-October that’s pretty much it. Even in Scotland, even though it can get pretty cold and miserable in the winter, on the coast and in certain areas, you’re playing 12 months a year. In Moscow, you’re talking five to six months.
“The demands in terms of quality there are often higher as well – they tend to go very high-end and try to get them in really tip-top condition. In many mature markets there’s anything from one or two stars through to five star facilities, and there’s a market for each of those levels. In Russia you’re starting very much at the top end so, usually, you’re dealing with top quality golf courses, often with signature brand architects, and the expectations are very high. That’s an extra challenge.” Golf in Russia, at least at the moment, is becoming very popular among the very affluent Russians. They’re internationally travelled; they like brands; and they like great quality. But, it seems, the challenge for Russia in the future will be whether there will be a market for three or four-star courses as this would potentially be the level that would appeal to the wider customer base and make the industry sustainable in years to come.
“It will be very interesting if golf courses are built more in the Sochi region, down on the Black Sea coast,” says Keith. “There you could probably play 10 or 11 months of the year. The only way to grow the game is to have facilities that are less costly to build, more maintenance-friendly and with more accessible price points.” So how much does it cost to build a golf course fit for Russia? “You’re talking anything from £5.8 million ($10 million) to £10.5 million ($18 million). In the Middle East, in places like Qatar, I’ve seen golf courses costing £29 million ($50 million) to £35 million ($60 million) plus. It really depends on the quality and the architect fees.”
The experts at KPMG’s golf advisory group have recently reported that Russia’s highest-end clubs have even come in at well over £29million ($50 million) when including costly extras like clubhouses, polo grounds, marinas and private ski slopes. Maintenance costs alone can be as high as £900,000 ($1.5 million) a year. In fact, some of the Russian courses started off as oligarchs’ playgrounds – uber-exclusive, executive, nine-hole shorter courses. “Some of these courses were built to be very, very private in the early days, but the cost of maintaining them meant that even if they started very exclusive they soon became more open – it’s a very difficult business model to get right.” Indeed, Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich is right now in the middle of deciding whether or not his course in the Moscow suburbs will be public or remain private in the future.
It’s enough to make one wonder how much is about a love of the sport and how much is about a love of the elite trappings. “It’s a very good question,” Haslam responds. “I think it’s quite split – from what we see, there are some people out there who absolutely love their golf as a sport and then there is an element of the market where the trappings of being a member of a club, and all the business of networking and social status, are very important.” It is a fact that in the early days of Russian golf people were members of two, three or four different clubs at the same time, even though they were very, very expensive to join. It was just the ‘in’ thing to do and the status of it was almost above all other considerations.
“We have a client in Russia whose owner said to us: ‘Look, I’m not going to have the time now in my stage of life to play golf with the business commitments I have, but I want my children to learn how to play golf because, a) I think it’s a great sport and, b) the social and business opportunities available on the course – internationally, that’s the place where business is done.’ So I think for a lot of parents in Russia, even though they may not be that keen themselves, there is definitely a sense that they would like their kids to play, even if it’s just for the traditions of the game. After all, it’s a sport about honesty as well as about aspiration.”
And, as the leader of one of Golf’s most innovative course developers, just how much golf does Haslam actually get to play himself – or is he sick of the sight of clubs and tees once he’s clocked off? “Not as much as I would like,” he laments. “I’ve played less and less over the years as the business has grown bigger. But I’m very lucky to be in the industry. Obviously, we do need to monitor our own golf courses once in a while – to check they’re still in mint condition – so there’s always an excuse,” he says with a smile.
For more information visit Braemargolf.co.uk