He comes across as unassuming, deferential and not one to ruffle feathers. Which probably explains why he seems to be coming into his own only now, despite having been a council member, and even VP of the Professional Golf Association of Malaysia (PGAM), for years.
As of July last year, he’s become the president of the association that has history dating back to 1975, when it was headed by a judge, the late Tun Abdul Hamid Omar, who rose to be Lord President. Even a deputy prime minister, the late Tun Abdul Ghafar Baba held the position for years.
In more recent times, it was Tan Sri Mohd Razali Abdul Rahman, a corporate leader and currently the chairman of Saujana Golf Resort and Tan Sri Abdul Ghani Othman, chairman of Sime Darby Bhd and former mentri besar of Johor.
But, now with Valrick Harris Zainal Abidin at the helm, what is significant is that he’s the first golf professional to head the association as one who better understands the psyche, needs and aspirations of play-for-pay members and others related to golf, such as club fitters, who come under the “vocational” category.
As they say, an organisation is only as good as its members and in this case, a minority, motivated by self-interest, has been its bane and their disruptive behaviour and in-fighting resulted in the association’s suspension in 2009. It was subsequently rebranded in 2010, becoming the PGAM.
Harris realises that the “buck” now stops with him and he’s buckled down to making a difference.
He’s going about it the way he’s comfortable with, slowly but steadily. Big point in his favour, his professional background.
As an amateur, too, he represented the country (1989-1991) and as a professional, he played on the Asian Tour (1994-1996) and had been a coach of the national men’s team (1997-2003). In 2001, the team won gold at the South-East Asian (SEA) Games after 12 years and the Putra Cup after 17.
He also coached the women’s national team (2003-2005) and he had the Selangor girls’ and boys’ teams under his wing for 12 years. With the exception of a single edition held in Sabah, where the boys’ team took home silver, the boys won every team gold that Sukma (Sukan Malaysia), the national sports meet, had to offer.
In addition, both the boys’ and girls’ teams swept all four medals at the Games held in Negri Sembilan and Kedah.
His secret of success — preparation. Instead of having just one practice round, the teams had three beforehand. More than that, training would start in September, the year before, for the Games in May the following year (during the school holidays).
If the Games were held in Terengganu, wind would become a factor to deal with and the course being flat, that too had to be taken into account. So practice was mainly on ball flight and trajectory control and it was all this that provided the edge against other teams not as well prepared.
Coaching is a science and he has had the benefit of being trained in golf management at the Professional Golfers Career College in America for two years. So focused was he that he “sacrificed all the fun I could have had”.
The course was all encompassing and dealt with the techniques of teaching, fitness and golf psychology, rules, bio-mechanics, principles of club design and club fitting, golf course preparation and tournament planning. All of which have given him expertise he can count on.
He has definite ideas on coaching. “We have to look at the different levels, from the beginner to the elite level, matching coaching for them. It also held true for coaches at the professional level. Even the best players sought different coaches to take them to new heights.”
There’s a dearth of elite coaches in the country, a shortcoming that has to be tackled and the ball is rolling with Shane Gillespie, head PGA coach flying over from time to time conducting seminars and clinics. He’s become an associate member of PGAM and runs the courses with the intention of being part of the development and success of our local professionals in the future.
A recent session at Templer Park Country Club drew 30 participants and he’s fanning out to the region, initiating similar tie-ups. Coaching to Harris is the lifeblood for building up PGAM and it’s another key performance indicator (KPI) he’s set for himself.
He was once told by an American coach, who went to China when the country was embarking on its golf programme, that he had scouted around for individuals with proper height and build to take in. Some were even farmers and train them he did.
Despite communication difficulties, he produced the first player Zhang Lian-Wei, who went on to win on the Asian Tour five times and even the European Tour (once). He now plays on the seniors’ Tour as well.
The American had told him that golf was about doing things right with repetition. Practice doesn’t make perfect, if instruction is not right, one simply became good at doing the wrong thing.
“We have to find raw talent and then do the polishing. Talent spotting cannot be done ad hoc. It has to be sustained and systematic. For an individual the first two months of coaching is adjusting to what is being taught.”
With this in mind, he has tied up with the Jasin Heritage Golf Club to have the PGAM academy there. Nothing fancy, just a six-hole golf course (three par-3s, two par-4s and one par-5) to be seen as a short game training facility.
Accommodation-wise, there’s a 25-room hotel on site and a block of six single-storey terraced houses. It’s away from the hustle and bustle of Kuala Lumpur. Feelers have been sent out to schools nearby for trainees, but certain protocols have to be followed and that’s taking time.
Harris is acutely aware of the need for rapport and coordination with Professional Golf of Malaysia (PGM) and has started working in that direction for dovetailing tournaments that PGAM is able to garner.
PGM currently is a platform for promising amateurs to take part in tournaments. “Thailand has over 4,000 juniors undergoing training. We have barely 400,” he says.
He knows he doesn’t have to re-invent the wheel, as he only has to look at what’s being done elsewhere.
Clubs in Thailand allow their facilities to be used by juniors. The Singha Beer programme there underwrites the pro-gramme for talented youngsters all the way to the professional level for those who make the grade. It’s structured and strict to ensure that performance indicators are met.
International Container Terminal Services Inc (ICTSI) of the Philippines has a total of 30 men’s professional tournaments annually, 10 of them with prize money of US$100,000 (RM430,000). It also has eight tournaments for women professionals, with three events in Taiwan, to underscore the need and value of unstinting corporate support.
Players cannot be picked on performance alone, but on potential as well. A diminutive player may be good up to a certain level, but it’s those who have build, as well as talent who are more likely to succeed in the end. Giving exposure to such players at the expense of those with a proven record, but with size limitations, needs to be appreciated.
With the expertise and perspectives he has, Harris seems well positioned to lift PGAM out of the doldrums and be a key player in the drive to play catch-up with the power houses of golf in the region.