Helping to raise the bar at SGCC

By SHIV DAS

Ian Knox comes from Portrush, Northern Ireland, and has reason to be concerned about the UK wrestling with the complexities of Brexit and its possible fallout in his neck of the woods.

But that was furthest from his mind as he sought to explain why he happened to be at the Saujana Golf and Country Club (SGCC) recently.

“Nope, we won’t talk about Brexit because it’s a mess right now,” he said. He was here purely because he was working for European Tour Properties, a sub-section of the European Tour that currently has 28 great golfing venues affiliated to it. SGCC is a recent addition.

Golf World (UK) magazine in its latest Top-100 Golf Resorts Continental Europe rankings has six of the Tour venues in the Top 10.

No 1 is Terre Blanche near the French Riviera, followed closely at No 2 by PGA Catalunya Resort, Spain’s top facility. The Quinta do Lago in Portugal is fifth, Verdura Resort, Italy (sixth), Finca Cortesin, Spain (eighth) and Maxx Royal Golf and Spa, Turkey 10th.

SGCC has its own selling points the Tour finds worthy of affiliation and expressed in the holding of the prestigious Maybank Championship, a European Tour-Asian Tour sanctioned event that’s to be held for the fourth time, in March.

The golf venues are audited regularly, four visits a year for those within easy reach and two for those further away. The devil in the detail gets a thorough working over — toilets, locker rooms, arrival/reception, furniture, food and beverage (F&B), and other amenities that go towards a particular venue experience.

Then there’s the golf course itself, and F&B before golfers go out to play and also after play. All the findings are collated into a report that can then be shared and even benchmarked against previous visits. There is also comparison with three other facilities of similar standards in the network.

“If a venue’s scores are low or going lower, we will work hard to raise them, as it’s really a partnership, very much a partnership.”

The survey work is done by a “Mystery Shopper”, a specially trained person. “It’s as black and white as we can make it. It’s not subjective, because there are definitive reasons for the scores and even covers such things as tea time reservations, how they are attended to and also at other points of contact that lend themselves to scrutiny.”

Telephone calls are an integral part of the survey as they are recorded for assessment of visitor experience and for training purposes. It’s where social media — Facebook, Instagram and Twitter — also comes in.

Here’s the good news. “If you are a member of a European Tour Properties-affiliated club, you have access to play in all other member clubs for only €35 (RM165.90),” said Knox, who is one of two, the other being Ian McInally who is director of operations, doing the circuit. Meanwhile, according to Knox, the reason he is on board as operations manager is because of growth.

The bulk of the work is mainly in Europe and requires short flights, but Mauritius, Dubai, Black Mountain in Thailand and here in Malaysia, are more extended.

There is a site in China coming up soon and another in Seychelles, all representing expansion in Asia, said Knox, who lets in that he enjoys travelling. He might be away for five days at a stretch, but most weekends are his to do as he pleases at home.

“Our contracts are usually for three years, we see value for three years, top and bottom lines.” There’s a strategy of having only one venue per area, not necessarily countries. We try and keep regional exclusivity for our partners.

“We have one now in Kuala Lumpur and won’t have another, as it provides for a certain distinction. For the club, it’s a stamp of approval and association with a known brand. But it’s possible to have others in different regions.”

SGCC’s association with the European Tour is strong, adds Knox quickly and turning to the golf course, he notes a lot of work has been done on the greens. “That part of it is great. What we are trying to do is see what we can add to the club as a whole.

“The challenge is, SGCC is a golf course for members and hotel residents only, and it’s for management to keep them happy and for us to see how we can help add value to that.”

Knox, 46, sees himself in a good place, because European Tour Properties is a sought-after brand.

He has related experience he banks on. He was director of golf at The Belfry Hotel and Resort before this and previous to that, he was director of golf at the Marriott, UK, for 10 years.

Portrush, which will host the 2019 British Open, is a far cry from his early years during the time of the Irish Republican Army troubles. A lot of visitors were afraid to travel then.

“There was trouble if you went looking for it…but not really.”

Think of golfers Graeme McDowell, Darren Clarke and Rory McIlroy winning Majors and with The Open next year in Portrush, it is very much back on the world stage.

As for Brexit and its implications, Knox reckons he simply has to wait and see.