Golf Data Holdings (Pty) Ltd: Nurturing the perfect long game

Whilst the effects of the 2008 economic downturn had a drastic impact on the general residential and commercial construction industry, the ripples travelled much further, into more specialist sectors. At the time the financial world started to go awry, Golf Data was riding the crest of a wave, with five major golf course projects underway.

Recovery is taking a long-time, but the company has never lost faith in its holistic approach to design, construction and maintenance and is starting to see positive signs of pick up, as Sean Pienaar, part of the senior management team, responsible for business development and legal affairs, explains:

“Golf Data is a design, build and maintenance business involved in the golf course & landscaping industries. Historically our core business has been solely in golf courses but over the last 10 years we have gradually moved into large scale landscape design, construction & maintenance as well.

“We have built many of the country’s leading golf courses, including many that have hosted the prestigious South African Open, and other professional tour events. Golf Data courses have also won numerous awards, including South Africa’s Best New Course Award on an unparalleled six occasions for golf courses at Pecanwood (1998), Pezula (2000), Pearl Valley (2004), Simola (2005), St Francis Links (2007) and Serengeti Golf & Wildlife Estate (2010).

“In addition we have reconstructed a number of courses, with Leopard Creek the most high profile having consistently been ranked as South Africa’s number one course since 2004, after its major re‐construction by Golf Data in 2000.

“When everything went pear-shaped the banks took fright and essentially pulled the plug on anything to do with golf but we are now seeing projects which are re-sold to developers at discounted rates with the result that certain viable projects are having a renaissance.”

Golf Data is arguably South Africa’s leading golf course design, construction and maintenance company. In collaboration with Nicklaus Design, the company has raised the bar in terms of golf course design and construction standards in South Africa.

The link to Jack Nicklaus is of course the ultimate endorsement in quality and spans back to the early days of Golf Data, when founder and owner Robbie Marshall met the golfing legend, as Pienaar recalls:

“Golf Data is the brainchild of Robbie Marshall. He left the army with a passion for golf that he acquired whilst serving alongside a former professional golfer, the late Robbie Chapman. He was bitten by the bug and became a respected league golfer in Johannesburg. It was clear to Robbie very early on that he didn’t want to work in an office environment.

“Marshall landed a job as a green keeper (although he had no previous experience) at a small course at Crown Mines and gradually learnt the ropes and progressed in his career, gaining some formal qualifications through study in the USA.

“Golf Data came into being in 1989 as a partnership between former Nicklaus Design Associate Mark Muller and Robbie Marshall. Muller introduced Marshall to the legendary Jack Nicklaus and the two connected almost immediately. In addition there was an obvious synergy between the design and construction companies which led to a formal relationship between the Nicklaus Design company and Golf Data.”

Marshall soon introduced Nicklaus to their inaugural South African project in Knysna which was to be named Simola, but sadly the project failed financially and ultimately it was the Pecanwood course near Johannesburg that became the first Jack Nicklaus Signature Course to be completed.

In an industry where quality of construction is not well regulated (nor well understood by most developers), the Jack Nicklaus Signature has come to represent one of the highest endorsements of a golf course’s credentials, as Pienaar describes:

“There are various levels of design but the top tier offered by the major names in golf design is usually referred to as the “Signature Course”, where the designer (Golf Data has worked extensively with Jack Nicklaus and we are now building our 7th such course – but we have also built 2 courses with Ernie Els, as well as recently being appointed to work with the Player Group) has personally had significant input into the design of the course.

“He visits the construction site regularly (providing invaluable direction during the construction as previously unknown variables can dramatically alter the design direction), personally opens the golf course and grants the rights for the course to use his signature as part of its branding.

“The most significant project we have worked on to date is our nearly complete Steyn City Course which is another Nicklaus’ design. Golf Data has, in addition to building the golf course been retained by the developer to construct the magnificent landscaping project within this new “city”.

“Most golf estates in South Africa have roughly 500 homes but Steyn City encompasses more than 10,500 residential units – so it is not really a golf estate, but rather a city that includes a golf course. I have no doubt that Steyn City will set the new benchmark, not only South Africa, but abroad as well for what can be achieved in mixed use developments.”

Golf Data is headquartered in Somerset West, near Cape Town and operates a further office in Johannesburg.

“As a company we favour a holistic approach to course design, rather than one which just uses CAD software. We work closely with the owner to understand his vision and prefer to walk the land and demonstrate in practical terms how the course could work. The reality on the ground is often not as easy as it is when presented just in a data format.

“A significant part of the design process is therefore carried out onsite, on the ground. It is not just about creating the best strategic routing from a playability point of view though; you have to factor in many critical variables such as; water source, irrigation design, club house facilities, residential layouts and environmental issues.

“To further complicate matters the designer must incorporate the practical realities of maintenance of the completed course into his design, and a failure to consider this aspect carefully or to favour dramatic aesthetics over sensible design can result in significant increases in the relative costs of maintenance.

“The competition to gain favour with golfers between the courses is quite fierce. One way in which courses are able to consistently distinguish themselves as being above average (after the design and construction process) is to insist on excellent maintenance standards, regardless of whether the maintenance is done in-house or contracted to a firm such as Golf Data.

“As an outsource partner we pride ourselves on our skilled and well educated superintendents who not only manage, but also train our teams. In practical terms this means that not only does your outsource partner shoulder the lion’s share of risk over the course and equipment, but we also provide expertise that the course would otherwise need to contract out to a third party.”

“We also provide a tremendous amount of back office support, including golf course specific software, but these systems cannot ever replace an excellent superintendent.”

Pienaar says that there is very little quality standardisation within the industry – although ISO 14001 has some cross-over, in relation to environmental issues. However, the company has adopted the more holistic “Audubon” system of environmental management as its preferred choice, as he explains:

“Golf Data supports “Audubon”, a certification program that is internationally recognized and endorsed by the USGA. If the client chooses to participate in the Audubon program, Golf Data is well placed to practically effect the necessary changes and report to the client as required by the program.

“This is carried out on a course by course basis and the system looks at practical solutions to issues that affect the environment of that particular site. It has been shown to reduce costs in some instances; for example it prescribes natural ways of reducing pests, such as encouraging birds of prey to nest or perch in the vicinity to help eradicate vermin; thus not only doing the right thing environmentally but also reducing the costs of managing these issues.”

The company is also currently working on a major new renovation project called Wedgewood Golf Estate in Port Elizabeth which Pienaar says is its first venture into ownership of golf operations – which of course increases the risk to Golf Data.

He hopes that the project will demonstrate the company’s abilities to not only design and manage a course through membership and maintenance, as well as illustrate the capabilities of the Audubon approach.

“We intend to follow the Audubon guidelines on the estate and we have already successfully removed a vast amount of alien vegetation that had grown over the entire course in the years since it had been abandoned (when the original project failed financially). We are looking to create a high calibre course, but one that is very South African and uses indigenous grasses both on the fairways and tee boxes. We believe that we can produce a 5 Star course in a cost-effective way. All aspects of the course need to work in harmony and we cannot over capitalize if we are to showcase that there still remains good prospects for courses as businesses in the future of South Africa. Thus our club house will be modest, and will break the mould of the traditional clubhouse, but it will also be functionally efficient and provide a more family friendly and modern eclectic environment for our members.”

Golf Data has reinforced its commitment to providing environmentally sensitive solutions, by partnering with the providers of a drainage product called Waterbelt and with a soil retention product called Zeoplant, which help to enhance the golf course eco-system.

The company is also currently testing a number of products designed to improve the longevity and performance of bunkers and Pienaar says that should the results continue impress, the Golf Data will potentially look to offer the product as an additional value add.

South Africa was named “Africa, Indian Ocean and Gulf States Golf Destination of the Year 2011” by the International Association of Golf Tour Operators (IAGTO).

Golf Data is well-placed to help maintain and renovate many of the courses attracting swathes of tourists, as it builds new courses and grows its burgeoning landscape business.

“We pride ourselves on our superb playing surfaces and we hope that as the economy grows so will investor confidence in our industry. We are a gateway for investors with a vision for lifestyle residential estates. Looking to the future our main focus will remain on Africa although South East Asia parts of the Middle East may also offer opportunities for the future,” Pienaar predicts.