(Bloomberg) — The pandemic has created plenty of investment winners, from Zoom to online retailers and Malaysian glove makers. Add Singapore golf club memberships to the list.
With borders closed for more than a year and relatively few Covid-19 cases in the city-state, golfers have flocked to Singapore’s 15 courses, making tee times almost impossible to get and driving prices for the private clubs to record highs.
At Sentosa Golf Club, which hosts the HSBC Women’s World Championship starting later this month, memberships have soared to S$350,000 ($262,000) for locals, and S$500,000 for foreigners. That’s up 40% from pre-pandemic rates, or double the return on the Dow Jones Industrial Average.
Going back further, the price of a Sentosa membership has soared almost 300% over the past two decades, making it a better investment than the local stock index and topping the returns on the S&P 500 Index over the same period, excluding dividends.
Lee Lee Langdale, a club broker, says she’s never seen anything like this since she started her firm in 1991, when golfers were first allowed to transfer their memberships to outside buyers.
With Singaporeans stuck on the island, many of them are taking up the game for the first time, or spending more hours playing and practising to hone their craft, said Langdale, 71, an avid golfer who once sported a 14 handicap — meaning 14 strokes over par.
“They can’t go anywhere,” said Langdale, over a lunch of sushi at the Singapore Island Country Club, a 72-hole layout where she’s a member. “So instead of using the money for travel they think it’s better to invest in a golf membership so they can continue playing until the borders are open.”
It’s not just locals who are clamouring for access to Singapore’s top clubs, some of which offer Olympic-sized swimming pools, tennis courts and workout rooms. Foreigners, particularly from Hong Kong and China, are also buying, adding to the price acceleration, said Langdale. Some of these golfers have permanent residency in the financial hub, while others are recent arrivals and see the memberships as a good investment.
“Some very wealthy migration is coming to Singapore and they don’t mind spending,” Langdale said. “Just a handful, not a lot, but that is affecting prices.”
Fees at the Singapore Island club, founded in 1891, are also rising, though not at the same pace as Sentosa. Memberships now sell for about S$225,000, up 84% from the lows of 2001. Prices at Tanah Merah Country Club, a 36-hole club nestled alongside the runways of Changi Airport, have jumped 53% to S$168,000 since the dotcom bust that hammered golf club prices and global stocks. Memberships at the nearby Laguna National Golf & Country Club fetch S$170,000, according to Langdale’s data at Singolf Services Pte.
That’s a lot more than a membership at Augusta National Golf Club in the U.S., the site of this week’s Master’s tournament. Membership fees are a closely guarded secret at the venerable club in Georgia, though they are reportedly in the US40,000 range. That’s well below Asia’s most expensive clubs, such as the Koganei Country Club in Tokyo, where fees are about US$520,000, according to broker Sakura Golf Co.
With the surge in demand, bookings are at a premium in Singapore. Golfers looking to play on one of the three public courses in the city-state of 5.7 million people often log in during the wee hours of the morning to find a spot several weeks out. It’s only slightly easier at the private courses, even after spending more than a quarter million dollars for access. Some players are buying a second membership at other clubs to boost their chances of landing a coveted Saturday morning slot. Demand for bookings is so great, the police were called in last year after hackers broke into the Singapore Island club system to secure tee times.
Greg Haines, a teacher at the Canadian International School, said the staff at the Orchid Club tried to talk him out of buying a membership, explaining how hard it is to land a tee time. Orchid memberships recently traded at S$28,000.
“There are two games here: One is the game itself. The other, it seems, is trying to find a booking,” Haines said.
Even at Champions, a jungle-like nine-hole public track where golfers in search of errant balls are apt to run into long-tailed macaques, monitor lizards and even wild boars, players are finding it hard to get a spot. Reservations were rarely needed on weekdays pre-Covid. Now, available slots are snapped up weeks in advance and the club is hosting more than 200 rounds a day, compared with 60 to 70 before the pandemic.
Prices may shoot higher and slots could become scarcer as more courses close. The city-state’s government — which typically leases land for golf clubs — closed the Raffles and Jurong clubs in recent years, and plans to shut the Keppel Club this year and the Marina Bay public course by 2024.
That means there will be about a dozen clubs left in Singapore, whose founder Lee Kuan Yew turned to golf for stress relief in the early days of independence in the 1960s. According to his memoir, Lee would take two hours off in the afternoon to hit 50 to 100 balls on the range and play nine holes. There’s even a nine-hole course within the gated grounds of the Istana presidential palace.At Marina Bay, the only public 18-hole course, golfers are playing up to 10,000 rounds a month, up from 7,800 before the pandemic, said General Manager Choo Wee Khiang. He said demand is so great at the Phil Jacobs-designed course, it may help persuade the government to extend the lease on the land so the club can stay open beyond 2024.
“We have made the point vividly enough to the government that there is a need to have a public golf course,” both for locals and tourists, Choo, 66, said in an interview overlooking the first tee.
The boom has been good for Chris Holloway, a pro at Champions who’s never been this busy in the dozen years he’s been teaching in Singapore. He’s now giving 50 to 60 hours of classes a week, up from 35 to 40 before the pandemic, and is having to turn away work.
Holloway, 40, acknowledges the boom may taper when the borders reopen and golfers can drive to neighbouring Malaysia or hop on a ferry to Indonesia for cheaper golf. But if a legacy of the pandemic is lasting interest in the game, maybe it won’t be such a bad thing.
“The game of golf really needed a bit of a boost,” said Holloway, comparing the current craze to the 1990s, when Tiger Woods took the sport by storm. “It was really lagging globally. Not many people were picking up the game for many reasons: It’s expensive, it takes too long, it’s too challenging. So it’s been good.”
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