The second floor of the Gardens Mall at Mid-Valley, Kuala Lumpur, seems an unlikely place to glimpse the future of the “royal and ancient” game. But in the 40,000 sq ft that was once home to Robinson’s department store, you can “play” St Andrews, bring your kids instead of your clubs, and do a lot more besides.
In fact, you can tee off on any one of 30 mouth-watering items on the à la carte menu of famous courses, while tackling more conventional fare at the Tee-box restaurant with your family. Or have a shot at Dota with your mates. Golf’s future is being designed to be more accessible, more inclusive and more fun — if whacking a ball into a screen is your thing.
Virtual golf has been around for aeons but MST’s stunning Golf Arena is taking it to the highest level. “This is the pinnacle of an indoor golf facility across the globe,” says John Watters, American co-founder and co-president of Foresight Sports, who supply the technology. “Malaysia should feel very fortunate to have it.”
Virtual seems a little more real, thanks to the quality of GCHawk launch monitor’s high-speed cameras. And sticking 20 of them under the same roof as an excellent restaurant, a well-stocked 19th hole, a golf lab to fix your clubs and tuition to fix your swing might just be the shape of the game to come.
Nor is it all about golf. There are video games, football skills challenges, a sports bar, a champagne bar and, not forgetting the core business, a giant retail store of golf equipment. There are private suites where air shots can be concealed, while hiring the whole place can give a product the perfect tee-off as many companies have discovered.
The “brains” behind it all is MST Golf CEO Ng Yap, who, along with childhood friend K P Low, founded the business back in 1989. After a chance encounter in New York, they bought a job lot of ancient clubs that they shipped back to KL. Once reconditioned, the hickory was put on sale with the titanium and they opened their first store in Taman Tun Dr Ismail.
They went on to build an empire until Covid’s siren called a halt. Despite already dominating the market, Ng, 60, spent lockdown “wondering how to get in more golfers”. He need not have worried.
“We got lucky,” he is quick to acknowledge. “The industry was one of the few beneficiaries of the pandemic, which really shook it up and sparked a golf boom once restrictions were lifted. People wanted to go out and golf, [and] being a naturally socially distanced game, [it] was one of the first things they were allowed to do. What helped was that there were many trendsetters, influencers and movie stars among them. They seem to have had an impact.”
A good time then to catch the rising wave and launch Arena, notwithstanding the irony that Ng was offering the Great Indoors while people craved fresh air. He says: “I had been studying trends in the US golf entertainment industry and knew there were already more off-course players than on-course players.
“Topgolf was a real driving force and their CEO [Artie Starrs] is now one of the most powerful voices in the game because of the number of new golfers he has brought in. And the company is being bought by Callaway. We just want people to play golf either indoors or outdoors — it doesn’t matter. The more infrastructure there is for people to play golf, the better. For us, it’s the more the merrier.
“We don’t mind other stores or golf enterprises opening up — they just add to the buzz. During lockdown, I conceptualised how we could bring down the barriers that make golf so intimidating to the non-golfer. Our own staff told us it’s hard [to start] and the entry level is too high.”
Even those who love the sport admit that at certain clubs, the attitude can be “less is more” as far as the rakyat is concerned. Cost is a big factor and the traditional route via the driving range also has its downside. According to Ng, “In Southeast Asia, driving ranges can be hot, humid and boring to hang around. Many people are lost [to the game] at this stage.
“In the US, the trend is to bring them indoors but they’ve gone for an atmosphere like Hooter’s [loud, laddish restaurants with scantily-clad waitresses], which couldn’t work in Malaysia. Here, we try to create a whole ecosystem of golf and give them a chance to practise, play, eat, drink and just hang out in a cool atmosphere.”
So confident is he that this will catch on that MST has opened a second Arena in Tropicana Gardens, Petaling Jaya. Whisper it softly, but could he also have chanced upon a solution to the Klang Valley’s empty malls? “I’m already getting calls from them,” he smiles. “We want to expand.”
The true measure of success is, though, still the core business and he’s happy to report that the retail store is proving its worth. “Usually, it takes six months to a year for a store to mature,” he says. “But this one was mature on day one — because of all this. He glances around an emporium that seems only slightly smaller than Mulu Caves.
“We are just starting out and focusing on the F&B right now,” he continues. “But we have opened a huge new store in Singapore and for the next few years, our expansion will be regional — Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam.”
One direction he is considering, though, is staging tournaments and a league between indoor golfers who can play the same course and even join the same “flight” from different locations. As it is, you can call a kaki in Sydney and another in New York and end up teeing off together at “Pebble Beach”.
It is not golf in the way we know it, but Ng says: “It could be like beach volley ball, which (having started as a gimmick) more people watch than the real sport. That has speeded it up like futsal and e-sports. Big tech companies are getting into it and now Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy are doing something.”
With thirsty outdoor courses the likely first casualties of the planet’s warming, it could be a necessary adjustment. On his flying visit to these shores, Watters certainly had that in mind when he told Golf Matters: “When you look at the global landscape of golf — resources, land availability and so on … there isn’t going to be a lot of room left to develop green-grass golf courses. Having a tech-infused experience that can be plugged into existing locations is how we are going to grow golf globally.”
The buzz created by Arena has persuaded another American high-flyer, TaylorMade Golf Co CEO David Abeles, to drop by after attending a conference in Vietnam. “It’s amazing what effect it’s had in the industry,” says Ng.
It has had an effect on the demographic, too, with a lot more women playing, while he is also trying to encourage children and the physically handicapped. “It’s all part of growing the game as so many indoor golfers do go on to play outdoors. And even if they don’t, many will buy a set.”
Ng acknowledges they are different sports and says: “I was talking to these monitor guys [who] say that in five years, there’ll be a world champion in screen golf that Tiger Woods cannot beat. And there’ll be money to be won when people play professionally.”
Another unexpected “bonus” of Covid, was, he says, “that the trendsetters, who tried golf, thought normal apparel was boring [and] so created their own brands. Global brands recognised this and took the opportunity to make golf cooler.
“They’re now cooperating with these people so the latest trend is a crossover to streetwear. It gives golfers a cooler look and is bringing more young people to the game. Older people mostly prefer outdoors.”
Twice Malaysian Open champion (1977 and 1986) Stewart Ginn is one who owns up to having been a sceptic, but has become a convert. Now in his seventies and enjoying an ambassadorial role, he admits: “I had reservations because I’m a traditionalist. I learnt my golf on the grass in Australia and I like to see the ball fly, where it lands and so forth. But after being here for six months, I’ve changed my tack on teaching golf.
“Getting someone in the simulator makes it much easier for them to understand ball flight,” he maintains. “Try it on the course or range and they just wouldn’t get it, but with the simulator, you can go over it over and over again.
“There’s a kid called Sky Wilding, son of Shane, who’s an internationally known coach. The boy learnt golf solely on the simulator and is now winning [outdoor] competitions in the US and around the world. He’s a phenomenon and just eight years old.
“This is a great introduction to golf for people. They don’t have to buy clubs, shoes or anything, but they can try to swing a club. I see people walk through the door here who are interested in doing it as a family. That’s fantastic. Golf in Malaysia is not that cheap. It can be four or five hundred for a round whereas you can come here for an hour for RM80 and learn golf as a six-ball. I think it’s great value and a great education.”
Which is why MST’s vast Golf Arena may be ahead of the curve. And it seems apt that the company, which began by remembering history with its antique clubs, is among the first to tee off into the future.
This article first appeared on Sept 19, 2022 in The Edge Malaysia.