Self-interest behind club's generosity

Decision to partly fund Hong Kong Open may help elite Fanling facility hold on to land the government wants for housing

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 11 August, 2013, 5:02am

The Hong Kong Golf Club can take a bow for partly underwriting the troubled Hong Kong Open. But let's make no bones about the motives behind this helping hand, which was born from necessity and not philanthropy.

The club's general manager, Keith Williams, said it was doing "everything it can to preserve this prestigious sporting history". Laudable sentiments that have resulted in part of the prize money - slashed by US$700,000 to US$1.3 million - being given by the club.

Yet, only the naive would regard this act as purely charitable, for it comes at a time when the government is looking closely at reclaiming the 176 hectares of land, now given on lease, and turning it into a suburban township.

In this context, it is prudent the club is seen to be making a useful contribution towards public life by "ensuring the Hong Kong Open can continue", as Williams put it.

For more than half a century, the Hong Kong Open has been inextricably linked with the Hong Kong Golf Club. With the city's oldest professional sporting event, in its 55th year, facing hard times it is only appropriate its perennial host gives a helping hand.

Only the naive would regard this act as purely charitable

Before the announcement was made by the club, David Webb, a reader, had taken exception to the fact the tournament had once again gone cap in hand to the government for public funds. Webb found it "distasteful" that a club which has an elite membership and a waiting list reportedly of nearly 20 years and which uses public land could not offer a way out for the Hong Kong Open by selling a prized debenture or two.

"The Hong Kong Golf Club wants to justify its continued presence on land at Fanling. It does so by claiming that without the course(s), there would be no Hong Kong Open so the solution is simple - sell a couple of debentures each year," Webb wrote in a lengthy e-mail to this column.

In its annual report for the year ended December 2012, the Hong Kong Golf Club's captain, Peter Reed, happily reveals an operating surplus of HK$6.2 million and a net surplus for the year of HK$18 million. A few pages later, Christopher Ip, the man in charge of finance on the general committee, discloses that the club's total reserves had reached a whopping HK$363 million, compared with HK$345 million in 2011. The fixed assets are worth a net HK$182 million, while its investment portfolio stands at just over HK$125 million.

These figures are not readily available to the public and can only be accessed on the club's website in the members-only section. They will undoubtedly add to the widespread perception that this is no poor man's club. And all this for a nominal lease of HK$1 annually.

With public sentiment against it, the club has felt that supporting the Hong Kong Open might soothe the critics.

But as Webb pointed out, it is a shame the club couldn't sell a couple of debentures which would have raised HK$30 million, more than enough to sustain the prize money at last year's level.

That would also have meant there would be no need for the organisers to go begging to the government's Mega Events Fund for handouts. Last year, the MEF handed over HK$15 million. This would be a negotiating tool with the government if it does come to a crunch where the lease will not be extended - proof that tax-payers' dollars will not be used for the Hong Kong Open.

After all, the Hong Kong Golf Club has benefited all these years by hosting this showpiece tournament. The media exposure both at home and abroad has been invaluable in raising the profile of the Fanling venue.

As for the argument that the club is a public facility, most people are excluded by the HK$2,000 green fee. The annual report revealed that 102,067 rounds of golf were played last year, of which only around 18,000 were by visitors and most of them accompanied by members. The large majority of usage is by members - 78,772 rounds.

There is also a growing consensus that the Hong Kong Open should look at another venue - the Kau Sai Chau North Course designed by Gary Player. The picturesque North Course is able to provide superior conditions to those at Fanling. If extra ferry services can be provided, the problem of access can be solved.

Fears of such a move would have robbed the Hong Kong Golf Club of its best defence against those baying for the government to take up the prized land. Hence this move to lend a helping hand.