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Travel & Leisure

Golf time in Singapore takes pro skills to score during travel ban

Soaring demand drives Sentosa membership fees to 13-year high

Thailand's Benyapa Niphatsophon in action at the Sentosa Golf Club in Singapore before the coronavirus pandemic.   © Reuters

SINGAPORE -- On a recent balmy Tuesday, a senior manager at a Japanese financial institution headed to the office despite being more than comfortable working from home during the coronavirus pandemic.

His decision to go into work that day was not driven by an urgent meeting or project. Instead, he was on a quest to secure a tee time at the prestigious Singapore Island Country Club, and his internet connection at home was just not fast enough.

"To score a tee time, you have to move your mouse at top speed. I can't even ask my secretary to do this," he said.

He excitedly clicked on the reservation page as he counted down the seconds to noon, when the slots for the following Sunday would go on sale. With the office's high-speed internet humming, he liked his chances. But in an instant, the slots were sold out before he could snag one.

The manager's failed attempt has become more common here as coronavirus travel restrictions have trapped Singaporeans in their country. Golfers who once made trips to neighboring Malaysia and Indonesia to get in a few rounds are now flocking to domestic courses -- if they are lucky enough to get a tee time, that is.

Tee times have been in high demand at Singapore's 15 golf courses since the pandemic closed borders. (Photo by Takashi Nakano)

Tee times are as hard to obtain as in-demand concert tickets, and heated competition is played out offline as well. A 70-something retired financial worker with the surname Phang arrived at the Singapore Island Country Club at 4 a.m. on a recent Tuesday to wait in line at the booking counter, which offered 30% off tee times booked in-person. More than 30 other people had joined him in the queue by 6 a.m. when it opened.

With the area equivalent of central Tokyo's 23 wards, Singapore is home to just 15 golf courses. This meant that before the pandemic, many golfers played rounds outside the city-state, taking day trips north to the Malaysian state of Johor or south to Indonesia's Batam Island.

Now travel restrictions are blocking such trips. On top of this, "people have more free time on their hands and many who used to play golf but no longer had time for it started returning to it again," said Zoryana Melesh, senior research analyst at ValueChampion.

This has spurred demand for domestic golf courses, lifting membership costs. The price at the Sentosa Golf Club, one of the most expensive courses, jumped 11% on the year to 300,000 Singapore dollars ($225,000) in 2020, reaching a 13-year high, according to broker Tee Up Marketing Enterprises.

Golf courses are not the only venues attracting golfers.

Jan Haank, an avid player who used to play at a Batam Island course almost every week before the pandemic, has not been able to play 18 holes for a while. The 77-year-old tried to book a tee time at a local public course four times to no avail. His only option has been driving ranges, hoping to avoid long lines at courses on weekends.

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