Excerpts of an interview that Golfer A.B. Sunesh had with Sri Lanka Golf Union (SLGU) President Priath Fernando, on the next phase of Golf in Sri Lanka (SL). Q. For over 50 years, you and your family have been in the fore front of Golf, as Golf Champions, Sponsors and Administrators, with you, per- sonally, [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

Driving and Putting SL Golf onto the world stage

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Excerpts of an interview that Golfer A.B. Sunesh had with Sri Lanka Golf Union (SLGU) President Priath Fernando, on the next phase of Golf in Sri Lanka (SL).

Q. For over 50 years, you and your family have been in the fore front of Golf, as Golf Champions, Sponsors and Administrators, with you, per- sonally, having held the posts of Secretary, Treasurer, and Vice President of the SLGU. Now, how does it feel, as President of the SLGU?

Actually, being President of the SLGU has enabled me to pursue my passion, to enable Golf to be developed in a more structured way in SL. Although, up to now, I have always played a supporting role, I feel that I have the right experience, knowledge and drive to lead SL Golf to the next level, meaning, to place SLGolf as ‘World Class’, which is our Vision.

Q. That sounds ambitious, could you explain.

Well, I mean SL is an island nation blessed with immense natural resources, beauty, an excellent climate and weather throughout the year. These attributes, together with the historic and cultural sites dating back over 5,000 years, make SL a ‘must visit’ tourist destination! Therefore, the Vision of making Sri Lanka “A world class Golfing holiday destination” will give Golfers something more than just Golf – something bit more unique – like a journey through SL with Golf.

Q. You said SL Golf as  ‘World Class’?

Yes, first, SL must have the infrastructure in place, as a Golfing holiday destination, where solid holiday packages are available for visitors to play 3-4 rounds of Golf on different Courses which are, ideally, not more than one-and-a-half hours apart from one another, with easy and comfortable access. Thailand is the best example, with many of Lankan golfers too making an annual trip to Thailand, for a Golfing holiday, playing on 4-5 Courses during a 7-day holiday.

Priath Fernando

Q. Why Thailand?

Well, currently, Thailand is the leading destination in Asia for Golfing Tourists. They realised about 20 years ago, that Golf is an attraction to the high spending tourist and, as such, they have got the infrastructure such as, world class Golf Courses, Hotels and all else needed to provide a 1st class holiday. Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore too are all Golf holiday options, with SL waiting to happen!

Q. Is that all that is required to place SL Golf as ‘World Class’?

Well, World Class also means having World Class Golfers as well. I have to give credit to Ana Punchihewa who recognised and put SL on the World Class Cricket map. Yes, SL talent and hand-eye coordination excellence, has been proven many times over, and Cricket is the best example, when SL became World Champs in 1996. Golf is far more technical but, the same attributes of hand-eye coordination coupled with skillful hands, calm temperament and technique, play a key role. The legendary Pin Fernando, my father, Tiru my sister, made their mark as top class Golfers in their day. SL holds 2 key World Guinness Book Records in Golf- my mother, Pam Fernando is the oldest winner of a National Championship, and Thuhashini Selvaratnam is the youngest to win a National Championship title! So, you see, the talent in SL has no age barrier either.

Q. Wonderful! Then, what about the other exploits you could compare with being  ’World Class’?

Yes, of course, K. Nandasena Perera rose from a Caddy, to shock everyone, when he established the Course Record of 62 at the Royal Colombo Golf Club (RCGC) in the early 1980’s. Of course, another talent, R.A. Anura Rohana came along and broke that Course Record and made his mark of 61 (10 under) at the RCGC, which still stands. Also, Anura Rohana, in his 40’s, is still at the top of his game, Ranked 10th in the PGTI (Professional Golf Tour of India) 2016. Coming back to Nandasena, he won Silver at the 1990 Beijing Asian Games. But, in fact, he lost or gifted his Gold Medal, as he was in a playoff with Maruyama of Japan, after being tied at the end of 4 rounds. Playing the 1st ‘sudden death’ hole, Nande was down the middle in of the fairway, while his opponent was in the woods, way off the fairway, and his ball could not be found! Nande instinctively goes to check it out, finds the ball, only for Maruyama to chop his way out of the thick rough, and then Holes his next shot from way off the green, to leave Nande stranded on the green, robbed of his Gold Medal!!!

Q. What happened next?

Well, the good mannered Nandasena congratulated the Gold Medal winner and walked away proudly with his Silver Medal. At this time, Nande went to play on the Japanese Tour, alongside Maruyama, and finished 3rd in his first tournament. Then, tragedy struck! Nandasena had knee problems, cold climate affected his health, and he lay in a hospital bed for the best part of that year. Meanwhile, Maruyama wins on the Japanese tour, goes to the US and ends up with the the world’s top 10!!! Therefore, to surmise that Nandasena was in fact, ‘World Class’, is reality on a line with Maruyama, and the fact that it was ill-health that stopped Nandasena Perera.

Q. Yes, that theoretical analysis is plausible. So, then what or, who next?

That is the question. Of course, Mithun, Nandasena’s son, has come along among a few others but, now with the fast changing technological advancements physical wellbeing, mental focus, skill advancement, regular monitoring and continuous training have come into play. SL needs to step up the Training aspect and, of course, building world class Golf Courses and facilities has become our priority.

Q. What will be the process?

Firstly, we have held a “Regeneration of Golf” Workshop, inviting all stakeholders to participate. We identified our present status and drew up a 15-year Strategic National Golf Development Plan 2017-2032. Korea and Thailand did such a National Golf Plan many years ago and today, South Korean Ladies occupy 8 of the top 10 rankings in the world!!

Q. What is the Thai progress?

Thailand is producing young stars by the dozen. Last year, a 13-year-old girl came and won the SL Ladies Amateur Championship for the 2nd time, but is considered too young to play on the Professional Circuit. So, while she waits to be old enough to play on the Tour, the girls are assigned to play Golf the whole day. They have to workout, follow the stipulated diet and subject to basic education without going to school, fully sponsored within the Golf programme.

Q. So, is such a programme  possible in SL?

Yes, but many matters have to be in place. Firstly, Golf Courses for them to play every day. The RCGC is primarily, a private members Club and as such, we are grateful with the assistance granted so far to develop young Golfers. But, the SLGU cannot impose on private Clubs to provide Course facilities to develop junior, lady or men’s Golf full time.

Q. Is there a solution?

Yes, of course, there is. We are very thankful that the Sri Lanka Air Force, Sri Lanka Navy and Sri Lanka Army have introduced Golf into their respective sports calendars. The advent of the Defence Sservices into Golf is a huge boost for the game. Internationally, especially in Asia and Europe, the Defense Services are deeply involved in Golf, and they take the game seriously, with many Golf Courses managed by them. Bangladesh, India and Pakistan are the best examples, with the best Golf Courses managed by the Forces. The SLGU is working closely with the Defence Services and, with the blessings of the Ministry of Sports, Ministry of Education and the SL Tourism Promotion Bureau, all these facilities can become facilitators and together, we can achieve the Vision of SL becoming A World Class Golfing Holiday destination.

Q. Can you explain the Golf  quality improvement aspect…

By Golf quality, I mean the improvement of skill level and the standard of play. The introduction of a Professional Golf Tour or Golf Circuit in SL, will enhance the reputation of Golf in SL. The Prize Purse offered in the SL Pro tour could attract Top Tour Professionals to play and, with the Joint Sanction of the Asian Tour and, if possible, the European Tour or, ONE ASIA Tour. SL will be beamed over 60 countries with LIVE telecast of the Golf Tournament. The Pro Tour allows local players to battle top World Class Pro’s on their home soil, and stand a chance to match their game. Competition breeds improvement and the career path for our Lankan Professionals will depend on their performance improvement, for them to earn more. Can there be a better incentive to improve their Golf?

Q. Yes, I understand your line of action. Now, what is stopping the launch of the SL Professional Golf Tour?

We need Lankans to realise that Golf is truly, a more lucrative and practical career path for young talented sportsmen. In Golf there is no limit on numbers. The only limitation is quality and standard of play. If anyone has the talent, drive, determination, skill and commitment, they can certainly make the grade and be World Class. As you know, no success comes easy but, if hard work is put in, definitely, a lucrative career path awaits. The career path is also extended by Professional Senior Tours for age 50+ Golfers.

Q. So, what about the Pro Tour  in SL?

Yes, firstly we need to have a Professional Golf Tour Calendar for the year, as Professionals cannot commit to play on a Tour without a booked Calendar of Matches. For a start, if we could have 6 events in 2017, with, of course, the SL Open and the Final Tour Event at year end, with prize purse matching the Asian Development Tour, Asian Tour or, Europoean Tour Joint Sanction, then SL would be viewed globally and the Professional Tour will take off.

Q. What are the specific benefits of such a Tour?

First and foremost, the Pro Tour will make way for the young members, juniors and Amateurs to play for SL and prepare to win international titles and, of course, Medals at the Asian Games. The top amateurs today, will turn Pro, and they will have a career path as Golf Professionals. They would have an opportunity to reach the world stage, playing even in the US Open or the British Open.  The revenue for SL, through such a Tour, will spread far and wide, with Sponsors getting Worldwide attention and global Brand imaging. With Live Coverage and global attention, SL will be a must visit tourist destination.

Q. Do you also have a programme of development for young  amateur golfers?

Yes, of course. That is our first step to develop junior Golfers’ skills. Also to introduce Golf to Schools, we are conducting our initial ‘Train the Trainer’ programme to license Coaches to teach Golf. The SLGU Junior Sub Committee is doing a great job promoting a Ranking system to encourage juniors to improve their game. We have launched the 2017 Pin Fernando Grand Prix, powered by CAT SOLAR, distributeors on behalf of United Tractor & Equipment, for the Amateur Golfers to be ranked in the World Amateur Golf ranking (WAGR), and thus monitor their standard with Amateurs internationally. The Grand Prix will be played monthly and the Venue rotated between RCGC, VGCR, NEGC and other Courses at Eagles Golf Links, Heritage Golf Club, Koggala, Sandy Bay Golf Club and Diyatalawa Golf Cantonment too, giving an opportunity for all Golf Facilitators too, to host events. The February edition will be played at VGCR from February 23-26. The March edition will be played in Nuwara Eliya at the end of March.

Q. So, you have your hands full?

Well, I have a supportive group of office-bearers. The SLGU Vice President Johnny De Saram, Secretary Ken De Alwis of Cricket fame, Treasurer Dilhan Abhayaratne and SLGU Golf Promotion and Events Manager Dian Abeyewardene, responsible to push the development plans are all in my team. I am now retired from my post and responsibilities of Chairman United Tractor & Equipment, after a 42-year stint with the Company. I have handed over the reins to my son Prasan, and I believe the Company is in good hands. This leaves me to fulfill my passion of driving Golf. I want to ensure we have Golf Academy facilitators to provide World Class Golfing facilities to International Standards, to ensure the best Coaching and Training facilities to our Junior Golfers, targeting World Class Golfers during the 2017-2032 period.

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