How Tan Sri Effendi Norwawi and his son Eridani are working to help golfers transform their game

You would have thought that a veteran TV mogul might have had enough of looking at screens after a lifetime of doing so. It is not so with Tan Sri Effendi Norwawi as he launches his latest project — BigShot Golf & Entertainment — at Tropicana Golf & Country Resort (TGCR) in Petaling Jaya, Selangor. The screens are very different, of course: giant ones, with more than 100 “channels” from “Augusta” to “St Andrews”, but the message is essentially the same.

“We’ve designed it especially for the golfer, his family and his business,” says the 74-year-old Sarawakian, who was head honcho at “feelgood channel” NTV7 and Bloomberg Malaysia back in the day. Gratified to see entire families streaming in, his wife Puan Sri Tiara Jacquelina drops by and quips, “No more golf widows”.

“We were thinking like a family for families,” explains Effendi. And completing the trio of brains behind the concept is son Eridani (or just Dani, to friends and family), 23, who says, “It was my idea, mum did the creative and dad does the business. My sister designed the building and the uniforms.” A family affair from pop-up tee to putting-mat green.

We are sitting in the Blue Bunker bar eating signature hot dogs amid an entertainment emporium for all generations. Dani has just given me a tour of the facilities, where the juxtaposition of virtual golf and sci-fi gizmos make for a lengthy discourse.

There is an array of simulators and virtual reality (VR) machines that will take you down timeless fairways or on a dizzying ride into a neon-lit future: parked in the “buggy station” are the Light Bike and Racer Pod. You can go from Tron to Troon depending on your taste.

Asked whether the emphasis is on golf or games, Effendi’s response is, “Entertainment. It is always full of kids and while the golfer is practicing, his children can go to the multi-sport screen, play football, frisbee or any number of games, or use the VR machines. But invariably, the kids will want to try golf. And what’s intriguing is that they keep coming back.”

“It’s a soft introduction for them,” says Dani. “They say, ‘Can I try?’ ‘Yes, you can.’ And that’s how they start.” As a child, he didn’t have to ask. “One of my earliest memories is having a toy set,” he recalls. “My dad showed me how to swing and when I managed to hit the ball into a door, it was like ‘Oh, my God, you can actually hit the ball! Do you want to try a lesson?’ So I was sent for lessons with my sister Mila, who was seven.”

Effendi, a former politician and administrator in addition to being a businessman, waited much longer, not taking up the game until he was middle-aged. But he was a keen convert and muse, “I think every golfer wants his kids to play. And it’s interesting that Malaysia has become a golfing country — when we grew up in the kampung, we would never think of golf. I think the growth of the middle-income group grew the number of golfers.”

Among his fondest memories as president of Sarawak Golf Club is meeting the late Arnold Palmer, when the man universally known as “the king” was designing the Damai Bay course near Kuching. “I asked him, ‘What are you looking for when you design a golf course?’ He said, ‘I try to create two or three holes that people will never forget’.”

With a helping hand from Mother Nature, Palmer went much further and created two distinct and acclaimed nines. The Mountain nine skirts the foothills of Mount Santubong and the Ocean nine tumbles down to the South China Sea. Effendi adds a tad wistfully, “He was such a nice man and I always remember him saying that”.

Don’t you miss all that and the fresh air? I ask him. “As a golfer, I love all that and there’s no substitute for it. But we golfers, after playing outdoors, come in here and spend 50% of our time training and improving our game. We get to enhance our experience of practicing.”

A keen convert to the virtual game too, he continues, “When you hit the ball on the driving range, you can’t know exactly what you’re doing. But the golf simulator gives feedback and other data immediately. It shows what you’re doing with your swing and how you can improve it. And if you have your coach with you, it’s even better.

“Here you are technology-aided. It shows you the correct path, how you can correct your swing. That’s why we call it Transform Your Golf — our tagline. If you want to improve your golf, this is the best facility in town today. During Covid, we discovered how my game improved more in the simulator than on the course.”

Dani wishes for this. “My dad used to shoot about 180m on the course. But the other day, he did 230m. People said that it was a different Effendi. It has also improved my game,” he continues. “I discovered that I was hitting the same shots every day but I couldn’t see what I was doing wrong. Now with this, I can see and say I’m a reasonably good golfer. I’ve come down from 13 to seven [handicap].” His proud dad adds, “His aim is to be scratch in three months.”

Dani, who like his father graduated with a degree in business studies from the University of Tasmania, Australia, agrees. “It doesn’t replace the outdoors but I think there is a comfort barrier. Someone was telling me that they hit long on the course and when they come here, they’re very disappointed, having lost as much as 50m.

“Here, I feel very comfortable and hit 307m yesterday. It was like wow! I’ve been doing it for so long. But when I get on the course, I just take a nice and easy swing and go 260m or 270m. And I assume people who’ve been playing on a course all their lives are just the opposite.

“My dad has been driving me to improve and now it’s paying off, so I’m grateful for that. I’m also glad that my first business venture, with him especially, is something that we both care about deeply.”

Says Effendi, “It all came about when the club called for an extraordinary general meeting to explain to the members that the bowling alley was not being used and got their permission to build a driving range instead. We did it this way and the club has been fantastic and very supportive. They see it as a new asset and it should do well once the awareness level increases.

“A big advantage is there’s already a market. TGCR has 7,000 members, 4,000 of whom are active. It’s always fully booked and they ended night golf. So, if people want to play a quick nine holes after work, they can come here and play on a famous international course of their choosing.”

Asked who their customers are, he says, “Up to now, it is mostly members. But they bring in non-member friends. There’s a huge number of golfers in this area. I think we’ll get more hard-core golfers who want to assess and improve their swing.

“We’re also hoping we can be a place to have family events — birthdays, parties and so on. We have private rooms that can open up and people can even enjoy karaoke. Also, if they want to watch big sporting events like the World Cup on the giant screen, they can. We’ve designed it with that in mind.”

Warming to his theme and aware of the potential, Effendi adds, “I believe there’s a strong value proposition for women golfers — most of them don’t like to play in the hot sun. I think the big challenge for golfers in Malaysia is the weather and this gives you an all-weather experience.

“Another thing we’re aiming for is to make it great for corporates. We are business people as well and this is perfect for corporate events and product launches, get-togethers and presentations. It doesn’t cost much to rent this place compared with a convention centre.

“Dani sourced the best tech available. We were fortunate that we came later than some of our competitors, so we’ve got the very latest technology with all the new features, playback and so on. They’re Korean, where these venues are so popular. And the Bravo technology is incredible.”

“Even I think it’s like science fiction,” says Dani. “One of the features of Bravo is that you can hook up with people in other places — even other countries — and play a round with them. It’s like online dating to play golf,” he laughs.

Effendi enthuses about the tech wizardry as much as Dani and wonders aloud, “Imagine the day when what’s in here will be very close to what’s outside. One day, we’ll be like Golfzon and this will be the KFC of golf.”

In South Korea, Golfzon is already the runaway leader of the indoor golf industry with a 70% market share. According to the Korea Heraldthe company turned a profit of KRW45.4 billion (RM150 million) from a revenue of KRW224.5 billion in 2020.

Once it brought down the cost of simulators, the number of golfers rose 74% from 2012 to 2017. And screen golf exploded to become a sport of its own.

Such statistics would be music to the ears of any businessman, but Effendi says another reason for his enthusiasm is that he wants a game he can still play in his later years. He explains, “I just lost a friend at 89 and the day before he died, he played. I want to have a game I can play into my eighties too.”

The irony is that what he sees as the game for his dotage could be the game for the next generation. That’s quite a transformation.

This article first appeared on Oct 10, 2022 in The Edge Malaysia.

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