Meet the manager: Philip Henderson

Seamus Rotherick
By Seamus Rotherick January 18, 2024 12:19

The Scottish general manager at Al Zorah Golf Club in the United Arab Emirates details his experiences managing golf clubs around the world and why his current club, which covers an area of more than one million square metres and is set amidst vibrant mangroves, is a special venue.

What is your career trajectory to this current role?

Before taking up my role at Al Zorah in 2015, my professional journey began in the lush surroundings of The Grove in Hertfordshire, England. This wasn’t just a job; it was a comprehensive training ground where I not only honed my skills but also had the privilege of interacting with and learning from some of the brightest minds in the industry. Their mentorship, paired with my hands-on experience, created the ground for my personal and professional development, and laid the foundations for my future career endeavours.

Under the management of Troon Golf, my time at The Grove took on a transformative dimension and evolved beyond just an early-career experience; it served as my gateway to the international golfing world. Throughout my rewarding 18-year association with Troon, I have had the honour of influencing the golf landscape in eight different countries. Whether navigating the opulent fairways of The Els Club in Dubai or basking in the pristine beauty of Costa Navarino’s greens in Greece, each venture has been a unique chapter in my career journey. A particularly proud moment for me was playing a leading role in establishing Azerbaijan’s inaugural golf course.

Can you tell us about Al Zorah Golf Club?

December in 2015 marked a pivotal moment for the United Arab Emirates’s (UAE) golfing landscape with the unveiling of an exquisite course in Al Zorah City. Designed by Nicklaus Design and overseen by Troon Golf, this unique course is situated just 25 minutes away from Dubai International Airport and is a golf masterpiece. Impressively, within weeks of its inauguration, it was ranked among Golf Digest’s Top 10 Golf Courses in the Middle East, and its standing continues to rise.

Covering an area of more than one million square metres, Al Zorah’s golf course is set amidst vibrant mangroves, offering golfers a dynamic backdrop filled with marine life, migratory birds and native plants. Its unique tidal system alters the landscape daily, presenting diverse challenges to golfers based on when they play. This natural immersion greatly enhances our members’ and guests’ experience, leading to frequent repeat visits.

In May 2022, with a significant investment from our owners amounting to tens of millions of dollars, we began the construction of a new clubhouse at Al Zorah Golf Club. On course for completion in early 2024, the clubhouse is set to elevate our members’ and guests’ experiences and, when fully open, will feature a variety of dining choices – including a rooftop bar – with the facilities complemented by an array of leisure amenities and swimming pools.

Does the club try to minimise its irrigation usage? How sustainable is Al Zorah?

In a desert environment, managing water usage is of utmost importance. Located in a coastal area, our golf course utilises Platinum Paspalum grass, which is known for its high salt tolerance.

We exclusively utilise reclaimed water for the golf course, making it an eco-friendly and sustainable option.  Complementing this, our advanced irrigation system integrates a weather station and daily evapotranspiration data, ensuring the grass receives just the right amount of water, minimising waste and bolstering healthy growth. We also utilise a soil moisture meter daily to optimise our watering strategies and have two dedicated staff members working full time on irrigation on the course, while we carry out two full irrigation audits annually on the system.

We recently achieved our GEO certification, a key milestone for the club. This prestigious recognition was achieved through the agronomic work we’ve done to preserve the native ecosystems and the club’s support of the local communities. We are a golf club and development that is focused on sustainability. We are deeply engaged in the Audubon International Program, aiming for certification by early 2024. Our commitment is evident through our ongoing mangrove-centric projects, and we recently transformed a desolate area into a thriving mangrove habitat by planting 2,392 trees. Al Zorah City has also unveiled plans to expand its mangrove forest expanse, and golf is set to be instrumental in achieving this ambitious goal.

What is the state of the golf industry in the Middle East, and particularly the UAE, which has nearly half of all the region’s golf courses? Has it seen a participation boom in recent years and how big is the game with local citizens?

Golf in the UAE is on an upward trajectory. Membership campaigns are garnering significant interest, with tee times being in high demand during peak slots. This momentum is fuelled by multiple factors: the advent of premier golf infrastructures, like Topgolf Dubai, which further elevates the sport’s prominence in the region, and the hosting of elite tournaments that attract international golfing talent, bolstering the country’s tourism allure. Additionally, the Emirates Golf Federation showcases impressive school programmes, reflecting its dedication to promoting golf at every level. The vibrant local market, representing day-to-day golfers, further adds to the sport’s flourishing state in the UAE.

Growing golf in Saudi Arabia has been an area of focus for the kingdom over recent years. Grassroots initiatives have been launched, providing golfing lessons in schools and offering training sessions for youth. With the changes in society and more inclusive policies, the kingdom is making strides to make golf accessible and enjoyable for its female population. The comprehensive approach, ranging from course development to grassroots initiatives, indicates a sustained commitment to making golf a significant sport in the kingdom.

What do you think the main differences are between managing in the UAE and managing a similar-sized club in the UK?

While the core principles of golf course management remain consistent, the external factors and approaches differ significantly between the UAE and the UK. Success in each region hinges on understanding and adapting to local nuances.

Golf clubs in the UAE typically employ a multicultural array of staff, particularly expatriates, spanning a range of positions. This necessitates proficient handling of cross-cultural relations and a solid grasp on visa and residency rules. While the UK workforce is diverse, it may exhibit less pronounced cultural variances. Additionally, hiring in the UK tends to be more locally focused.

Clubs in the UAE frequently serve a varied international audience, thanks to the significant expatriate community. As a result, they tailor their services and amenities to accommodate diverse cultural tastes. In contrast, while UK clubs, especially in urban areas, do cater to an international clientele, many predominantly draw from a stable local demographic with deeply entrenched traditions.

Numerous golf clubs in the UAE, particularly the newer establishments, are also interwoven with luxury property developments or tourism schemes, positioning them as pivotal elements in overarching economic plans. In contrast, while property integration is present in the UK, many of its clubs, especially the time-honoured ones, mainly derive their operations from membership subscriptions, guest rounds and organising tournaments or events.

Would you recommend the Middle East as an option to an aspiring golf club manager in the UK?

Absolutely. The Middle East, notably countries such as the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Oman, is experiencing significant expansion in the golf sector. This burgeoning landscape offers a plethora of opportunities for proactive managers eager to carve out a distinguished reputation. The region boasts a selection of premier golf establishments, many of which are integrated with opulent real estate ventures and luxury resorts, thus providing managers the privilege to operate using avant-garde facilities and state-of-the-art technologies.

Embarking on a professional career in the Middle East not only immerses individuals in a distinctive and personally gratifying cultural experience but also augments a person’s professional portfolio. It is a testament to an individual’s flexibility and capacity to oversee operations in multifaceted environments. Furthermore, the financial packages available in the Middle East are notably generous, generally free from taxation and frequently accompanied by supplementary benefits such as accommodation and conveyance allowances.

Additionally, the opportunity to interact and establish connections with a global clientele base in such a setting could significantly enhance prospects for future career moves.

Al Zorah recently formed a partnership with London Golf Club. Can you tell us about that?

In 2023, one of our key objectives was to increase our brand’s presence in the United Kingdom, recognising its stature as one of Europe’s most prominent golfing hubs. London Golf Club, boasting a vibrant membership comprising affluent individuals, matched our aspirations perfectly. It’s been an honour for me to work extensively with Stephen Follett, the CEO of London Golf Club, and Ben Stimson, their director of golf. By capitalising on these valued relationships and identifying the reciprocal benefits for our memberships, we have established a partnership that is strategically positioned to serve the best interests of both clubs.

The club has appointed a marketing agency, Azalea, to run its PR. Why did it do that?

Both Al Zorah City and Al Zorah Golf Club offer narratives deeply engaging to local and global audiences. Whether it’s the luxurious residences of Al Zorah City, the inviting ‘Stay & Play’ packages at The Oberoi Beach Resort or the unveiling of our sophisticated clubhouse, our stories span a rich tapestry.

Azalea is perfectly positioned to elevate these stories to give us maximum exposure in the local, national and international media. They possess the acumen to ensure our club’s illustrious history shines in positive feature stories and highlights our latest news.

For any flourishing venture, maintaining a distinctive and positive brand image is key. Azalea shines in communicating and broadcasting a club’s ethos, its forte and its unmatched offerings. They will ensure our brand’s core remains pure and consistent across all media platforms.

What are your predictions for the global golf industry over the next few years?

The once elite-dominated golfing world is moving towards becoming more inclusive. The horizon shows an increase in public courses, initiatives targeting a varied demographic and endeavours to make the game universally more open and approachable.

Sustainability remains a central issue across industries, and golf is no exception.

I would anticipate a shift towards greener practices on the greens, including water conservation – especially crucial in dry regions – along with an emphasis on organic products and comprehensive pest management.

While golf getaways have always been popular, the expanding global middle-class, notably in Asia, forecasts a surge in golf-themed travels. Emerging golf destinations, such as Vietnam and Thailand, may soon find themselves in the tourism spotlight.

As technology seeps into every industry, golf, too, is set to further embrace cutting-edge tools. I would expect to see an upturn in the use of golf simulators, swing analysers and carts equipped with GPS. Moreover, golf-related apps, assisting in bookings, scorekeeping and skill enhancement are bound to become staples.

In short, the world of golf is changing due to new demographics, technology and changes in society. To succeed, being adaptable and innovative is key.

Seamus Rotherick
By Seamus Rotherick January 18, 2024 12:19
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  1. PGA Fellow Professional January 21, 10:45

    I was lucky to watch Al Zorah grow from the start…a special place indeed ⛳

    Reply to this comment
  2. Senior HRM Consultant January 19, 17:45

    Phillip Henderson is a class act, a GM with very high standards and has the ability to get people to deliver their best efforts.

    Reply to this comment
  3. Iterum January 19, 10:12

    And why golf coarse bridges can be a nightmare

    Reply to this comment
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