The 3rd green at Sentosa Golf Club
With over 100 projects and 36 years of golf course design, construction, agronomy and club management, Andrew is one of the most accomplished and respected professionals in the golf industry. Having spent the last 10 years at one of Asia’s pre-eminent golfing destinations and one of the most recognisable global international properties, Sentosa Golf Club, Andrew’s role has covered a wide service spectrum during his tenure.
THE JOHNSTON STORY
What propelled me into the industry was quite simple. My father was a keen golfer and club champion at his club, but more importantly he was a member at The Broadmoor Golf Club in Colorado Springs. It was grand and historic; I just had such an energy whenever I was on the property. The smell of the grass, trees and just being in nature, and in such a beautiful setting, empowered me. And if that was not enough my grandfather, John Sonzini, an Italian born 5-star chef, was the head chef at one point. I just loved being there and could not wait to go with my father to the club and be on the course.
You wake up in the morning - what’s the driving passion?
The sheer will to strive for excellence, the need to see the faces of the team each day and help them grow as people, as professionals and as an organisation. But, most importantly, to see my children wake up (I have always referred to the greens as my children) knowing every day is different, every day brings a new set of challenges or opportunities, but if you miss seeing the kids wake up, you miss seeing the necessary little things that are needed to help them improve.
I always think about a story from a former mentor of mine, and Arnold's Golf Design partner, Ed Seay. Early in my career, he said: “Son, if you want to be any good at this, you better understand the B’s.” I said, “B’s, what do you mean?” He responded, “Be the first one here, be the last one to leave. If you practise this every day, you will become the best there is.”
You have been in the business for quite some time – what is the most important aspect that has changed dramatically from when you first started to today?
Technology. We were drawing plans on mylar by hand - nobody had a computer. Now everything is in CAD and quantified down to the last little detail. Same with club management and agronomy: the chemistry of products is smarter. The spray equipment is GPS enabled, pinpointing the applications that can be tracked in mapping from Google Earth. It is amazing how fast we have advanced in the past 30 years due to technology.
What is the biggest misconception golfers have in what you do daily?
That I must be a great golfer. That I must play golf every day. Who has time for that! It is a full-time job running the business and representing the resort. Playing golf only interferes with one’s ability to operate. Don't get me wrong, I love golf, but I am a professional in agronomy and operations. My role is to provide great leadership, so that we can roll out experiences that last a lifetime.
The toughest challenge for golf facilities to combat is what?
Complacency, aging, staying relevant, always looking fresh like the day you opened. I could go on for a week on the challenges, I know you only asked for one, but it is a massive multitasking environment - I only wish there was just one.
The growth of top tier facilities in Asia has really fast tracked in the last 10 or so years. Why do you think that has happened and can the momentum that has been achieved continue?
Asia in general has awoken and climbed onto the world stage as a world leader in many things. Singapore is like the NYC of Asia, as a shipping and financial hub. The development of China over the past 20 years is perhaps the most impressive climb ever seen in the industrial revolution. Naturally golf is just one of hundreds of things Asia is beginning to lead at.
Water is already a central topic for golf facilities - especially those in drier climates. How do you see the issue progressing, especially as many pivotal environmental groups believe that the sport is a prime abuser of this critical resource?
Those who view golf as a primary abuser of the climate are ignorant to how powerful golf is and how it can help with the world’s climate issues. One of the biggest problems with the future is the build-up of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere; it is rising at alarming rates. There are only two ways to remove it. Clean energy, or photosynthesis.
Golf can be one of the world’s greatest vehicles to help reduce carbon, so we all need to bond together to make sure we are working effectively. Water is an enormous issue too. Water management in golf must continue to improve. All golf clubs should follow our footprint of single head controls, because making every sprinkler head an individual station allows us to save up to 60% of our water resources. Irrigation software is also smarter and more efficient and can be run to the nearest second rather than the nearest minute.
If you could change one thing in golf unilaterally - what would it be and why?
I would make Arnold Palmer live for eternity. The reason is obvious.
The major golf organisations - R&A, USGA, PGA of America, PGA and European Tours, LPGA - are all seeking ways to attract Millennials, women and minorities to the sport. If you were counselling them, what would you advise they be doing?
That we also need to recognise the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America (GCSAA) and Club Managers Association (CMA), because they also need to attract Millennials to the industry and are facing similar issues with making golf attractive. If we find the next Tiger, that will solve almost everything. However, since we may not be able to find him, or her, my advice would be to remain flexible, make the experience so memorable they will continue to come back again and again for more.
When you meet with those who have an interest in joining your profession - what do you emphasise to them?
It depends if I see what my friend and mentor, Tom Watson, calls the “It factor”. If they have “It factor”, I emphasise how important it is to make a difference, how important hospitality is, but more importantly, how we impact lives.
Best advice you ever received - what was it and who from?
My Mother. She said, “Be careful with the words you use. Words can leave scars that last a lifetime when used as weapons."
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