Golfing on Desaru Coast

Interview: Stephen Havrilla – General Manager of The Els Club Desaru

Précis of key points covered:

  • Overview of courses
  • Havrilla’s background
  • Importance of the Els brand
  • Why Malaysia?
  • Key assets of golf courses
  • Ideas for beginner golfers
  • Feeder markets
  • About Troon group
  • Future plans in Malaysia
  • Packages
  • Memberships
  • Events planned for future
  • Transport infrastructure

The Troon group recently completed not one, but two spectacular new Els Club Malaysia golf courses on the country’s Desaru Coast in the southern state of Johor.

The Els Club Desaru Coast Ocean Course offers 27 holes of championship golf designed by Ernie Els. Situated along the Desaru Coast in the southern state of Johor, golfers experience three distinctly different 9-hole courses aptly named the Lakes (Par 36), Coast (Par 36), and the Ridge (Par 37). Features a 50,000 sq foot purpose built clubhouse for meetings & events.

Appointed as General Manager, Stephen Havrilla has 19 years of experience working with Troon Golf, and assumes responsibility for operations of The Els Club Malaysia brand across both of its stunning Malaysian destinations: The Els Club Desaru Coast courses and The Els Club Teluk Datai. We met with him at the Ocean Course in Desaru, and him to tell us more about the two courses in this region.

The Ocean course consists of three nines – the coast, the lakes and the ridge. Each is very different. One goes up into the hills, one has a lot of water on it, and the coast goes along the seaside. Then we have the “Valley”, which is 18 holes, designed by Vijay Singh, in collaboration with Ernie Els. That’s going to be our private club, once we launch our membership in the fourth quarter, and for our resort guests from the Hard Rock and the Westin. It’s a very different golf course form the Ocean course, which is more of a resort-style course. It’s wide-open with generous landing areas, pretty flat greens, nothing is too undulated. Over on the Valley golf course, there is a lot of elevation change, there is a lot of elevated greens, a lot of bunkering over there, so much more technical. You have to know where to hit the golf ball. It’s more of a player’s golf course. That brings unique value to the property. Ultimately, what makes the property unique is that it’s integrated with the destination: the water park, and the two five-star resorts. The Antara will also be opening soon, as well as the One & Only Resort, which is just adjacent to the property. It will bring a different demographic of travellers, from the value-seekers to the luxury-seekers.

Drone view of the Ocean Course

Please tell us a little bit about your background.

I started playing golf when I was ten, and grew up playing the game. I obtained a degree in construction management with a minor in civil engineering, and worked for a large general contractor for many years. At that point, I was playing a lot of golf. I belonged to a club, and then wanted to get into club management. So, I quit my job one day to go through the PGA programme. And once I got my Class A, then I joined Troon, and I have been working for them for almost 20 years now.

How important is it to have the Els name attached to this?

Extremely important. It’s a well-known worldwide brand. Ernie is a great golf player and four-time major winner. He has done a lot of great things in the game, he is a great promoted of the game, and he has a lot of good designs. He has then Els Performance Academy in Vietnam, with a golf course planned there as well.

Why Malaysia?

No doubt Ernie likes South-East Asia, and wants presence here. Coming here made sense after creating the initial course in Langkawi – in terms of broadening his scope further in Malaysia.

What would you say are the three key assets of these courses?

Playability, conditioning of the golf courses, and the environment it sits in. It changes elevation throughout the three nines, so you get a different feel for each nine you play. The degree of difficulty changes from the coast all the way to the ridge, so there’s a little bit of everything for every golfer. Five sets of tees. We have an Els Performance Academy here, so we do a lot of promotion of the game through our golfer development programmes. Then we have a little easy 9-hole par 3 golf course attached to the academy.


So, people who have never played golf before, but would like to, can come here on holidays and learn at the same time?

Yes. Or let’s say the father plays golf, and he brings his wife and kids. He can go out and play golf, and the kids or the wife can learn how to play, and they can all get together at the end of the day. We in fact have a family golf programme, where kids play free with a paying adult, and we provide all the equipment for them. They can go out on the large course, depending upon their ability, or they can just use the Par 3.

What are your key feeder markets?

Our biggest market is Singapore – around 60%. We also get people from Johor Bahru and Kuala Lumpur.

Once you’re better known, do you think you’ll get more people coming from further afield: from the States, Europe, Australia or South Africa?

I think so. We are also working heavily with Korean Tour Operators. We have a big Korean TO in KL, who came and visited, and who has referenced this destination as key to his clients. The Koreans are fanatical about golf. So are the Japanese. And we see those two markets feeding into this destination. There is a charter flight coming in weekly from Korea.

Els Golf Desaru_3
The Els Golf Club – Desaru Coast, Malaysia

Could you tell us a little more about Troon and their operations here?

We are the largest third-party golf management company in the world, with over 275 golf courses worldwide, in more than 35 countries.  We have a huge presence in luxury branded golf management. We pay a lot of attention to the standards that we put in place, and basically make people feel like a member for a day. We started out with daily fee clubs in Scottsdale Arizona, and we expanded from there. We have a lot of resort facilities under our belt buckle. We have a lot of private clubs and managed developments.

Are there other plans for Malaysia?

We have a couple of things we are working on. Greg Norman is doing a project up north in the Sabah area, which is still a few years down the road. We have done a lot of work with Greg in the past. We have a presence in Australia, with a half a dozen properties there. We are chasing a few things there; we are chasing a few in Vietnam. Like I say, we have the Els Performance Academy there, and they’re just starting to build the golf course as well.

What kind of packages are you doing?

We are doing a lot of value-add packages especially now, before the destination is fully launched, to introduce people to the courses and the destination itself. We do a lot of stay’n’play packages with our current resort partners, and there will be some more intimate packaging going on with the Hard Rock and the Westin once they get launched… and there are a lot of F&B promotions.

How will memberships work?

We are going through the process now with the board. We have a concept where we will have a full or lifetime membership. We will have term memberships of five years, and we a Privilege Pass, that we are doing now, which is an annual programme. That gives people unlimited golf, use of the carts, discounts, and our full membership, which should be launched in the fourth quarter, will include some quite unique events, taking part here and also abroad with Ernie and Vijay. We plan to do a bigger launch in 2019, when we will have Vijay and Ernie come here for a “Dual in Desaru”. Some of our founding members will also be able to play with them, and by then, we hope to have around 24 founding members. They will also probably come to events in other places such as South Africa.

Are there any big events planned for the future?

We are doing the WAGC – the World Amateur Golf Championship – early in October – the Singapore qualifier, and then at the end of that month, we will host the final. That will bring in around 400 golfers to the destination.

People are currently coming overland from Singapore to get here. Are there any plans for infrastructure development?

We are starting to work with some Singaporean hotels, and we plan to have a ferry terminal right on property, that will get people here from Singapore in 50 minutes. The logistics will begin to improve from 2020. We have had meetings with the ferry operator to help with the improvement of border services on both sides. The big challenge is immigration, and getting the port authorities to beef up services, to make it as painless as possible. But it’s getting better and better.