China's love affair with golf causing some concern

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The Independent Online

Over the past decade it has become the pastime of choice for China's rapidly growing ranks of cashed-up citizens, but the country is currently going through a heightened bout of soul searching about what effect, exactly, the game of golf is having.

Such has been the growth of golf in China that the government in 2004 placed an almost blanket ban on construction of new courses, worried about the land - and the resources - developers were swallowing up in their efforts to tap into the golfing craze. But, as anyone who has traveled through the country since that time can attest, the ban has up until now had little to no effect.

According to mainland Chinese media reports, the country in 2004 had 170 golf courses but by 2009 there were 570. How many are operating now is anyone's guess as canny operators have used all manner of disguises to cover their ambitions, variously describing the courses as everything from practice ranges to exercise areas to escape the eyes of authorities.

But action is afoot. In the area around the southern city of Shenzhen alone five courses are currently under investigation and there are threats that this is only the beginning.

Estimations are that there are currently three million people who regularly play golf in China, but that figure will rise to six million in five years and 12 million within 10 years. The game was only formally introduced to China in 1984 with the opening of the Zhongshan City course in the southern province of Guangdong, having previously been outlawed by the communists as an "elite" sport.

The irony today is that golf's success in China is being built on exactly the same image as the country's new rich rush to embrace anything with a whiff of exclusivity.

That's a point not lost on Zhang Xiaochun, who has the unique position of dean at China's only "college of golf," which is run as part of the Shenzhen University. He thinks the government crackdown has come following the golfing industry's decision to hype the sport on its value as a luxury-style endeavor alone.

"I've been telling them to make it less ostentatious and to say that golf belongs to everyone," he told the China Daily newspaper. "But they wouldn't listen."