All the tees in China: The Chinese go golf crazy

It's generally seen as a Western, capitalist pastime: a hobby for wealthy individualists. But now golf is the fastest-growing sport in the People's Republic. Clifford Coonan reports from a land of crouching caddies and hidden Tigers
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The Independent Online

Vigilant female caddies in wide-brimmed hats, their faces wrapped in scarves as the heat bakes the green, watch intently. A yellow-shirted Chinese entrepreneur descends from his golf cart and examines the fairway, one of 216 in the vast club known as Mission Hills in southern China. He places his tee, the swing is good and straight down the middle, and the four-ball and their caddies patter down the fairway.

This serene golfing scene takes place right in the commercial heart of Guangdong province where former Supreme Leader Deng Xiaoping declared three decades ago that China would open up to the world. To get rich is glorious, he said. To be rich is to play golf, say China's new breed of entrepreneurs. After 30 years of economic growth, plaid trousers, Ping hats and spiked golf shoes have edged out the Mao suits and People's Liberation Army slippers. Welcome to China's golf revolution.

In China, golf is known as "green opium", although the sport is certainly not for the masses. In the old days, the Communists considered golf a decadent way for capitalists to waste their time, but China's new leisure-loving rich have different ideas.

Zhu Kai, who works for the state oil company Sinopec, has been playing golf for just over a year. "I began to play golf in March 2008. I love the feeling of the swing. I feel free, casual and elegant when playing golf," said Mr Zhu.

While golf is still an elite sport in China, public courses do exist, although they are relatively rare. "I usually play golf on the public course at Gaobeidian Central Business District International Golf Course," said Mr Zhu. "During days when it's not a holiday, the price is 150-300 yuan (£13-£26) for one round of golf, which is affordable for me," said Mr Zhu.

Another aficionado, who gave his surname as Xu, is a veteran, playing since 2002. "Golf is not a boring sport," said the 43-year-old. "It changes constantly. It's outdoors. And I like to be in a green environment. I usually play less than three times on the same golf course, since I like to play in different places. Nowadays, agents can book golf courses for a group. So it is not that expensive. They could offer a round of golf for between 200-600 yuan (£17.60-£52.80) for one round of golf. Of course, some are expensive," said Mr Xu.

The only senior Chinese government leader known to have played golf was Zhao Ziyang, the disgraced former potentate who backed the students during the Tiananmen Square crackdown and spent his declining years putting in his courtyard home under house arrest. Golf's reputation is not assured in China, even among the current group of technocrats running the country.

Ideological quibbles aside, these days there are more than 300 golf courses in China, mostly in the south, compared with just 20 or so in the 1980s. The golf market is estimated to be worth £4.5bn annually and is growing by 20 per cent a year. China now ranks fifth in the world and second in Asia in terms of the number of golf courses.

As in other countries, golf is a status sport, as a way of oiling the gears when it comes to building contacts and setting up deals. At the same time, as China grows in sophistication as a golfing nation, increasingly the focus among the elite is on the game itself. They save the deals for the 19th hole.

Or the 217th hole, in the case of Mission Hills. Located in the southern manufacturing hub of Shenzhen (just across the border from Hong Kong, where many of its members hail from), Mission Hills is the world's biggest golf club, with a record-breaking 216 holes. Divide that number by 18 and you get 12, yes, 12 golf courses. Shenzhen is in Guangdong province, which is home to 85 million of China's 1.3 billion people and a region that has for many years driven China's boom.

The economic slowdown means things are not as they were a couple of years ago, but China's economy is still expected to expand by around 8 per cent a year. That is the kind of expansion the rest of the world can only dream of at the moment, and this leaves a lot of leeway for the business community to get out on the fairway.

Full membership, giving you the right to play all 12 courses at Mission Hills, costs around £150,000 a year; but different memberships are offered to address different usage preferences and the lowest entry membership costs less than £25,000. The club has a staff of 7,000, including 3,000 female caddies, wearing the aforementioned wide-brimmed hats. On a busy day around 3,000 golfers can tee off.

"It is no secret that the economic crisis is having its toll on global business. We think China, and Asia as a whole, presents golf's best opportunity for growth in the long run. It certainly has become harder and has taken creativity and some rethinking on tactics to lure customers, but Mission Hills presents an exceptional value proposition and golf experience to members and guests alike. We have an excellent product and therefore continue to grow," said Tenniel Chu, Executive Director of Mission Hills.

In terms of dealing with the downturn, or more accurately the slowdown, Mission Hills said it is trying to accentuate the positives. "The crisis has brought the corporate community much closer together, and innovative ways are being worked out to reach new customers. For example, we have been creating reciprocal and associated golf programmes with other clubs around the world that allow our members and those of partnering clubs to visit each other and enjoy special benefits. It's a little bit like the alliances airlines form," said Chu, the son of the founder, Dr David Chu.

Mission Hills began life in 1994 with a course designed by Jack Nicklaus. Its current collection of 12 courses includes links designed by the some of the biggest names in the game, such as Nick Faldo, José Maria Olazabal, Greg Norman, Ernie Els, Jumbo Ozaki and China's own Zhang Lianwei.

There is a lot riding on Zhang Lianwei, since, for the sport to really thrive in China, the game needs a Chinese name to really shine – look at how Yao Ming has made basketball the most important game in China.

The time and money involved in the sport put it beyond the reach of young players who might boost the competitive side of the game, but there is a growing number of sponsorships for young players. Golf is too land-intensive ever to be a really popular sport – the Communist government likes gymnastics and volleyball, because lots of people play the sport, in a team, in an enclosed space. It is much easier logistically to promote these kinds of activities when you have a population of 1.3 billion people than it is to encourage youngsters to get out on a huge park, on their own, and play for China.

Nonetheless, China's population of regular golfers has doubled since 2001 (partly because of the success of Tiger Woods, with his Asian background) and the China Golf Association predicts that by 2020 China will have 20 million golfers. Of the 3 million who currently play, around 1 million are believed to tee off on a regular basis, although significantly fewer are club members – and hardly any are woman. Around 2,000 of China's golfers are competitive amateurs (sufficiently serious to take part in competitions), while about 300 are professionals. There are many top-flight competitions in China, mostly in Shanghai with occasional outings in courses near Beijing or in Guangdong. The most prestigious is the HSBC Champions in Shanghai, and it is a sign of China's growing significance in the game that stars who are expected to be competing for the tournament's $7m purse in November include Tiger Woods, Padraig Harrington, Paul Casey, Henrik Stenson and Rory McIlroy.

Another club that receives regular praise in the golf magazines is Spring City Golf and Lake Resort in the Yunnanese capital of Kunming, in the south-west of the country. The development has luxury villas and two championship courses – the Mountain Course, by Jack Nicklaus, and the Lake Course, designed by Robert Trent Jones Jr.

Spring City began life as an investment by Singaporean property developer Keppel Land Group in 1992. It has been operational since 1998. The overseas membership is predominantly from South-east Asia – Thailand, Hong Kong and Singapore are all within four hours of Kunming.

"It's a very reachable destination for people from south-east Asia. We see more and more mainland golfers here. There are between 5,000 and 8,000 golfers playing in Kunming and up to 1,000 going to courses – a big increase from zero a few years ago," said Lau Tong Chye, general manager of operations at Spring City.

"There are lots of reasons why Kunming is popular. The weather is great, and the grass is the best in the world."

There is another dimension to this picture of serene golfing pleasure. The development of the game is tightly allied to the social changes in China over the past three decades. As with so much else in the New China, this golf revolution is built on cold, hard cash. The primary motivation behind developing the game of golf in China is property, not bashing a little white ball around a course. Plush villas pay the green fees.

"What make money in most clubs are the villas and apartments ringing the courses. The golf itself is a loss leader, and many of the courses in China are chronically underutilised," said a golfer at another club – on condition of anonymity: he doesn't want problems with his membership.

In extreme cases, developers buy up large tracts of farmland on the outskirts of the boom towns of New China: Shenzhen, Guangzhou, Chongqing, Tianjin, Beijing and Shanghai. They then start building flashy villas – reasonably priced by UK standards but more than most Chinese families would earn in a lifetime. The courses are often an afterthought, hastily-constructed – even unplayable. The developers don't care; they can charge a lot more for property near a course.

Sometimes this land is taken illegally with the connivance of corrupt local officials, leading to social unrest as disenfranchised farmers take to the streets and demonstrate, attacking building sites and picketing government offices. China's arable land is scarce, and the government is worried about a growing wealth gap between the rich of the cities and the poor in the countryside.

There have also been efforts to clamp down on Communist Party cadres doing business on golf courses. The central government has put a ban on the construction of new courses for fear of a potentially-destabilising backlash, and ultimately the development of golf in China is largely dependent on what the Beijing government does.

But the ruling doesn't mean an end to the construction of golf courses in China. Many courses are listed as part of the facilities for a luxury villa development or as country clubs to get around the ban. Most people believe the government is more concerned about stopping course development turning into another bubble, and the slowing of growth is aimed at cooling the market.

Meanwhile, there are good golf clubs with real facilities and there are bad clubs. In one city-centre development in Beijing, it looked as though the builders had just put up a few flags and tried to sell the villa development as a golfing lifestyle scheme. This was a golf like an army assault course, although a bigger turn-off was the grand piano in the show house villa that played schmaltzy tunes automatically when the front door opened.

Other clubs combine a decent sporting reputation with a name for being a good property investment. Huatang Golf and Country Club lies in the Yanjiao Development Zone, which, if traffic is clear, is within a half an hour of downtown Beijing. The area is expanding at an incredible rate. Massive new villa and apartment developments are within reach of the golf club, which has also been developing real estate near the course. But not too near – it's still a good course.

What is fascinating about Huatang is the way a town has sprung up out of nowhere just outside its boundaries – apartments, shops, offices, a whole new community. All the buildings seem to have been constructed in less than a year. They ooze aspiration. Entrepreneurial hawkers – who may be members of the club by this time next year – are selling golf balls and hats from the backs of their tricycles as you approach the course.

"Golf fortune here is to do with property fortune," said one player. "If the economy continues to grow and the Central Business District continues to expand, then the demand will grow for places to live. In general, it's an optimistic outlook, not necessarily because of the golf but because of the economy and thus the property."

The financial services company KPMG's Golfbenchmark report on the industry in China in 2008 was compiled before the financial crisis. But its author, Andrea Sartori, said he expects its positive outlooks to remain in place. According to KPMG, the average club membership in China costs €32,000 (£28,000), far higher than in Europe, the Middle East or Africa. "If only 0.1 per cent of China's population will play golf by 2030 – approximately one-tenth of the European and a hundredth of the North American participation in the game today – China would have 1.3 million golfers," the Golfbenchmark report reckons.

Assuming an average of 650 golfers per course, this implies a total supply of 2,000 golf courses in China. That means 1,700 golf courses being built in the next 20 or 25 years, it said. Fore!

And we should never forget China invented the sport. Chinese historians argue that their ancestors were teeing off in 945 and say Mongolian travellers took chuiwan – "chui" means to hit, and "wan" is a ball – to Europe. According to this theory, the rules of the sport were formulated in a 1282 book called Wan Jing (or Manual of Ball Games).

An ancient scroll called The Autumn Banquet, dating from 1368, shows officials playing chuiwan. It is a familiar scene, as one eccentrically-dressed nobleman putts, another watches balefully, while a third seems to be consulting the rules. Even the Emperor Huizong is said to have played; his handicap is unknown.

Visiting Mission Hills a few years back, I went to a showhouse villa and was bowled over by the way the double-doors at the back opened on to a pool with a fantastic view of one of the tees at a signature course. This was a lifestyle straight out of Entourage. You could lie in this pool sipping daiquiris and watch great golfers tee off, I told the saleswoman. She waved her hand dismissively.

"It's all going to be filled in, moved around the back. Bad feng shui," she said. Some things are still more important than real estate or golf.

Great leaps forward: China's sporting breakthroughs


Seeking to banish the "sick man of Asia" tag born of decades of foreign domination, the new People's Republic places sport at the heart of its communist ideal. The focus is on mass participation and military exercise designed to boost the strength and morale of the nation rather than on competition.


Sport and politics collide at the Helsinki Olympics, where the People's Republic and the vanquished nationalists in Taiwan compete to fly the Chinese flag. The communists win, paving the way for a generation of world beaters. "Communist China has won an important political battle," says Prime Minister Zhou Enlai.


An elite sports system is formally launched as the state realises medals speak louder than uniformed ranks doing star jumps. Teams and academies get to work, and, in 1963, the Vice Prime Minster, Chen Yin, says: "Achievements in sports are the glory of our country and people."


Beijing invites members of the US table tennis team for a series of exhibition games. The so-called "ping pong diplomacy" marks a thaw in East-West relations and faclitates the historic visit to China by President Nixon the following year. Table tennis remains a huge source of pride for the Chinese.


The Republic's first Olympic medals, at the Los Angeles Games, announce its arrival as a sporting power and Beijing lays plans to host the Games. "The quest for the Olympics was to raise national morale and strengthen the cohesion of Chinese people," President Jiang Zemin later says.


After a failed bid to host the 2000 Olympics, China is awarded the 2008 Games. The news prompts scenes of jubilation in Tianenmen Square. In 2004, China comes within three gold medals of beating the USA to the top of the table and vows to be the best in Beijing.


Aready popular after missionaries introduced the game to China in the 19th century, basketball becomes a new obsession for a generation of young people when the 7ft 6in, Shanghai-born star, Yao Ming, becomes the first of several players to make it big in the American game.


Zheng Jie reaches the semi-final of Wimbledon, confirming China as a growing force in tennis and fuelling a nationwide explosion in the sport. As the middle classes swell, bourgeois sports that might have Mao spinning in his mausoleum are being embraced by a state hungrier than ever for glory.

Simon Usborne