As a kid growing up in late-1980s Hong Kong, I was afforded little opportunity to golf. All four of the territory's clubs operated on a strictly private basis, and the only course on the Chinese mainland—the excellent Arnold Palmer design at Chung Shan Hot Spring Golf Club—was a nightmare six-hour round trip from our house thanks to a combination of slow ferries, overzealous immigration officials and a potholed dirt road that led from the port to the course.
Fast forward fifteen or so years and I'm playing more golf in China than I ever imagined. While the clubs here still maintain a snotty indifference to the plight of rank-and-file recreational players, the government, in harness with the ultrarich Hong Kong Jockey Club, has opened a superb thirty-six-hole public complex on the craggy island of Kau Sai Chau. But here's the thing: I rarely go there, because just twenty minutes from my apartment in Hong Kong is the new mainland China—probably the nation with the fastest growing demand for golf on the planet. The reason?Well, to borrow a phrase: It's the economy, stupid! China is getting enormously rich, and many analysts predict that the world's most populous nation will replace the United States as the leading economic superpower by mid-century. Already, the Middle Kingdom, as the Chinese call their country, has a middle class larger than the entire U.S. population.
If the past couple of years have been marked by China's keenness to host professional events—six PGA European Tour stops this season alone, more than any other country—the decade before was characterized by rampant course construction. Today, China has 320 golf courses, which might not seem a lot for a country of its size. But if you compare that to 1994, when there were only twenty, that number indicates quite a boom. According to Aylwin Tai, a dapper Hong Konger affectionately known as the godfather of golf in China, it does—and it doesn't. Tai, the first general manager at Chung Shan Hot Spring, who has since held various positions with the China Golf Association, believes it's only very recently that golf has taken off. In the late 1990s, he says: "A lot of companies thought that if they built a golf course it would be an instant moneymaker. Most were charging in excess of $50,000 for membership because they believed the game was exploding. It was certainly growing, but not to the extent they believed."