Fine Green China
Published: May 2009
By Alex Jenkins
As capitalism booms across this immense and awakening nation, so too does golf
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."
To say the least. In 2000 it was estimated that more than 70 percent of Chinese clubs were losing money, and it appeared that China's golf empire might crumble before it ever got going. Indeed, at the beginning of 2004 the Chinese government issued a moratorium on course construction in a move, officials said, that was aimed at protecting valuable farmland. It is widely rumored, however, that the Chinese hierarchy had got so used to profits being made in every other industry that they didn't like what they were seeing at golf resorts and clubs.
"Nowadays the situation is much stronger," explains Tai. "Golf clubs have learned how to cut costs and are becoming more affordable to more sectors of society, which has meant tens of thousands of new players. Golf in China is still a game for the wealthy, but you don't need to be nearly as wealthy as before."
That may well be true, and with an estimated half million golfers on the mainland, China can rightly be considered a major golfing nation. But the moratorium has yet to be lifted, forcing developers to wait and see. As Mark Adams, senior vice president of golf course construction for International Marketing Group, the sports and entertainment conglomerate, explains: "We're still waiting on Beijing's new golf course policy. We've had a few projects stopped and investigated, and until the moratorium ends there's not much we can do."
Visit Mission Hills Golf Club, however, and you wouldn't think there was any problem at all. Sprawled over vast tracts of land in the rapidly developing southern city of Shenzhen, Mission Hills became the world's largest golf resort in May 2004—wresting the crown from Pinehurst—when it opened its tenth eighteen-hole course in just its tenth year. There may be no other place in the country that better symbolizes China's new wealth. The massive resort—divided into two complexes roughly two miles apart—includes a luxury hotel, one clubhouse and another soon to open, the largest tennis facility in Asia and some of the most extravagant golf homes imaginable: mansions costing up to $80 million, complete with thousand-square-foot ballrooms and subterranean wine cellars.
If you're a fan of the simple and traditional golf experience—changing your shoes in the parking lot, carrying your bag, having a postround beer in a small but functional bar—you probably wouldn't enjoy Mission Hills, or any other Chinese course for that matter. Playing golf in China is nothing short of surreal. As you approach the gates of a club, a uniformed young man will stop your vehicle and salute you before letting you pass. Upon reaching the clubhouse, another young man will relieve you of your clubs and carry them to a waiting cart. Then you go inside, check in and receive a locker key and a passbook for keeping a record of all your expenses for the day. Finally, you're guided to the locker room, usually by a pretty young lady, where you slip into your spikes before heading out.
The average Chinese golfer is forty-five, according to Tai, and because they've been exposed to the game for only a few years, the overall standard of play is woeful—as is the pace. There is also a general lack of etiquette: Don't be surprised to see players putting with cell phones clamped to their ears. Course conditioning, too, can be an issue: Wild temperature swings and heavy rainfall make Chinese courses, especially those in the tropical south, difficult to maintain. The turf is usually best in late winter and early spring. But despite all this, the golf can be extremely rewarding. The courses—mainly designed by big-name Westerners such as Jack Nicklaus and Robert Trent Jones Jr.—are usually routed spectacularly along the sea, around canals and in the shadows of jagged mountains. Golf in China has come a long way in just twenty years and, given the country's growth rate, it's the next twenty that I'm really excited about. I just hope they can get rid of those damn cell phones.
PEARL RIVER DELTA
One of China's most thriving regions, this southern area includes Guangdong Province, Hong Kong and Macau, the country's oldest European colony. Shopping is still the main reason tourists flock to Hong Kong, but last year's opening of Disneyland Hong Kong might change that. Don't expect to be able to stay there anytime soon, however: The resort's two hotels are fully booked through Christmas. Guangdong isn't overwhelmed with cultural attractions, but a visit to the Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall in Cuiheng, near Zhongshan, is a great way to learn about the man known as the father of the Chinese Revolution.
Where to Play
The Jockey Club Kau Sai Chau, North ****1/2
Hong Kong's only public course also happens to be one of Asia's finest. While it's not strictly a links, the Gary Player designed North has rumpled fairways and a decidedly windswept Scottish air to it. When the rough is up it bears more than a passing resemblance to Player's Links at Fancourt in South Africa. The par-three fourteenth is one of the better short holes in golf: From an elevated tee, a long iron shot has to carry dense vegetation, ocean, beach, a mangrove plantation and a grass bunker to a miserly shallow green.
Kau Sai Chau, Sai Kung, New Territories, Hong Kong; 011-852/2791-3388, kscgolf.com. Yardage: 6,858. Par: 72. GREENS FEES: $59$80. ARCHITECT: Gary Player, 1995.
Mission Hills Golf Club, Norman ****1/2
Widely regarded as Asia's most challenging layout and by far the class of the ten Mission Hills courses, this is the place to go if you're looking to test both your game and your patience. The exposed front nine runs along a hillside, while the jaw-droppingly beautiful but much tighter back nine winds its way through two densely wooded valleys. Thick fescue flanks the fairways, and the bunkers are some of the deepest east of the British Isles. For a warmup round at Mission Hills, try the Jack Nicklausdesigned World Cup course or the water-laced Nick Faldo layout.
1 Mission Hills Road, Guanlan Town, Shenzhen, Guangdong Province; 011-86/755-2802-0888, missionhillsgroup.com. Yardage: 7,228. Par: 72. GREENS FEES: $137$206. ARCHITECT: Greg Norman, 2004.
Chung Shan Hot Spring Golf Club, Palmer ****
The Chinese mainland's first course, this is an absolute jewel. With its tree-lined fairways and small undulating greens, the Palmer is a traditional layout that looks as if it's been lifted from a scenic part of the English Home Counties. The course isn't long by today's standards, but it holds its own with some deceptively tricky holes. The Palmer is a bit of a rarity in southern China because it's a walking course (with excellent caddies) and has bent-grass greens that roll especially well in the coolness of winter.
Sanxiang Town, Zhongshan City, Guangdong Province; 011-86/760-6690-055, cshsgc.com.cn. Yardage: 6,486. Par: 71. Greens Fee: $69. ARCHITECT: Arnold Palmer, 1984.
Macau Golf & Country Club ****
This is a spectacular ridgetop layout offering great views of Black Sand (Hac Sa) beach and the South China Sea. As at the Sands Casino in town, a certain degree of luck is needed when tackling the dangerous par-three seventeenth: The tee stands more than 140 feet above the green and, depending on the wind, this 225-yard hole can be anything from driver to seven-iron. Although the club is private, guests at the five-star Westin Resort Macau next door can make reservations.
Estrada de Hac Sa, Ilha de Coloane, Macau; 011-853/871-188, macaugolfandcountryclub.com. Yardage: 6,624. Par: 71. GREENS FEES: $103$193. ARCHITECT: Hiroshi Ikeda, 1992.
Palm Island Resort ****
Like most resort courses, Palm Island isn't set up to be overly demanding. But with water coming into play on twelve holes as well as the imaginative use of sandy waste areas, it's not exactly a walk in the park, either. What makes this place special, however, are the off-course facilities: Exquisitely decorated Thai-style villas and an excellent spa make Palm Island one of the best resorts on the mainland and an absolute must-stay for anyone considering a family golf trip in China.
1 Golf Road, Huiyang City, Guangdong Province; 011-86/752-3829-999, piresort.com. Yardage: 7,009. Par: 72. GREENS FEES: $75$182. ARCHITECT: Jack Nicklaus Jr., 1999.
Where to Stay
Overlooking Victoria Harbour, the spanking new Four Seasons (fourseasons.com/hongkong) in Central is the latest addition to Hong Kong's long list of luxury hotels and a potential rival to the grande dame of the Far East: the Peninsula (peninsula.com) in Kowloon. If you prefer to base yourself outside the former British colony, try the Westin Resort (westin-macau.com) in casino-crazy Macau or the sumptuous Shangri-La (shangri-la.com) in the expanding megalopolis of Shenzhen.
Where to Eat
The Lan Kwai Fong and Soho districts of Hong Kong Island offer just about every style of cooking, but for authentic and reasonably priced Cantonese fare try Yung Kee in downtown Central. Fernando's on Macau's Coloane Island serves great Portuguese food in unpretentious surroundings, while Shenzhen's trendy Made in Kitchen is the place to go for Japanese, Chinese and Western favorites.
As the wealthiest (and boomingest) city on the mainland, it's not surprising that Shanghai's architecture has a distinct futuristic slant. Look closely, however, and you'll find some historic gems. The Bund district, situated on the banks of the Huangpu River north of the old walled city, is home to dozens of fine European neoclassical buildings, while the quaint alleys of the Old City hark back to a more romantic, less hurried Shanghai.
Where to Play
Shanghai Silport Golf Club ****
This modern American-style layout hosted the prestigious Volvo China Open for six straight years (19992004), and it's twice been named the Asian Tour's most accommodating venue of the year. The generous fairways lead to large well-bunkered greens that have some of the best putting surfaces in China. There are prettier settings, but the elegant hacienda-style clubhouse more than compensates.
Dian-Shan Lake, Kunshan, Jiangsu; 011-86/512-5748-1111, tigerbeach.com. Yardage: 7,061. Par: 72. GREENS FEES: $100$120. ARCHITECT: Bob Martin, 1996.
Sheshan Golf Club ****
The majority of courses around Shanghai are rather flat and featureless, but fortunately the Singapore-based design firm of Nelson & Haworth came up with this rolling, tree-lined layout that should once again provide a good test for Tiger & Co. at the HSBC Champions tournament in November. For such a new development, the course has settled in extremely well. Look out for the par-five eighth, an uncanny knockoff of Augusta's thirteenth.
Lin Yin Xin Avenue, Sheshan National Tourism Resort; 011-86/021-5779-8088, sheshangolf.com. Yardage: 7,143. Par: 72. GREENS FEES: $100$160. ARCHITECT: Nelson & Haworth, 2003.
Where to Stay
The Japanese-managed Garden Hotel (gardenhotelshanghai.com) is one of the better five-star offerings, but for a glimpse into Shanghai's past, stay in the North building at the Peace Hotel (shanghaipeacehotel.com) on the Bund. Formerly known as the Cathay Hotel, it's one of the city's most historic buildings.
Where to Eat
Shanghainese food is largely an amalgamation of dishes from different regions of China, and the wood-paneled Big Fan is as good a place as any to try it. For excellent continental cuisine, head to M on the Bund—sister restaurant of Hong Kong's M at the Fringe—which also has some of the best views in town.
If your time in Beijing is short, a good itinerary is to wake up early for the dawn flag-raising ceremony in Tiananmen Square before heading to the nearby wonders of the Forbidden City, where twenty-four emperors and two dynasties ruled the Middle Kingdom for more than 500 years. Make an afternoon trip to the Summer Palace and the picturesque Kunming Lake on the outskirts of town before tackling the Great Wall at Badaling Changcheng (one hour from Beijing) the next day.
Where to Play
Pine Valley Golf Resort & Country Club ****
Billed as the country's most exclusive club and located some thirty-five miles west of the capital in a heavily wooded valley, the audaciously named Pine Valley is a strong if fairly typical Nicklaus layout featuring exceptional bunkering and large multitiered greens. The club has gained distinction thanks to its unrivaled proximity to the Great Wall and breathtaking views of the mountains west of Beijing. Walk-in visitors are not permitted—you must play with a member.
Chanping District; 011-86/010-8979-6888, pinevalley.com.cn. Yardage: 7,056. Par: 72. Greens Fee: $235. ARCHITECT: Jack Nicklaus, 2001.
Beijing Jinghua Golf Club ***
Situated on the other side of Beijing, Jinghua Golf Club is a straight-hitter's delight. Tall pines and thick fescue border the narrow fairways, while the elevated greens feature significant slope. The course is pretty much devoid of elevation change, but an excellent stretch of holes around the turn make it far from boring.
East Yanjiao Economic Development Zone; 011-86/010-6159-1234. Yardage: 7,211. Par: 72. GREENS FEES: $70$120. ARCHITECT: Tiger Song, 2004.
Where to Stay
Where to Eat
The seventy-plus-year-old Fangshan restaurant, situated on the shore of Beihai Lake, serves traditional Chinese dishes once prepared for emperors of the Qing Dynasty, including delicious soups and a variety of steamed breads. For succulent Peking duck, head to the Four Seasons at the Jianguo Hotel.
Ethnic diversity abounds in the city of Kunming, and a visit to the Yunnan Provincial Museum explains why. The 1,200-year-old Yuantong Temple, surrounded by a series of attractive lotus-filled moats, is a relaxing place to spend a couple of hours.
Where to Play
Spring City Golf & Lake Resort, Mountain ****1/2 Lake ****
If you're coming to China solely to play golf, the thirty-six-hole Spring City Golf & Lake Resort is a must. The Mountain course, designed by Jack Nicklaus, slightly surpasses the Lake, a Robert Trent Jones Jr. layout, but really, they're both first-rate. The Mountain rises gently through towering glades and uses the natural terrain to its fullest, while the lower-lying Lake features narrow, undulating landing areas. Kunming's mild climate and the club's expert greenskeepers keep both courses superbly conditioned.
Yang Zong Hai Lake, Yi-Lang; 011-86/087-1767-1188, springcityresort.com. Yardage: 7,453 (Mountain); 7,204 (Lake). Par: 72. GREENS FEES: $69$220. Architects: Jack Nicklaus (Mountain), 1996; Robert Trent Jones Jr. (Lake), 1998.
Where to Stay
Most golfers stay at the Spring City Resort, but an intrepid few choose the comfortable, if predictable, accommodations at the four-star Green Lake Hotel (greenlakehotel.com.cn).
Where to Eat
Boiled chicken with lotus seeds is the provincial dish of Yunnan, and for that and more try the Cheng Bian Xiang restaurant in the center of town.
What to Expect
Given China's vastness, the weather varies widely from region to region. The Pearl River Delta has hot, wet summers, including a typhoon season from June to August. Although you can play golf year-round, the best time is mid-September through mid-January. In Beijing, home to torrid summers and frigid winters, the ideal months are September and October as well as April and May. Shanghai, which gets more rainfall than Beijing, is best in early spring and late summer. And Kunming, high up in the mountains of Yunnan Province, enjoys a generally pleasant climate throughout the year, although November through April are the driest and therefore best months for golf.
Every course in China has caddies, and their use, along with carts, is usually mandatory. Caddies play a central role in Chinese golf and are nearly always young women recruited from the poor, rural central and western regions of the country. Not only do they rake bunkers and advise on club selection, these helmeted ladies (their rather large headgear resembles something out of Star Wars) also mark your ball on the green, read putts (not always correctly) and fearlessly stride into the fescue—ignoring the obvious danger of snakes—to rescue any stray shots.
The First Star
For years the face of Chinese professional golf has been Zhang Lian-wei. Little known outside of Asia until he defeated Ernie Els to win the 2003 Singapore Masters, this former nationally ranked javelin thrower turned to golf in the mid-eighties. His swing is far from textbook, but his consistency has earned him five Asian Tour victories. In 2004 he played in the Masters, missing the cut by a single stroke. Although his following in China remains enormous, Zhang's recent form has been spotty, and now, at forty-one, his best days may be behind him.
The Teen Upstart
One contender to succeed Zhang is a sixteen-year-old amateur named Mu Hu. Plucked from the obscurity of Shenzhen by David Leadbetter after winning China's under-eighteen championship at the age of eleven, Mu was sent to the guru's training academy in Florida. A lot of fuss has been made about him—including comparisons to Michelle Wie and Tiger Woods—but if he wasn't Chinese it's likely he wouldn't be talked about with as much fervor. Although he shot a final-round sixty-eight to finish ahead of twelve pros in last year's HSBC in Shanghai, Mu's lastest Tour showings have been poor. Chinese golf needs a young hero, but the jury is still out on Mu.
The Game Is On
China vs. Scotland
Golf isn't an entirely new phenomenon in China. Sparked by the unveiling of Autumn Banquet, a Ming dynasty scroll (circa 1368) that depicts royal courtiers playing a game called chuiwan that involved hitting a ball with a stick, Chinese government officials claimed earlier this year that it was their country that invented golf and exported it (via Genghis Kahn's invading armies) to Europe, where it eventually made its way to St. Andrews. But after a recent visit to Scotland, Chinese golf officials abandoned the claim.
Euro tour events
Thanks to huge investments by multinational companies seeking to gain exposure in the country's booming economy, by the close of the 2006 season, China (including Hong Kong) will have hosted six events on the PGA European Tour—more than any other nation. (England will have hosted five; and Scotland, the cradle of the game, a mere three.) While the full 2007 schedule has yet to be released, China is expected to host even more tournaments next year, including, rumor has it, golf's World Cup. Already known is that the first two events next season, which begins in November, will be played on Chinese soil, starting with the richest tournament in Asian history: the $5 million HSBC, traditionally headlined by Tiger Woods.