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.