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Fine Green China

06-09china_robin

Photo: Robin Moyer

What to Expect

Diverse Climate

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.

Fearless Caddies

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 Players

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.

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