GOLF, GOLFERS AND GOLF COURSES IN CHINA

GOLF IN CHINA

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Entrance to Mission Hills
The Chinese claim they invented golf about 800 years ago, 400 years before the sport is said to have officially been invented in Scotland. As evidence the Chinese cite a rule book for a game called “hit ball” dated to 1282 and 12th century paintings from the Mongol Yuan dynasty that show the Chinese Emperor and members of his court hitting small balls with clubs into circles designated by colored flags There is also evidence of a golf-like game called "chuiwan" being played as early as A.D. 943.

For decades, the communist government considered golf one of the many trappings of the bourgeoisie.Golf was banned during the Cultural Revolution and allowed to return in 1985. China hosted its first major tournament in 1995 in Shenzen. As of 2006 there were around 240 golf courses in China with another 250 expect to open in the coming years.

Beginning in 2006, the Zhingguancun Third Primary School in northern Beijing began offering instruction in golf as part of its effort to teach students good manners and how to behave in society. The headmistress at the school told the Times of London, “I know nothing about golf. I’ve never seen a game. But through friends I have come to understand that golf is a gentleman’s sport. I want to try anything that will benefit children.”

Golf has not completely shaken it association with the excesses of capitalism. It is largely played by the rich and is seen as a symbol of the gap between the rich and poor. The stigma has been eased somewhat since it was announced that golf will be added to the list of Olympic sports in 2014.

China hosts the annual HSBC-sponsored $7 million Champions tournament, the richest in Asia. It is held at the Sheshan International Golf Center in Shanghai. The golf industry was worth an estimated 60 billion yuan (£5.3 billion) in 2008]

Tiger Woods is very popular in China. He was one of the biggest tax payers in China in 2001 because of the tax he was required to pay on appearance money he received for showing to play at a tournament in Shenzen. In November 2005, he played at the HSBC Champions tournament. Occasionally he had to stop his swing because so many people were snapping pictures of him.

Golf and Modern China

By some estimates about 1 million Chinese play golf. Some people feel that China will experience a golf boom in the near future as Chinese become more affluent in the same way the Japanese did in the 1970s. The golf industry is growing at a rate of 20 percent a year. Golf shops and driving ranges are opening up all the time. Counterfeit Calloway clubs are widely available on the streets of Beijing and Shanghai.

Around three million Chinese consider themselves golfers, according to the China Daily, but most do little more than hit the driving range occasionally. The China Golf Association predicts the more than 20 million will play the support by 2010. Some have estimated that not long after that there will be more golfers in China than in the United States.

Golf in China is a sport played mainly by rich people and businessmen. A lifetime membership at a typical club is around $60,000 with a villa on the fairway costing about $1 million more. Many of the lifetime members are factory owners and executives that rarely or never play. In China you can also find parents that spend $50,000 a year on golf lessons for their kids.

Golf is very popular among China’s nouveaux riches who are drawn to its novelty and prestige. On a driving range in Beijing, a 42-year-old investor told the Los Angeles Times he spends about $150,000 on golf each year. "It's a good way to do business," he said. "You can spend five hours playing a game, far longer than a dinner. And the air is better than in a karaoke parlor. I like to think of a golf course as a big garden."

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Golf show in China

The golf course is increasingly becoming a place to conduct business. One Chinese golf course developer told the New York Times, "In the past you built guanxi [connections] by wining and dining people in karaoke bars. But the Chinese are becoming more health conscious. Now you're invited to sweat with them on the golf course."

Rich businessmen like to make high-stake bets on the golf course. There are stories of a BMW or a Mercedes being wagered on a single hole and plots of land being wagered on rounds of golf. One golf manger told the New York Times, "I know a group of players who bet for ships. They use two caddies: one to carry the clubs and the other to watch the other players to make sure they don't try to nudge the golf balls with their feet."

In 2003, Chinese golfer Zhang Lian Wei became the first Chinese golfer to be invited to play the Masters tournament in the United States. In 2002, he became the first Chinese winner of a European tour tournament when he beat Ernie Els for Singapore Masters championship with a birdie on the final hole. He also won the China Open and finished second on the Asian tour money list.

Golf Courses in China

The first golf course in China was built in 1984. China still had only 10 golf courses in 1994. By 2004, it had around 180 (compared to 30,000 in the United States) and roughly a thousand were under construction or being planned. About a third of them are in Guangdong Province, particularly around Shenzhen, where they cater to Hong Kong businessmen and an increasing number of nouveau riche mainland entrepreneurs.

By 2009, there were 500, compared to 18,000 in the United States and 6,000 in Europe. By one estimate the total in China could rise to 2,700 by 2015. Many golf courses have been built through shady dealings that have included sweetheart deals between developers and local official and the forced relocation of peasants occupying villages on land designated for a golf course.

Golf courses around Shenzhen have names like Shenzhen Tycoon and Noble Merchant. A membership in Taiwan-financed Tomson Golf Course in Shanghai---which reportedly has bunkers filled with powdered marble---cost $94,000. Visitors can play for $200 and have their clubs carted around by women caddies. Some golf course offer night golf for people who don’t want to damage their skin in the sun.

The trend of building golf courses and luxury home developments around them is eating up valuable agricultural land and driving farmers off their land. In some cases land is seized using underhanded methods by local officials, who often force farmers of their land and give them relatively little compensation. The Washington Post described farmers who was thrown off their land to make way for a golf course and received chunks of land one fifth the size of what they previously owned and construction jobs at the golf course development. When they complained to the government after not being paid for two months work they were jailed.

Mission Hills Golf Club

At the top of the golf course heap in China is the Mission Hills Golf Club, China's only international-standard golf resort and the largest golf complex in the world. It boasts ten courses. The nearest competitor, Pinehurst in North Carolina, has eight.

Opened in 1992 near Shenzhen, Mission Hills covers 2,300 acres and boasts a 500-room hotel, and a country club with 51 tennis courts, fairway-side mansions, a clubhouse with an 800-square meter palace with a cascading waterfall, and Asia’s largest golf shop. Membership fees are between $21,000 and $70,000. About half the members are from Hong Kong. The other half from the mainland.

Mission Hill was developed by David Chu, a Hong Kong industrialist who made his fortune in paper products, and cost $385 million to build. The golf courses were designed by Jack Nicklaus, Nick Faldo, Vijay Singh, Ernie Els and Annika Sorenstam. Tiger Woods once hosted a tournament at the club.

The 54-hole Pine Valley Country Club outside of Beijing, whose name was taken from the No.-1-rated Golf course in the U.S. according to Golf magazine, boasts security guards dressed like Royal Hussars, caddies that wear purple knickerbockers, bronze copies of Roman statues, polo fields and a hotel modeled after the White House.

Golf Course Development on Hainan Island

On golf course development on Hainan Island, Keith B. Richburg wrote in the Washington Post, “By one local estimate, as many as 300 golf courses are being planned for the tropical island, which is about the size of Belgium. Twenty-six are complete, and 70 are under construction. They include the Mission Hills resort, which will boast 10 courses and 162 holes, spread over more than six square miles.” In October 2010, Mission Hills---hosted a celebrity golf tournament featuring actors Matthew McConaughey, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Hugh Grant teeing off alongside golfing greats such as Nick Faldo and Greg Norman.”Mission Hills Hainan is larger than Manhattan. After a round, Catherine Zeta-Jones called it a "tough course." [Source: Keith B. Richburg, Washington Post, December 27, 2010]

The development has forced thousands of indigenous farmers off their land and driven property prices up tenfold and higher. "Nearly every city and county is engaged in development of a golf course," Liu Futang, 63, a former chief of Hainan's Forest Fire Prevention Bureau, told the Washington Post. "No golf course has actually earned money. Few of them have people coming to play...Hainan is a real-life example of that film 'Avatar.' Except in Avatar, they could organize together to fight back." On Hainan, he said, "I don't have much hope - nothing can stop this change." [Ibid]

“Hainan residents and environmentalists say the rapid development is damaging the island's ecosystem,” Richburg wrote, “and they are concerned mostly about the destruction of the coastal forests, which for centuries have served as a natural bulwark against typhoons, tsunamis and soil erosion. Huge tracts of the mangroves have been chopped down to make way for seaside hotels and apartments and the paved highways to connect them. Three thousand villagers... have been told that they have to relocate to a town more than 18 miles away, giving up their homes, their farmland, even the burial grounds of their ancestors. As farmers and fishermen, they worry that they won't be able to make a living in the town....Of Hainan's 950 miles of coastline, Greenpeace forest campaigner Yi Lan said, more than 621 are being developed.” [Ibid]

“The development has come at a price, islanders said. Floods from heavy rains in early October destroyed thousands of acres of farmland, washed out roads and caused the temporary evacuation of more than 400,000 people across Hainan...Residents said the destruction of the forests exacerbated the flooding.” [Ibid]

“A 36-year-old hiker and nature enthusiast,” Richburg wrote, “described his shock at going to an area in Sanya where he used to camp, the Yalong Bay mangrove nature reserve, and finding it transformed into a virtual construction site, for a resort...The hiker wrote about this on an Internet discussion forum, under the name Tiger Sowing Through the Forest, and attracted hundreds of supportive comments. "Foreign countries protect nature to attract tourists, but the Chinese government has a different idea," he said, staring out over the white sandy beaches at construction cranes. "Now if we want to go camping in Hainan, we'll have to pitch a tent on the roof of our apartments." [Ibid]

Opposition to Golf in China

Jonathan Kaiman wrote in the Los Angeles Times, China's leaders have become increasingly sensitive to shows of elitism at a time when the gap between rich and poor continues to widen. Some observers think the ban on course construction is merely shrewd PR.

That has frustrated environmental advocates who have long argued for stricter laws preventing land from being confiscated for golf or residential development. "China is highly populated on most of the good land," said Ma Jun, head of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs in Beijing. "It's way too easy to take land from disadvantaged farmers, or take land that is designated for ecological use." Ma said the expansion of golf could have a disastrous effect on the environment. Course construction in China's less-populated western provinces is destroying pristine wetlands and forests. Heavy use of pesticides also creates a severe risk of groundwater pollution. An average course uses about 30 times the per capita water availability in chronically water-short Beijing.

Though Banned Golf Construction in China Is Booming

Jonathan Kaiman wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “The Citee Golf Club on the outskirts of the capital's smoggy sprawl is a kelly green oasis surrounded by neatly trimmed hedges and rows of luxury villas. At $77,000, a family membership at the club costs about 16 times the annual salary of a typical Beijing resident. The 18-hole course, with its pink-shirted female caddies, had its "soft opening" in 2009, five years after the Chinese government declared a moratorium on golf course construction. [Source: Jonathan Kaiman, Los Angeles Times, August 18, 2011]

The ban, imposed amid concern over the country's dwindling arable land, clearly hasn't stopped the boom in golf course construction in China. Over the last five years, the number of courses has soared from 170 to an estimated 600. Hundreds more are under construction despite signs of market saturation.

The appetite for new golf links has grown in concert with the surge in China's property market. A set of greens can boost the value of residential developments, allowing local governments to pocket more in land sales. With so much money at stake, municipal officials have had little incentive to enforce the ban. The central government has periodically ordered courses to be demolished, but the crackdowns are never sustained. Meanwhile, developers are able to capitalize on legal loopholes to continue laying courses. "It seems that if the government was really serious about trying to curtail the growth of golf courses, they would have developed a series of hoops that developers would have to jump through," said Dan Washburn, the author of an upcoming book about golf in China. "By issuing a moratorium and turning their head, they let things grow out of control."

To skirt the moratorium, developers list the project as a hotel, or a residential complex, or a park. "They just don't use the word 'golf' in their planning stages," Washburn said. Patrick Quernemoen, the Citee club's general manager, said the developer was given amnesty because the course was not built on arable land. (His assertion could not be independently verified. The Ministry of Land and Resources did not reply to repeated requests for an interview.)

Golf Course Bubble?

Jonathan Kaiman wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “The Citee club is also one of hundreds of courses in China that are struggling to turn a profit. To maintain its exclusivity, the club has announced a cap at 300 members. So far, only 70 people have signed up. But in many cases, golf courses aren't expected to be profitable, but rather to fuel interest in the luxury property around them, said Dana Fry, a golf course architect based in Hong Kong.This makes the abundance of fairways vulnerable to a bursting of China's property bubble.

No place captures the uncertainty of the golf boom better than Hainan, the tropical island province in southeastern China. In a push to make the island an international tourism destination by 2020, the government has exempted it from the moratorium, and developers have reacted with zeal. The island is home to almost 30 courses.

But on Hainan, the threat of a bubble is palpable. In two of Hainan's cities, Sanya and Haikou, average property prices were up 50 percent in early 2010 from the year before, according to the National Bureau of Statistics. "You have investors going and buying 10, 15, 20 homes," Fry said. "It's creating an artificial price structure that, at some point, has to blow up."

Crackdown on Illegal Golf Courses

Demand for courses is soaring as the country's newly wealthy adopt the sport. Many golf courses in China have been built through shady dealings that have included sweetheart deals between developers and local official and the forced relocation of peasants occupying villages on the land.

There are concerns that too many golf courses may have a significant impact on reducing China’s agricultural land. A moratorium in building new courses, put in place in 2004, has been largely ignored as revenue-minded local officials seek new money-generating developments, in some cases even offering tax breaks to golf course builders.

Chinese officials have promised to crack down on illegal golf courses, threatening harsh punishment to developers catering to “the rich man's game” at the expense of much-needed farmland and scarce water supplies. The officials hope that a satellite system to check the illicit use of land will help them to identify unapproved courses. [Source: Tania Branigan, The Guardian, December 1, 2009]

“We still don't know the exact figure [of illegal courses], but we're working on it and will have the information by 2010,” the head of land planning at the ministry of land and natural resources, Dong Zuoji, told the China Daily. “The culprits will face harsh punishment.” In a country with so little farmland per head it was “quite ridiculous” to allow a course to take up 40 to 50 hectares of land, Dong said. He added that each course required 3,000 cubic meters of water - a particular issue in the parched north, where there is already a dire shortage.

Seven state bodies launched a joint investigation in September 2009, he said. In one case this year, it emerged that a course in Hebei had swallowed up 100 hectares which should have been used for construction and almost 126 hectares of arable land, an official told the China Daily.

Golf Club Manufacturing in China

Describing the manufacturing of golf clubs at a factory in Ningpo that employs 500 workers, Jonathon Franzen wrote in The New Yorker, “Grease-blackened machines, operated by male workers...drilled raw steel tubing into a taper and pressed neat rings of crimp into the resulting shaft. Female workers painted glue onto strips of graphite composite which were then rolled onto the shafts and heat-bonded to them. One heavy-duty machine stamped sheet steel into hollow driver heads; on either side of a different machine, two men used tweezers to insert and remove driver faces into which the machine pressed horizontal grooves.”

“After stamping, the driver heads were milled in a dimly lit room full of water-cooled grinding machines by well-muscled men in masks...Upstairs, in a room filled with shockingly intense paint fumes, tough-looking girls with big hair and extreme boots and stockings were inspecting the finish on driver shafts and buffing away small flaws. Other young people sandblasted clubheads, applied decals to the shafts, hand-tinted the grooves of logos, and injected glue into driver heads to keep the residual grit in them from rattling.” The workers lived in a factory dormitory, ate at a company cafeteria and were payed an average of $200 a month.”

Image Sources: Louis Perrochon ; Roadtrip.com; Poco Pico; 21st century Paladin com; Julie Chao ; Alan Arnette

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated July 2011


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