Hubert Burda Media

CHINA TEES OFF

It was only a matter of time before the Middle Kingdom's latter-day flirtation with golf blossomed into a full-blown romance.

CHINA TEES OFF

Less than 30 years after China's first golf course opened — at Zhongshan near Macau — after the Cultural Revolution, the country's love affair with golf is thriving like nowhere else. Not just because of the number of Chinese playing the game, estimated at two million or about five percent of the world's 50 million avid golfers; nor because of the number of courses, said to be between 500 and 700, depending on which estimate you choose to believe; and it's certainly not because Chinese golfers are at the top of the professional game.
No. Golf in China is all about status, privilege and business connections. Belonging to a club, kitting up like a pro and being able to play to a moderate standard elevates you in the eyes of your peers and those with whom you'd like to become a peer. It enables you to connect socially — and in business — in a way that's not possible anywhere else. You only have to flip through one of some 40 golf magazines in China — packed with advertisements for the latest equipment, golf fashion, luxury cars and accessories — to get the idea. Or, better still, visit the bag drop area at Mission Hills' 12-course complex near Shenzhen. Each morning, a steady stream of late model European saloons deposit well-attired local Guangdong business types and golf-mad Hong Kong entrepreneurs at the entrance of the huge clubhouse. Inside, they can pay $30,000 for a set of handmade Honma clubs, a Japanese manufacturer regarded as the world's best that is now owned by Chinese investors, or the latest branded equipment and clothing.
Wherever it is played, golf is an aspirational game, but nowhere is it like that in China. “With the rise of middle class affluence, golf is becoming popular and desirable,” says Australian designer Harley Kruse, who was the lead architect on the Greg Norman course at Mission Hills' 12-course complex. “There looks like another 10 to 15 years of steady development ahead in China. The growth of participation seems to be exceeding the supply of courses,” he notes. Now involved in two projects of his own in China, Kruse says despite stricter controls on golf course development imposed by Beijing in the past two years, there is no sign of a let-up, even in central and northern China where snowy winters close courses for up to four months of the year.
Contrast this with western countries, where the number of new courses being built has slowed to a crawl and is now regularly exceeded by closures. In America, which has 14,000 courses and 25 million golfers, several hundred courses close each year and only a handful of new layouts are being built. It's the same in Japan, where a golf boom in the 1980s ballooned the number of courses to 2,500 — second only to the US — and where an estimated nine million people still play golf.
Today, many clubs that once commanded huge entrance fees have closed or have been opened to the public. Green fees at courses in Hokkaido are among the lowest in Asia. Accordia, Japan's largest golf management company with 122 courses in its portfolio, set up and subsequently sold by US investment banking company Goldman Sachs, is currently being targeted for takeover by a smaller competitor, signaling the declining state of the Japanese golf sector.
In most other developed countries, like Australia, people who can afford to belong to a golf club are finding time and cost pressures cutting their participation in the game. Most Australian golf clubs that had long waiting lists in the 1980s and 1990s when The Shark, Greg Norman, was at the top of his game, are now trying to find new ways to attract members. It's the same in the UK, Europe and America. But not so in China, where today's estimated two million golfers will surge to 20 million in the next decade, according to Mission Hills chairman, Dr Ken Chu. Having taken over the top position at the world's biggest golf club — with 22 courses in Shenzhen near Hong Kong and in Haikou on the island of Hainan — following the death in early 2011 of his pioneering father, the 40-year-old has embarked on a development programme of astonishing proportions.
When all current and announced projects at Haikou are completed in late 2014 or early 2015, Chu predicts the resort complex will welcome 15 million “spenders” a year. But only a small percentage will play golf. The rest, attracted by three international hotels, a movie-theme town, restaurant and entertainment complex, shopping precinct with 300 brand name stores, ice-skating and 10-pin bowling facilities, will complement Asia's largest mineral springs and spa complex completed last year as well as a fantasy golf course now under construction.
It prompts the obvious question: Is this the future of golf? “We want to popularise the game of golf, while at the same time introducing women and children to our resort who may or may not want to play,” Chu explains. “We are creating a destination where a four-generation family can find something to do and enjoy. If it introduces some to golf, that will be an added bonus.” Even for a company that has spent some $4 billion on its golf and associated resort infrastructure so far, it is an ambitious move. But the justification for the projects — that will include Renaissance, Ritz-Carlton and Hard Rock hotels, and joint ventures with Hong Kong based restaurant/entertainment developer Lan Kwai Fong and Chinese movie director Feng Xiaogang — is compelling.
Hainan, China's so-called “Hawaii of the East”, has 30 million annual visitors in 2012 — most from mainland China — with the figure expected to reach 50 million in two years. Current visa exemptions for groups of five or more and duty-free incentives are likely to be widened, while the number of flights servicing Haikou and the southern city of Sanya are steadily increasing. Hainan's main local competitor for golf tourism is the south-western city of Kunming in Yunnan province and even it is forging ahead with new golf-related developments. Already boasting a dozen top courses, the offering will double in the next two years as layouts designed by Jack Nicklaus and Phil Mickelson come on stream. Here, food, history and scenery match some remarkably good golf. A group of courses, headed by Spring City have come together to form a destination marketing programme, golf-kunming.com.
“As more people get to know about Kunming's golf attractions, we are sure they will come and once they do, they'll want to come back,” says the group's co-ordinator, Elvin Chua.
Even Mission Hills has its finger on Kunming's golf pulse. A new golf course management arm of the company has been established to extend the Mission Hills brand to Kunming and the central city of Chonqing, where the company will manage — rather than develop or own — multiple new courses. It has also signaled interest in taking over existing courses and injecting the brand's successful formula.
Will such arrangements extend internationally? “Possibly,” is all Chu will say for now. But watch this space, for what is happening in China's golf development today will inevitably have an international impact on the future.