The Rise of Golf in China
Searching for the global epicenter of golf in the 21st century? Fly into Hong Kong International Airport, then roll north to Mission Hills Golf Club, spread out across the hills of Shenzhen, China. It’s an outsize, bent-grass kingdom of fairways and greens that debuted in 1994 as a weird anomaly: a record-setting complex of top-tier golf courses (12 in all) serving a country with few golfers.
Within a decade, the emergence of Mission Hills had helped swell the nation’s golfing population from 50,000 to more than three million, and industry revenues from courses and equipment to more than 60 billion yuan ($8.7 billion) last year, according to China Daily. But China doesn’t need legions of native players to begin billing itself as a golf crossroads—not with every course builder and professional tour flocking to it in search of a beachhead. Any westerner who does business in Asia and likes to play golf can take a ringside seat as something startling unfolds: The world’s most dynamic economy is punctuating its shift away from Maoist collectivism with a warm embrace of capitalism’s great cultural accoutrement.
“Even before the recent decision to make it an Olympic sport, golf’s growth potential was shifting to Asia,” says John Strawn, an expert in the region who was CEO of the Robert Trent Jones II design firm when it built the Anting Golf Club in Shanghai. “North America has a mature golf economy, as do the U.K. and even Scandinavia,” Strawn says. “Japan hit its peak in the early 1990s. China is the center of the action now.”
The world's best golfers?
In the highly visible area of elite-player development, South Korea currently leads the eastern hemisphere (and perhaps the western one as well). But China’s enormous scale and dynamic economy have persuaded Strawn to give the Middle Kingdom a greater golf advantage. “It’s highly possible that by 2050, the world’s best players will be Chinese and the world’s biggest tournaments will be in China,” he says.
Last October, when golf was voted into the 2016 Olympics as a competitive sport, China’s leap forward onto the fairways seemed even more compelling. “The Olympic decision is a game-changer for golf in China,” says Hal Phillips, a marketing and public relations executive who represents a string of Asian golf-resort clients. “It opens the doors for the Chinese government to spend heavily on courses and training centers, and eventually compete for Olympic medals.”
A youth golf development program is going strong these days at Mission Hills, including long-term partnerships with the junior-tournament programs run by Nick Faldo and Jack Nicklaus. There was joy in the Mission Hills executive suite when the field for the 2009 Asian Amateur Championship featured two native Chinese participants, Stephen Lam and Hu Mu.
The story of China’s golfing ascendance is partly rooted in the slump that has beset the once-booming western golf economy. Design and construction companies that grew swiftly during the U.S. and European golf build-out of the 1980s and ’90s have been forced to relocate their activities elsewhere. Professional golf tours are also taking advantage: PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem recently took a nearly three-week tour of Asia, visiting five cities to meet current and potential sponsors, with a stop at the World Golf Championship event in Shanghai.
The PGA's interest
“There are things I need to do in China and Korea,” Finchem told the Associated Press, saying he spent the trip “seeing existing customers and potential customers, partners, possible sponsors, possible official marketing partners.” Among other recent moves by Finchem and company: relocating the Omega World Cup event to Mission Hills and upgrading its HSBC Champions event in Shanghai to World Golf Championship status. In 2010, the Champions Tour—America’s senior circuit—will stage its inaugural tournament in golf-mad South Korea. At some point, a PGA Tour event in China will seem as natural as NFL football at Wembley Stadium (where one NFL season game per year has been played since 2007, continuing through 2010).
In order for western pro golf to be exported to China effectively, the tournaments must seize the attention of a nascent fan base. To that end, last October’s HSBC Champions event at Sheshan International Golf Club, in Shanghai, was hailed as a competitive triumph. Alan Shipnuck, one of Sports Illustrated’s lead golf writers, praised its final-day action as “one of the best rounds of golf of the year, or maybe the millennium, with wild momentum swings among an all-star crew.” Added Shipnuck, “If this is golf in China, sign me up!”
Among the business relationships in China’s golf marketing landscape is one between Gary Player and the Coca-Cola Company, cosponsor of the Gary Player Invitational charity golf tournament. It’s played in Shanghai each November, with proceeds going to Chinese orphans whose lives have been impacted by the AIDS epidemic.
Every frontier has its band of pioneers, and in Chinese golf development, the groundbreakers include Arizona-based golf designers Lee Schmidt and Brian Curley. At Mission Hills, the foresight and energy of the Schmidt-Curley team merged with the equally visionary spirit of Dr. David Chu, founder and chairman of the 216-hole megaplex. Dr. Chu has many admirers in the western media: Chu rose to the Number 7 slot in Golf Inc. magazine’s 2009 worldwide ranking of the Most Powerful People in Golf. Praising the achievements of the highest-ranked non-American course, the magazine noted: “Although [China] did not have a modern golf course until 1984, just 25 years later it has more than 400 and is the focal point of the sport’s future growth.”
The Mission Hills complex
Ten of the twelve Mission Hills courses were designed by Schmidt-Curley, which also crafted the complex’s master plan and brought in its own construction company to dig and grade the topography. After its founding in 1992, the club expanded at a breakneck pace, quickly moving past North Carolina’s iconic Pinehurst Resort (eight courses) to become the world’s largest golf complex. In acreage, Mission Hills is five times the size of Central Park and interlaced with 225 miles of cart paths. Its Dongguan Clubhouse (one of four on the property) measures more than 680,000 square feet, making it the world’s largest. Some 3,000 caddies, all of them female, are employed by Mission Hills, along with 7,500 other staff.
Mission Hills’ growth does not stop here. Chu is mid-construction with another Mission Hills complex—this one on the province of Hainan, long dubbed “China’s answer to Hawaii.” The Mission Hills Hainan Island project is shrouded in secrecy but will reportedly include 22 courses on acreage one-and-a-half times the size of Manhattan.
During the HSBC Champions telecast, BBC commentators referenced a moratorium on golf construction imposed by the Chinese government, reciting a list of courses produced during that “quarantine” period. It was a reminder of the prevailing concept of guanxi in Chinese business culture, in which official rules pale in importance compared to well-formed commercial relationships.
Brian Curley, as steeped as any westerner in the Chinese attitude toward golf, didn’t see backlash against the sport as an impetus for the ban announcement. “From what I’ve been able to gather,” says Curley, “the central government’s course moratorium has nothing to do with feelings that golf is bourgeois or elitist. It was about protecting against unnecessary sprawl. The government sees the benefits of golf as an economic force.”
After returning from a lengthy Asian trip, John Strawn quoted Chinese business contacts as saying the government has drafted “a new golf-friendly tourism development policy.” Strawn infers from this information that PCA ministers will “continue trying to preserve agricultural land” without focusing on golf as part of that policy.
Another U.S. course-crafting firm well versed in the Chinese market is California-based GolfPlan. One of its principals, David Dale, recalls his earliest visits to China with a sense of wonder at how swiftly change has come. “In Shanghai back in 1991, you drove through the city on surface roads full of people on bicycles wearing all-gray clothing,” says Dale. “Now you fly along elevated freeways, and people dress completely differently. It makes your head spin.”
Golf as real estate
Dale says his firm frequently designs courses for Chinese developers intent on a simple “land grab,” with the course serving as a real-estate value enhancer and perhaps a temporary revenue source. “There are 54-hole complexes going up in remote places three hours from the nearest city, and there’s no logical way for the operating numbers to make sense,” says Dale. “But they’re in a projected growth corridor, and the land is seen as having huge appreciation potential.”
Other GolfPlan projects, such as Orient Golf Club in Fuzhou, in Fujian Province, are private enclaves with water views that are likely to become the Cypress Points or Newport Country Clubs of China. The golf bug is even biting in Mongolia, according to Dale. He has a team working there now on what will be the remote province’s first 18-hole course with all-natural turf.
Viewed as a marketing and branding case study, Mission Hills seems to change the rules of golf development, if subtly. The property’s courses are festooned with marquee names: Jack Nicklaus, Pete Dye, Greg Norman, Nick Faldo, Annika Sörenstam, Ernie Els, Jose Maria Olazabal, Vijay Singh, David Leadbetter, David Duval and Jumbo Ozaki. At the same time, Schmidt-Curley, which spent years in the “commodity design” or “ghostdesigning” niche, has been granted much in the way of official credit for authorship of the superclub.
The long-term importance of the game to this fast-growing nation will be measured as much by the citizenry’s participation level as by any other factor. Schmidt-Curley shares the view of experienced westerners that China should have alternative facility types beyond the old model of an 18-hole, par-72 configuration. “We’ve convinced many owners that a golf course is a business, and profitable ones can come in many shapes and sizes,” says Curley. “The learning-center concept is one that will take hold there very quickly, especially in urban areas. They will become neighborhood centers for socializing and, due to cultural differences, they are a much more viable model in Asia than in the West. We’ll see a much greater variety of facilities in China than we do in the U.S.”
Innovative ways to introduce the ancient Scottish game to the Chinese should fast-track its growth even more. The Chinese aspire to playing golf, says Strawn: “It’s a way for them to show they are a modern society. They’ve made huge strides in that respect—commercial infrastructure, airports, broadband Internet, things like that. The next logical step is, ‘OK, we’ll play golf, too.’”
DAVID GOULD is co-founder of TheAPositon.com and has been executive editor of Travel + Leisure Golf.