What happens when the world’s fastest growing economy decides that it’s time to embrace the ancient game of golf? Curtis Gillespie ventures into the dizzy, disconcerting world of China golf.
The dawn sun sizzled like a slow fuse behind the muggy haze drifting in off the South China Sea. Standing on the balcony of my 15th-floor hotel room at Mission Hills Haikou, on the Chinese volcanic island of Hainan—closer to Vietnam than Hong Kong—the staggeringly ambitious scale of the resort slowly revealed itself through the evaporating morning mist. It felt like I was leaving a dream and gradually surfacing into consciousness—a process opposed, in theory and execution, to the manner in which golf is being developed in China. Here the game is being shaped in much the same manner the island itself was formed: through sudden and volatile explosions, the consequences of which no one can predict with any accuracy.
As the sun continued to burn off the humid briny haze, I saw a few of the resort’s 10 golf courses take shape, particularly the Blackstone course (host venue for Omega Mission Hills World Cup 2011), which sits right in front of the 525-room hotel. Mission Hills simultaneously built 10 golf courses on this site…in one year. At the peak of construction, there were 50,000 workers on the property. To the west of the golf courses, a dozen building cranes were already hoisting concrete pods into the sky at 7 a.m., feverishly throwing up numerous high-rises with thousands of condos to service the resort. To the east of the hotel, I could make out part of the nearly-complete spa complex, with its gigantic bamboo-enclosed primary spa and the adjoining 150 separate pools, each suffused with a different mineral composition (no, that is not a typo—there are 150 separate pools). Fifteen floors directly beneath me was the Lava Lagoon family aquatic theme park, with its faux-volcanos and vast serpentining swimming pool.
Gaudy? Ambitious? Dizzying?
Yes, yes and yes. There may be no word in Chinese for “modest”…or, if there is, the government has officially banished it from the businessman’s lexicon. Mission Hills is already acknowledged by Guinness World Records as being the world’s largest golf resort, since Haikou has a sister complex, Mission Hills Shenzhen, 90 minutes’ drive north of Hong Kong, where there are 12 golf courses. Mission Hills currently operates 22 golf courses, four luxurious, heavily mirrored, marble-encrusted LHMME clubhouses, three LHMME hotels, more than 1,000 LHMME on-course apartments, and many thousands of soon-to-open residential abodes and, undoubtedly LHMME, condo units. It has all cost a reported $1.5 billion to date.
Amid all this glory, as I stood on my balcony, watching the tropical sun come alive, I was consumed by one question and one question alone: Why on earth would anyone in China invest this kind of money in golf?
Kenneth Chu is a handsome and charming young man, well-educated, well-spoken, with an ability to answer questions off the cuff. Which was why I felt it appropriate, when we met at one of the LHMME hotels at Mission Hills Shenzhen, to ask him: Why golf? What was it that prompted his father, David Chu, the founder of the Mission Hills Group, to create such an outsized golf operation in a country where golf has traditionally been about as popular as polo—which is to say, not at all. (In fact, golf was against the law in China until 1984, which was one of the few things that gave it cachet.)
Chu, who is now executive vice-chairman of the Mission Hills Group, sat back, smiling at the question. He proceeded to tell the story of how his father was advised not to invest in golf, to place his money elsewhere, but he had a vision. “‘If we build it, they will come,’” said Chu, quoting his father, who was probably unaware he was invoking a metaphor about a fantasy baseball game. “That was my father’s vision. He saw golf as a way to create goodwill and to make money. He was on a mission, which is why he called it Mission Hills.”
But surely there were better ways to both create goodwill and to make money than to invest over a billion dollars in a golf resort. Why choose golf?
Two things, said Chu. First, and most recently, “golf took off once it got on the Olympic radar. That’s when the government got behind it. Once it became an Olympic sport, the Chinese government decided it was a sport that Chinese could, and will, excel at it. You don’t need a lot of strength or size to play it, and it suits the Chinese people well.”
“Second,” he said, his father recognized that, “golf is the perfect sport for business, and China is about business now. Where else can you spend time with a client and have him trapped with you for four and a half hours?”
Whereas in North America cell phones are often banned from courses, the opposite is true in China. A Westerner I played with at Haikou told me that the Chinese pre-round warm-up is 10 minutes on a golf cart with a cigarette and a cell phone. I remarked to one of the golf course’s associate architects that perhaps their next Mission Hills design should include tee boxes shaped like cell phones and bunkers that mimicked dollar signs. He did not find the suggestion unreasonable.
Golf occupies a peculiar place in the sporting world, in that it has been, and will undoubtedly continue to be, used around the world, usually in developing countries, to express either the promotion of Western values or economic expansion or both. The evidence in Russia, Bulgaria, the Middle East, South Africa, Sri Lanka, among many others, and, now, in China, suggests that developing economies believe one thing above all else about golf: that it represents economic prosperity. Enthusiasm for golf is seen in new markets as a tool to both drive and express new wealth, rather than as an intrinsic interest in the actual playing of the game.
The Chu family certainly believes golf represents an aspiration to economic and social prosperity, and so does the Chinese government. Which is why Mission Hills exists. The clubhouses, the hotels, the condos, the resorts: they all required huge investment on the part of the Chu family. And the upgrading of the infrastructure in and around the resorts—where the pavement is new and the roads are smooth, in marked contrast to other areas in the regions around the resorts—indicates the government is willing to match investment. Massive amounts are being spent on what is essentially a guess, a guess that golf will catch on with the Chinese—it is forecast that by 2020 it will have the world’s second-largest golf market, with 20 million players (behind only the 26 million of the United States).
The apparent embrace of the game is not without problems, however, the most obvious of which is the widely acknowledged Chinese combination of Keystone Kops construction schedules linked to a weak and corruption-riddled regulatory environment. “Everyone here is corrupt,” one source told me. “In fact, there’s so much corruption that, because everybody’s corrupt, it’s bizarrely democratic.”
China’s frantic yet laissez-faire business climate may be what gave Mission Hills the ability to build 10 golf courses in a year, but it’s also likely what leads to splashy but shoddy finishing in some areas, such as in my hotel room in Shenzhen, where the heavy glass casing over my bathroom TV simply fell off into the tub without a touch while I happened to be in the room. Had I been in the tub at the time, I would have been shopping in Shenzhen for a knock-off prosthetic foot instead of playing golf. But for all the economic, social and sporting complexities currently leading golf’s charge into the Chinese mainstream, one must still get back to basics, must still ask the simplest of questions when it comes to golf in China, particularly from a tourism perspective. How good are the actual golf courses? Are they designed, constructed and maintained with integrity? Are they worth travelling around the world for?
Yes and no. The course designs at Mission Hills Shenzhen flow well for the most part, given the tricky surroundings. (A good portion of the Shenzhen site is former landfill and unofficial dumping territory, and 30 million people live within a 100-kilometre radius.) Finding a way to put 10 golf courses in this landscape, while also finding room for hotels, clubhouses and condos, is a remarkable achievement according to any metric. The golf courses range from soft to very challenging, with the José Maria Olazábal and Jack Nicklaus courses known for their difficulty. The Jumbo Ozaki course is a benign parkland member’s course that is shorter, easier and more user-friendly. The Greg Norman course is a fine test and enjoyable for the most part, though certain holes on the back nine suffer from a sense of remoteness and detachment from the rest of the course, due to the forced routing through a series of deep ravines.
At Mission Hills Haikou, the courses are designed in a more forgiving nature, which is natural and wise at a resort (Shenzhen is a club with members and dues; Haikou a pay-by-the-day resort). One superior feature of Haikou—which too few clubs emulate—is the selection of short and beginner courses to encourage both families and beginners to play the game. There are also a couple of gimmicky courses at Haikou—“inspired” by this tradition or “paying homage” to that designer—but the signature course, the Blackstone, is a gem, designed to highlight and take advantage of the island’s volcanic rock features. Blackstone possesses the one intangible no designer can guarantee, but which every great course must possess, which is that the minute you finish playing it, you want to play it again.
One issue facing Mission Hills at all 22 of its courses is that of maintenance; it’s going to take time to develop the kind of employee affinity for the game that will lead to world-class conditioning. It’s not that they don’t care, it’s simply that they don’t have a grounding in the game. It’s not yet in their bones. “We tell the ground staff what to do,” one employee told me, “and they do it right when you’re watching, but then you come back a week later and they’re doing it wrong.” This has led to spotty maintenance and upkeep.
A unique feature of golf at Mission Hills is their caddy program. Every golfer is assigned a caddy (which is included in the green fee, though tipping is an expectation). The caddies, who number in the thousands, are exclusively female, young and delightfully spirited. My caddy on Haikou was Chen Qihua, a 17-year-old islander who hoped to use caddying to make some money and progress to an academy where she could train for a job in the tourism industry. Our two rounds together became more a conversation than a golfing experience. She knew where the traps were, knew which way the doglegs bent, could give me a good yardage, and wasn’t even half bad reading greens, but all this was far outweighed by the pleasure of her and her fellow caddies reacting to our shots. If I managed to fly a bunker she didn’t think I could carry, it was, “Aii!…Superman!” When I sprayed a tee shot into the trees, Chen laughed and said, “Re. Load.”
It used to be that China and golf were about as synonymous as Paraguay and hockey. Now Chinese golf is on the verge of mass acceptance. The World Cup will be played at Blackstone in November, which will bring many of the world’s finest golfers to the island. A celebrity competition called the Star Trophy, which has featured the likes of Catherine Zeta-Jones and Matthew McConaughey, will be played again at Haikou in 2012. Kenneth Chu told me that many Chinese, as well as the Chinese government, are already looking at Hainan as having the potential to become China’s Hawaii. This will require dozens more golf courses on the island, and it isn’t hard to envision it becoming a Pacific Rim focal point for tourism, given its centrality and climate.
The golf is good at Mission Hills, though perhaps it’s not yet of a high enough calibre that North Americans will make repeat visits. You’ll want to see it at least once, though. The scale and ambition alone will draw many thousands of visitors for years to come. But what will ultimately come of China’s foray into the grand auld game is difficult to predict. The Chinese are famously long-viewed about such things. Perhaps it’s best to revisit the words of Zhou Enlai: legend has it that in the 1960s the French ambassador to China asked the great leader for his assessment of how the French Revolution of 1789 had affected global history. “It’s too soon to tell,” responded Premier Zhou.