What the future holds for the game of golf in China

What the future holds for the game of golf in China
Brian Curley
By Brian Curley

This article was first published in Issue 39 of Golf Course Architecture

China has a very short history with golf. Banned after the 1949 Communist revolution for being a ‘bourgeois sport for millionaires’, the game was played at the Royal Hong Kong Golf Club in Fanling but golf on the mainland did not exist until 1984 when Arnold Palmer was asked to design a course across from the border to Hong Kong on a project named Chung Shan Hot Spring.

On the heels of this development came the first course of what would soon be a massive golf development at Mission Hills Golf Club in Dongguan Province, also across the border from Hong Kong. The Jack Nicklaus World Cup course played host to the 1995 World Cup of Golf that saw Fred Couples and Davis Love win for the United States in what was I am told, the first uncensored live television event from China to the world.

This led to a large number of courses throughout the country, thought to be more than 200, by the time that a central government policy of 2004 specifically banned golf courses.

In the ten years that followed this ban, however, the total number of courses increased threefold – some 700 or more exist today. Along the way were stories of projects that ran into trouble with government and were converted back to farmland, but many projects continued and enforcement of the policy was seldom seen.

The sport saw a great increase in exposure with events backed by the PGA Tour, LPGA Tour, European Tour and Asian Tour held across the country and the staging of World Golf Championships events with the world’s leading players. The sport, in defiance of government policy, did not exist in secret like the speakeasies of America’s prohibition days but right under the nose of the world.

Contrary to the belief of many people, these projects were also largely developed not by private individuals but by state-owned companies; in effect, the government was the developer while, at the same time, in conflict with its own policy. Local and provincial governments were strongly in favour of golf as it was a way to accommodate economic development, and seen as a way for the local population to prosper.

This was the norm for a long period of time but in late 2013 and early 2014 we began to see and hear of more and more reports on policy enforcement and the tearing up of courses across the country. This began largely with the halting of new construction but soon began to migrate into the shutting down and tearing up of existing courses, even those with active memberships. This crackdown, I believe, was tied largely to the 2012 change of the Politburo and the very public crackdown on government corruption. Government officials across the country, upwards of some 20,000 in 2014, were arrested and jailed, some quite prominent.

This crackdown centred on many issues, a large and very prominent one being the suspicions of bad land deals,and golf certainly was caught up in its wake. Although the game has continued on in some regions, some provinces, especially those with water supply issues, were deeply hit with shutdowns. Beijing area courses were hit with a user supply tax that, in effect, would increase the cost of water for an 18 hole course to almost US$10 million per year, a figure not close to sustainable even for the most expensive clubs. The message was clear: golf was not wanted, especially when there was competition for limited water supplies. In addition, in a country where the media is controlled, the opposing view that golf has many merits is a story not being told. It will only be so when it is deemed time to.

The past year has seen some strange and funny efforts to thwart the inspectors by planting out many courses with trees on fairways, tees and greens, filling of bunkers and covering of paths, all in an effort to make the course appear like a ‘park’. We’ve also seen the closing and tearing up of numerous courses across the country. The message that is being pushed in the inner circles is mixed for the long term outlook.

I have been privy to many rumours and innuendo and, from talking to many people in the know I believe the following:

• The central government is in the process of documenting all the courses in the country

• Following this documentation, a report will be distributed. I believe this report will surface sometime in 2015 but most likely not until the summer, maybe even later

• Many people believe this report will establish a policy to deal with existing and new course development with strict guidelines. I do not agree. I believe it will deal largely with theelephant in the room; all the existing illegal courses. I do not believe new construction will be dealt with at this time

• This report (possibly a policy) will name courses to be demolished, courses that can stay, and courses that will need remedial work to be done over a one year period to become compliant with the standards necessary to remain. These issues will include the avoidance of certified farmland, villager relocation and compensation, avoidance of forest preserve, water supply, and water runoff

• It is my understanding that, of the 700 or so courses believed to exist today, some 90 to 100 will disappear by being bulldozed over and converted back to their original state. Some will be very prominent courses with existing memberships, many will be courses that have just finished or may still be in construction. This remedial work and conversion of some land will pose serious issues for many of the courses that are not named on the original hit list. With little or no land left to shift holes, many of these will have no choice but to close. Some may decide to convert their championship scorecards with reductions in par and length, perhaps even in number of holes.

This could have deeply ironic consequences. China was a very difficult market in which to build anything other than lengthy, tournament-ready, par 72 courses, as owners were difficult to convince otherwise. China may, however, be forced to lead the world in reassessing the issue of length and par and, in areas where demand is there, establish golf at any size. In addition, I believe that while the short term effects are quite brutal, the long term outlook for golf may be better as there will, in time, be established standards for golf construction and the industry may in fact prosper. If 700 courses, or even more, can be built illegally, how many will be built if there are clear, established criteria for golf? I do not see this happening soon, but the body punches that are being thrown today may be fended off in time and the sport may come around in a renewed energy and confidence down the road.

The 30 year history of golf in China is an immeasurable speck on the country’s timeline that has witnessed dynasties come and go. There is no telling how the now-largest economy in the world will address a sport that is seen as a great conduit for business and cultural bridging. I, for one, am optimistic that the sport will continue on a very controlled pace in the years to come and, with a country filled with incredible sites and a new revival in design looking for new canvases, there is potential for great, influential courses across the country.

Only time will tell. China has plenty of that. It also has plenty of other more serious issues on its list (think of the recent protests in Hong Kong). It is hard to believe that the issue of golf would warrant any sort of imminent need to act. At this point, the good news is that a large number of courses will remain and the sport will continue to be played. The news could be worse. 

Brian Curley is a principal of Schmidt-Curley Design, based in Scottsdale, USA and with offices in Kunming and Haikou in China. Curley designed 20 of the 22 Mission Hills courses and the firm has completed 45 courses in China.

Since this article was written, Schmidt-Curley has seen the demolition of a new 36-hole project in Central China. Described by Curley as having “Top 100 potential,” the courses were complete and growing in when machines arrived to remove sand cap, drainage and irrigation pipe in the process of conversion to farmland.