This article first appeared in the January 2019 issue of Golf Course Architecture. For a printed subscription or free digital edition, please visit our subscriptions page.
There was a time, about ten years ago, when China was the only game in town for a number of golf architects. In 2008, when golf development dried up virtually everywhere else, the supply of golf courses in China was growing by an almost unthinkable 20 per cent per year. Several architects moved their operations to the Far East, and more were spending many hours jetting from America, Europe or Australia to Beijing, Shanghai or Hainan Island.
What made this more remarkable was that, in theory, new golf development was banned in China by an official directive issued by the central government in 2004. But with political authority divided, in practice, between Beijing and cadres at regional or local level, golf developers found ways to get their projects through.
China may appear to Western eyes as a political monolith but in such a huge country there is inevitably conflict between different sources of authority. Central government was opposed to golf development because of its impact on water supplies and agricultural land – it is, after all, not yet sixty years since millions of Chinese starved to death in the Great Famine. Local leaders, though, had different priorities. Golf courses are heavily taxed in China; as a regional leader, to have golf in your territory increases your tax base. And that is even before corruption enters the equation.
Since Xi Jinping became general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party and thus leader of the country in 2012, central government has waged an ongoing battle for control of the country, and against corruption in government. Xi vowed to root out both ‘tigers and flies’, which is to say, corruption at all levels. Over 120 senior officials, including Party functionaries, generals and bosses of state enterprises, have been implicated as part of the campaign, but perhaps even more significantly, a total of more than 100,000 officials have been indicted. It is in this context that the anti-golf campaign must be understood.
No golf architect has built more courses in China than Brian Curley, so it would be hardly surprising if he had also had more courses closed. On the other hand, no architect, arguably no golfing Westerner, has given as much time and effort to understanding China as Curley has, so if there is or was a secret to avoiding closures, he would be the most likely to have found it.
But this latter isn’t the case. Curley has lost several courses, including two of his highest profile Chinese projects, Dalu Dunes and Stone Forest. “My understanding is that most courses that suffered a death were because of a variety of reasons, most notably the taking of farmland, removal of villagers, preserving forest conflicts and concerns about water contamination and runoff to surrounding lands,” he says. “But with Dalu, for example, in respect of those factors, that course seems the least likely candidate: it was open dunes in a very desolate and remote area, not farmed, no villagers, no forest, and no streams to flow runoff to. In fact, there was (and still is) a strong effort by the government to eliminate the blowing dust that plagues the region, and golf does just that.
“Also, it is near Ordos, a so-called ‘ghost city’ that needs all the help it can muster to recruit new citizens with things to do. So, I conclude that the main reason was conflict for water resources in an arid region. It’s a great shame, as this course broke the mould of the typical golf course in China (really, all of Asia) and could have been used as a poster child for how a course can be integrated with minimal disturbance and with minimal use of water.”
Curley’s Stone Forest complex in Yunnan was one of the country’s most heralded developments, a remarkable 54-hole golf estate with nine holes in and among some truly remarkable rock formations, a World Heritage site. Many Western commentators, on seeing photos of Stone Forest, were astonished that developers had won permission to build golf in such a sensitive site, and that it has subsequently been closed seems hardly surprising. But Curley says the reality is a little different. I put it to him that, in the West, it would have been totally impossible to win consent to build golf in such a location. “I’m not sure it would be impossible, though certainly it would take a lot of time to process permits,” he says. “What you have to consider is that, as stunning as the site is, it is in an area where that look is dominant all over, including the actual park area nearby. In addition, we really did not alter the site in terms of removing any of the rock. We found holes here and there and incorporated the stone – we didn’t have to eliminate or blow up any rock formations of any significance. So, unlike the filling of marshlands, cutting of trees or hillsides, that may create impacts on such sites, we just integrated a course into the environment. In that context, and as someone who does his best to be a good steward of the land, I would say the impact was minor and would not be unlike creating a park or trail system for people to experience the stone formations, except with a club in hand. The only trees we removed were mostly eucalyptus, a tree that is considered invasive and unwanted. Very few pines were removed. No wetlands or lakes were filled.
“Believe it or not, there were many areas of standard open fields of red clay where we just found holes, relying on the stone formations mostly as a backdrop to greens. This would be no different from most properties where you play to significant backdrops, maybe of dense trees. The main challenge was connecting these areas in a logical manner without too much green-to-tee length. But the reality is most of the holes were ‘there’. The rock that posed the most difficulty was the small surface rock that required capping. To do so, we found plenty of areas of good material where we cut as much as we could to dig lakes and use the cut to cap the rock. The rock was sharp and hazardous, bushes were thorny, and the open areas and forests were thick with spider webs with massive spiders, so walking the site was a bit of an adventure. The funny thing is that the site had been covered with eucalyptus trees, so finding holes was tough as you could only see so far.
“Fairly soon after opening we started hearing hints that it might be in the firing line. I think there never was a real grand opening but an ongoing soft opening stream of people. They never really did any advertising. I really believe that its closure had much more to do with the overall China golf situation than anything site specific. The only site-specific comments had to do with the back nine of the C course (the most spectacular setting) where there seemed to be more pushback – but that is also the area that is essentially an expansion of the park just over the hill. You have to remember there are three courses and many of the holes play within very typical settings with the occasional outcrop. I really think there would have been zero issues had China not clamped down on the golf market.”
Mark Hollinger of design firm JMP is another old China hand, having built almost 30 courses in the country. “I have a few heart-breaking casualties,” he says. “A good example is the Silver Cloud course in the city of Fuzhou. The site was in a valley surrounded by mountain just a short drive from the downtown portions of Fuzhou. Very convenient for a great many golfers, yet very private. This is the home province of President Xi; whether that had an impact on what happened we will probably never know. Most of the site was an existing poor-quality golf course built many years ago by a Taiwanese developer. It had all the official permits to operate which were properly and legally obtained by my client, the new developer. We added more land, blew up the existing golf course and built a new beautiful 18-hole championship course which would have a convention hotel and clubhouse as well as some surrounding in-town residential components overlooking the golf.
“No actual hints popped up regarding the golf course being in line for closure. We built and grew-in the course to a finished form and had it maintained to maturity through test golf play and were getting very close to an opening date. The new clubhouse and hotel, which were planned and submitted to the local government for final approval, had been delayed in a last round of plan review by the local government for no apparent good reason, which began to set off some red flags.
“Our out-of-town client was planning to build some residential components nearby the golf course and became very uncomfortable with the Chinese government’s very unpredictable position on golf and any type of development associated with it. They decided instead not to gamble on what might happen to their plans for this project relating to the hotel and residences and instead sold the land to a local developer who felt they could gain total project approvals and retained only a minority position. By this time, the central Chinese government officials became so anti-golf development, they chose not to open the golf – even though it was an approved facility. They redid their project master planning to eliminate golf altogether and just do real estate housing. To date, however, the golf course has been left to seed and no residential development has taken place. Who knows where this will go, but the golf course will not be a part of it.”
Read more: Ryan Farrow describes the short life of Dalu Dunes, his first project as lead designer with Schmidt-Curley.
The experience of Tom Doak shows just how capricious decision-making seems to have been. Doak and his crew, led by associate Eric Iverson, spent three years building a course on Simapo Island, in the delta of the Nandu River, near Haikou, the capital of Hainan Island. Hainan was at the very centre of golf development in China for a good number of years; the province, in the far south of the country, has warm winters and was envisaged by many as a tourist hub for Asian golfers, especially from Korea or Japan where winter weather is less conducive to golf. The belief in the industry was that golf development was permitted, indeed encouraged, on Hainan, even at a point when the government was trying to choke it off in the rest of the country.
“Simapo was actually fully permitted by the provincial government,” says Doak. “But the project was in a very visible location, and the national government didn’t want to look like they were making exceptions to their crackdown on illegal activity, so they ordered it closed anyway, with the local government responsible to the developer for reimbursing their costs! Of course, that was never going to happen, but my friend suggested they would make good by granting more development rights to our client.
“I’ve had a few of my courses close, so it’s not as big a deal to me as it was for Eric Iverson, who spent three years of his life going back and forth to China. My wife has always said art is about the creation, not the end result; but she didn’t like me being away that much, either. So I guess I’m a bit more wary of potential projects now if I’m not sure they will be around for the long term.”
Dana Fry is another veteran China hand, settling in Hong Kong for a time. Fry’s CTS Tycoon club in Shenzhen was forced to close in 2017 – but here the situation is a little different, as the reason for closure was made public.
“Tycoon was located very close to a reservoir that was a major source of drinking water for Shenzhen,” says Fry. “In November 2017, the club was informed by the regional government that it was part of a zone protecting the reservoir, and would have to close.”
Tycoon, founded in 1999, was one of the most popular courses in the golf-rich Shenzhen region. Members were predictably unhappy at the closure, with one man telling a newspaper he acquired membership in 2011 for nearly HK$300,000 (US$40,000) but only received HK$50,000 in compensation, the original price of membership back in the early 90s.
“The central thing I have learned from this whole process is that there appears to be no rhyme or reason to it. Many courses had conflicts with every one of the concerns I listed yet still survive,” says Curley. “I still believe the establishment of an approval process would be a great benefit for the country and environmental concerns should be at the forefront of decision-making. I have always felt that, in time, golf may not just reappear but actually be welcomed. Many factors could influence this, especially if the country ever fields a top-level PGA Tour player.
“President Xi has done great things for China on many levels, especially with regard to corruption, and appears to be in for a very long term and loved by most. My understanding of the way things work is that policies like this typically get repealed or removed by the next round of governance, or the existing politburo may be seen as changing their minds and subject to questioning of why it may have been put in place to begin with. Better to let the next guy have his own policy.
“In addition, golf is just a pebble in the shoe of politics when there are far greater issues to deal with. In a country of 1.5 billion, not even one per cent play the game. I am hopeful, but not anticipating any movement in the near future.”