Those who have followed the story of golf in China will have witnessed an endless parade of twists and turns. It was an especially difficult animal to get your hands around if you were one of the many golf designers who participated in the story, from the soft building of courses in the early 1990s and their explosion between 2000 to 2012, to the sudden and dramatic halt of construction with the emergence of the President Xi era.
In a 10-year period from the mid-2000s, much of the golf construction was done in spite of existing government moratoriums. But construct they did.
I first set foot in China following the 1995 World Cup of Golf that was held on the first course at Mission Hills Golf Club in Shenzhen, across the border from Hong Kong. This coincided with what I felt was the beginning of a slowdown in a hot, domestic market in the US and the prospect of a wide open market that had an enormous appetite for the sport.
The initial courses (and most that were built after) followed a similar thread of being constructed on less-than-friendly terrain, where massive earthmoving was required to manhandle sites to create grades suitable for golf. Along with this was a strong directive from almost every owner and developer for formal, parkland golf.
Much of this work was driven by the ever-present ‘golf expert’, who was often one of a handful of people in the business who would influence the minds of ownership, many of whom had never held a club. As a result, just as ‘same-same’ is an often-used expression in Asia, it also became the directive of those who wanted a bulletproof design that was pretty and built to please the senses of golfers with a very limited knowledge of golf.
Having grown up in Pebble Beach, I would always show images of more natural designs, but these were immediately discarded. Upon returning from a trip to Sand Hills in 1999 that I took with Bill Coore, I showed images of the course and its wild, blowout bunkers, only to receive looks of disdain from decision makers as if I had horns protruding from my head!
As the courses grew in number, so did the players. And as these players travelled to other countries, they were exposed to new and different courses and the desire to be different took hold. Still, natural designs remained a difficult sell with most.
With the sport growing, locations away from major population bases sprang up and this led to more natural sites where less of a heavy hand was required. The combination of better sites and a changing understanding of more natural designs helped to raise the bar.
It was at this time that we were creating some new and fantastic work, including Dalu Dunes (pictured) in the northern city of Ordos. The natural site was reminiscent of Sand Hills and our effort produced a similar look. The course yielded awesome photography (by our in-house associate Ryan Farrow, who had a big design input). But ironically, on the same day that the July 2014 issue of Golf Course Architecture was published, with the course featuring on the cover, Dalu Dunes was bulldozed. Some 100 more courses met a similar fate when China’s moratorium on golf course construction was strictly enforced.
This led to the disappearance of about a dozen of our own courses, among which were three at Stone Forest, a spectacular property of karst rock formations outside Kunming.
What happens from here will be a new chapter in the continuing saga, and I hope to participate again!
This article first appeared in the April 2021 issue of Golf Course Architecture. For a printed subscription or free digital edition, please visit our subscriptions page.