Ready To Shine

Host to next month's Summer Olympics, China has (officially) been slow to embrace the game--but that may be about to change


Shanghai nights: China's largest city, much of which has been built within the last decade, represents the transition from the austerity of Communist life to the modernity of a nation on the move.

July 18, 2008

China has lurked as a defiant mystery for thousands of years. First, as an exotic series of dynasties guiding a creative culture that gave the world paper, movable type and gunpowder—while at the same time holding outsiders at arm's length. More recently, China groaned beneath the weight of a closed society under which that entrepreneurial spirit was suffocated by Communist rule. Of the great ancient empires, China had the least interest in expanding its borders—and even less of a desire to open its doors, the 4,000-mile-long Great Wall serving as both a physical and symbolic barrier. Mao Zedong bolted those doors even tighter in 1949 when his revolution led to the massive and at times brutal task of bringing 25 percent of the Earth's people from feudalism into the 20th Century. There is no part of Chinese history in which golf makes sense—until now.

Things are changing in China. While the government still rules with a firm hand, many chains have been removed from the state-controlled economy, and the nation's massive labor force has been turned toward rebuilding China's infrastructure. The newly opened 14-million-square-foot Terminal 3 at Beijing Capital International Airport is astonishing not just for its size (it's more than two miles long) but because it was built in less than four years—an unthinkable timetable in the West, where it can take that long just to acquire the necessary permits.

Terminal 3 is a shining example of what China can accomplish when it puts its mind—and money—to a task. The imagination boggles when pondering the impact the Chinese could have on golf if the game were elevated from afterthought status—which many insiders say could happen as early as next month, after the conclusion of the Olympic Games in Beijing.

A decade ago basketball was also an afterthought in China. Now, city streets are dotted with Yao Ming's Houston Rockets jersey. Billboards of Xiang Liu, who will defend his gold medal in the 110-meter hurdles at Beijing, are everywhere. In 2002 there were no Chinese in the top 100 of women's tennis. Now there are four in the top 50, including Zheng Jie, who made it to the semifinals at Wimbledon two weeks ago before losing to Serena Williams.

These successes in basketball, track and tennis are perhaps a sports version of Terminal 3—something wonderful happening right away. While it would be a stretch to say China is ready to trade Chairman Mao's Little Red Book for Harvey Penick's version, there are signs China is finessing the political opponents of golf and preparing to make the game a key part of the country's nascent tourist economy as well as developing world-class players.

"The next 10 to 20 years will still be a high-growth period [for golf in China]," says Ziding Han, the CEO of Guangdong Golf Channel Co., Ltd. "The growth rate [of players] right now is 25 to 30 percent per year. The government says it is against [the game], but there are billions of dollars in private money invested in golf right now. No other sport in China has that [level of private investment]." Han says one obstacle is the 24 percent tax imposed on golf clubs, the same as nightclubs, an indication some still see the game as a symbol of "Western decadence."

Like just about all Chinese involved in the business of golf, the 45-year-old Han, an intense man with a drooping mustache and long, stringy whiskers dangling from his chin, is also in love with the game. He started his television venture three years ago, when he did not play. Then he gave up drinking and took up golf.

"I weighed 200 pounds," says Han, who is now 50 pounds lighter. "On April 26 [2005] I played my first round and I have played 700 rounds in three years. At first [getting into golf] was a pure business decision. But then I fell completely in love with the game."

Han's business has been as robust as his passion. Working on a content-licensing arrangement with the American-owned Golf Channel, Guangdong Golf Channel broadcast 37 PGA, European and LPGA tour events in 2006. This year Han says it will televise as many as 86 live events plus highlights from the Asia, Nationwide and Champions tours.

The growth of Guangdong Golf Channel is indicative of the advances the game has made despite the government-imposed moratorium on course construction in 2004 (a moratorium that is enforced quite selectively). Twenty-five years ago there were no golf courses in China. The first was Chung Shan Hot Springs, an Arnold Palmer design opened in Zhongshan in 1984.

Now there are 400 courses, including a dozen 18-hole layouts at the sprawling Mission Hills Resort in Shenzhen, the crown jewel of Chinese golf. And more courses are on the way, especially on Hainan Island in southern China, off the Vietnam coast, which the government is trying to turn into the Hawaii of China—a tropical tourist haven. "There are 18 courses on Hainan Island," Han says. "In five years there will be 100."

No city represents the new China more than Shanghai, with 18.6 million people the country's largest. Signs of growth are everywhere. By day Shanghai's modern skyline appears as if hidden behind a veil of gauze, a blurred silhouette obscured by the smog that shrouds the city, much of which 20 years ago was rice paddies. Blue skies are a rumor—or a memory of when the streets were clogged with bicycles instead of cars.

Mission Hills Resort

Mission Hills Resort in southern China is the largest golf complex in the world.

By night the skyline is a ribbon of color that shimmers off the Yangtze River with multicolored luminescence. A TV screen the size of a four-story building floats up and down the river, displaying video advertisements. At times it appears as if Shanghai skipped the 21st century and went right into the 22nd. It appears to be anything but the stereotype of stoic, anti-materialistic Communist China. Armani suits are more common than Mao jackets.

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