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Book Review: The Forbidden Game, Golf and the Chinese Dream

January 17, 2015 regularly highlights golf books we find of interest to readers. This week is:


By Dan Washburn

OneWorld Publications, $19, paperback, 320 pages

Golf and China have an odd, juxtaposed relationship. The communist country is known for having a longstanding government ban on the game, proclaiming it a sport for the rich that upholds the interests of capitalists. Yet, it is estimated the country is up to 500 courses and 350,000 golfers. Each year, more elite professional tournaments are held in the country. PGA Tour China just started in 2014. Western companies continually try to make inroads into China. Names of the country's pro golfers pop up more and more on golf telecasts. And Golf Digest International Editor John Barton wrote last year that the "Chinese golf market will inevitably become the largest in the world." That is some kind of effective ban.

So, what to make of the Chinese golf market? Washburn, a past contributor to Golf Digest and a reporter/managing editor at the Asia Society, used the 30th anniversary in 2014 of the first golf course to open in China -- the Arnold Palmer Design Zhongshan Hot Spring Golf Club -- as a key moment to assess the Chinese game. His book's narrative structure takes three men living among the world's most populous country of 1.3 billion and follow their lives as they relate to the golf industry. Zhou was a peasant who became a professional after working as a security guard on a course construction site, thus moving into the middle class; Martin is an executive who has to maneuver through bureaucratic messes; and Wang is a farmer whose lychee fields are confiscated for golf construction. How these three move forward in a country that is both modernizing and yet struggling with the old ways is an intriguing study.

The book shows how parallels between golf in China and the U.S. can be startling, especially with the pursuit of land, environmental bickering, the mix of rich/poor with both players and workers, the need for irrigation and watering, and the contradictions between what the national government says and how the local governments act. As Washburn presents it, these areas and more are in opposition to the aims named by the Chinese government. One area that is particularly fascinating is the cost to play in China. Although it can be expensive to play in America, a round of golf in China is often priced as high what a Chinese family gets for one-month's pay. How the cost to play runs counter to the country's culture is just one dynamic that makes this look at golf in China an absorbing read for anyone keeping tabs on golf's potential growth.