July 6, 2010

Golf in the Year of the Rat

Interesting times: Many things are changing fast in China -- including golf

China old and new: Workers attend to the grounds in front of a billboard promoting a golf tournament, the Asian Tour's Pine Valley Beijing Open. View more photos of China>>

China old and new: Workers attend to the grounds in front of a billboard promoting a golf tournament, the Asian Tour's Pine Valley Beijing Open. View more photos of China>>

It's 11 a.m. on Wednesday morning, the day before the China Open starts, and a press conference is taking place in the media center at the CBD International Golf Club, on the outskirts of Beijing. Liang Wen-chong, 29, the best Chinese golfer, is holding court. He provides long answers in Mandarin. Through an interpreter, each one becomes a single sentence in English. For Westerners in China, so much gets lost in translation.

"What does Liang need to work on to improve this year?" he is asked. The translated reply is strangely cryptic: "Golf is a learning process," says the interpreter. "If he goes for one goal, he may have to forfeit another."

Liang arrived back in China from America three days earlier, having been only the second Chinese golfer to compete in the Masters Tournament at Augusta National Golf Club. It was, he says, "a learning experience." He played a practice round with Gary Player, who told him he needed to exercise more, and to learn how to speak English. He enjoyed every minute, even though he missed the cut by seven shots. "Overall I was very happy," he says. He hopes to do well this week, in his national championship.

Not counting Liang, the press officer, translator, two cameramen and a security guard, there are 10 people in the room. Only about half of those look like journalists, armed with a notepad and pen, mostly young women. Some of the Chinese press, I later learn, often have to be enticed to golf events with a goody bag and even a small appearance fee. Liang is clearly not yet considered a star, even in his homeland.

He should be. His story is pure Hollywood -- how the son of a poor rice farmer came to walk Augusta's luxuriant fairways. "By luck or coincidence," Liang later explains on the patio, "I lived near a golf course." This was the Arnold Palmer-designed Chung Shan Hot Spring Golf Club in the south of the country, near Macau, the first post-Mao course to be built in the People's Republic of China, opened in 1984.

"My mother used to work on the grounds, picking weeds by hand, and she would sometimes bring back golf balls that she found. And when I was about 12 or 13, I would swing at the golf balls with sticks and branches that we used for firewood." Liang is trim, fit and friendly, his face never far from a smile. He was born, according to the Chinese zodiac, in the Year of the Horse, which supposedly ensures that he's cheerful, astute and adaptable, among other qualities.

Chung Shan club officials were looking to promote golf to a country that knew absolutely nothing about it. They started in some of the local village schools, looking to recruit a small team of promising youngsters and teach them about the game. "All the kids were lined up and invited to swing a club," recalls Aylwin Tai, the general manager of the club at the time. "We looked at the swing, and we looked at the face. The ones that swung hard and had a look of determination -- those are the ones we chose." Liang was picked on July 11, 1993. He was 14. He broke 100 three months later. Within a year, he broke 80. After another year, he'd broken par. He won the China Amateur three years running and decided to turn pro. Liang was ranked 121st in the world at the start of China Open week, but he's on the rise. He warmed up for Augusta with a tie for 12th at the PGA Tour's Zurich Classic. This summer he becomes the first mainland Chinese golfer to play in the British Open. He'd love to play more on the PGA Tour.

Liang's biggest victory to date is last year's Singapore Masters on the Asian Tour. The first-place check was $183,000, a lot of money for a man of his humble origins, who lives in a modest apartment beside the course where he learned to play. Yet he gave it all away, donating the money to the creation of a junior program at Chung Shan -- an extraordinary gesture.

"Look at me with my background," he says. "I come from a peasant family.

I was lucky. But for most people like me, there's no way you can get a chance to play golf. I want to give something back. We players need to do our duty and educate people here about golf, about the spirit of the game. Otherwise there will only be rich people playing golf."

A HIGH-END BOOM -- DESPITE A BAN

The best golf course in Beijing is a Jack Nicklaus design called Pine Valley, which comes with views of the Great Wall of China, a luxury hotel, a monumentally extravagant building called the White House (Bill Clinton once stayed in the Presidential Suite), a spa, an equestrian center, 45 holes of golf and two enormous clubhouses -- all of it strictly for members and their guests only (membership costs $230,000). The place is like a mini-Versailles. When I visited Pine Valley last November, it was deserted.

Today, however, we are at a newer Beijing course called Bayhood No. 9 (membership: $156,500). Before golf, lunch is served. Seven women in embroidered silk suits line the steps to the restaurant, bow and say "good morning." A phalanx of identically uniformed women then ushers us into one of the chandeliered private dining rooms, proffering greetings and moist towels as we walk. Lunch around a large, orchid-strewn table is lavish. I'm full after the third course -- lobster thermidor -- but there are still five more courses to go. Why is the course called No. 9? "It is the highest number," explains David Kurniawan, the general manager. "In China, it means prosperity."

After lunch, we meet our satin-gloved, silk-trousered caddies. There are eight of them. Each player gets a golf cart, a senior caddie, an assistant caddie and a hand-held GPS unit. My senior caddie -- she's 19 -- says her name is Karen. Her job is to drive the cart, give me yardages, and generally offer encouragement and occasional fortifying cups of ginger tea. My assistant caddie -- Selina -- does all the back-office work, like fetching and cleaning clubs, replacing divots. She always arrives at my ball before I do, with a little golf bag containing an arsenal of carefully selected clubs that I might desire for the upcoming shot. Throughout Asia, caddies are almost always women. Very few of them are encouraged to play the game.

The pollution is bad. It hurts your eyes and scorches your throat. The day looks like when you turn the color down on the TV and turn the brightness way up. The course is thronged by cranes, power lines, cell towers, floodlight towers for a nearby soccer stadium, giant nets of a nearby driving range and monolithic apartment buildings. The barren flatlands of Beijing are not ideally suited to golf -- the country's best courses are 1,300 miles away, in Kunming, where the climate and topography are better. But we have a good game. Some work is being done on the back nine, so we play the front nine twice, missing out on the 153-yard finishing hole, whose island green sits right in front of the clubhouse. Having so many caddies is like renting your own gallery. There is plenty of applause and cries of "Hao qiu," and the English equivalent: "Good shot."

All of China's golf courses seem to want to be the most expensive. (The leader is Sheshan Golf Club in Shanghai with an initiation fee of $240,000.) They all want to employ the most staff, and offer the most excessive, over-the-top service. Mission Hills in Shenzhen (membership: $200,000), about an hour from Hong Kong, has 12 golf courses, two hotels, three giant clubhouses -- one claims to be the world's biggest, at 680,000 square feet -- four spas, three golf academies (including a David Leadbetter school where son Andy is the guru-in-residence) and more than 50 tennis courts. Multimillion-dollar mansions line some of the holes. Mission Hills claims to have 10,000 employees, all of whom are barracked, clothed, fed and watered on site, including 3,000 young female caddies. On a visit to Mission Hills three years ago, courses six through 10 had just been finished, from scratch, in little more than a year -- I was told 20,000 people worked on them by day, and another 10,000 by night, under lights. If you look at the place on Google Earth, the fairways look like madly replicating bacteria in a petri dish. And Mission Hills isn't even the biggest golf resort in China. Nanshan International Golf Club in Longkou City, in Shandong Province, has nine holes more -- 12½ courses, 225 holes of golf, six clubhouses -- and by October it will have 54 additional holes and another two clubhouses. But even that will be dwarfed by Mission Hills' grand ambitions in Hainan Island, off China's southern coast, where the hope is to build up to 36 golf courses as part of a master plan to make the island into Asia's Myrtle Beach. Almost all the leading American architects are working in China; domestic work has all but disappeared.

Nobody knows for sure how many golf courses there are in China, but the best guess is 400, a figure that, according to the China Golf Association (see "The Golf Boss") is growing 30 percent a year. That's a meteoric rise for a country that 25 years ago was entirely golf-free. Aylwin Tai recalls Arnold Palmer's first visit to the site of the Chung Shan course in 1982. "Nobody was interested," he says. "No one cared or knew who he was. No one came." Even by the mid-1990s, Beijing had only three golf courses, and there were only about 20 nationwide.

Golf really started to take off in China five years ago, something that a lot of people attribute to the horrific outbreak of SARS, which killed hundreds of people across Asia. "SARS was really the big catalyst for golf," says David Lee, golf consultant and Golf Digest China editorial director. "Before that, people were in karaoke bars, drinking and having business meetings indoors. Then SARS came along, and it wasn't safe to be inside, in public places. Golf was a way to be outside. It was healthy. And people found that they liked the game. And this coincided with an economic boom in 2003." Adds Golf Digest China General Manager Jerome Zhang: "I would say half the golfers in China today started playing during the SARS outbreak -- including me." When I first visited, four years ago, I was told there were 200,000 golfers in China. Now the oft-quoted figure is a million. The China Golf Association says it's four million to five million.

This ongoing growth spurt is remarkable considering that since the beginning of 2004, the government has had a ban on new golf courses. Land is a precious resource. (China's available arable land reportedly fell by 100,000 acres in 2006, dangerously close to what the government calls a "critical" level.) There are massive water shortages across the country. But the real reason for the ban, according to many, is to do with perception. The government, in its quest for a harmonious xiaokang society, can't be seen to support such a bourgeois activity in a People's Republic that is riven with inequality -- even though many politicians are said to be avid golfers.

Like so many things in China -- the no-smoking sections of Beijing restaurants, the cell-phone ban for spectators at the China Open, the notion of intellectual property -- the edict against golf courses seems to be almost entirely theoretical, easily subverted if you have the right guanxi -- connections. You apply to build a "sports park" or a "resort" without necessarily mentioning that one of the facilities will be a golf course. Instead of trying to get a permit from the central government, you work out a deal with local officials. No one I spoke to knew of any new courses that had been ordered to close or pay a fine. Indeed, right under the nose of the central government, in Beijing, there'll be about 20 new courses opening this year, according to Golf Digest China, bringing the total to more than 90, more than any other city in China.

The owner of China Open venue CBD International, Li Hao, also owns the second-best course in Beijing, the Nick Faldo-designed Honghua International, and has several other projects under construction around the country. I ask him how he manages to get courses built, given the government ban. "Local government always wants golf courses," he says. "For business, for investment, attracting foreign companies. It's better for them than empty fields, wasteland. But if you want to use farmland, they won't allow it; it's forbidden. An absolute no-no. You will be stopped. There are 1.3 billion people here. They want food, not golf."

It's possible that the number of golf courses in China is growing so fast not despite the ban, but because of it. "A sure way to create interest in something in China is to ban it," one person told me. "That gives it value, prestige." The more you try to understand China, the more the answers recede and turn as opaque and mysterious as the polluted Beijing sky. Anyone wanting to get things done in China quickly learns to stop asking why, and start asking how.

THE OLYMPICS COME TO TOWN

One afternoon, we visit Qinghe Bay Golf Club, a 36-hole complex that will open on the same day as the Olympics -- the eighth day of the eighth month of 2008. (The Chinese have a thing for the number 8, unless it's on a scorecard.) We're told it's the closest course to the Olympic stadium. The photo on the scorecard makes it look as if the famed "Bird's Nest" National Stadium is right next door. We're driven out in a cart across the course, to a hill behind the seventh green, which supposedly has the best view. But it turns out the Bird's Nest is three miles away. And with the smog, we can barely make out the power lines on the edge of the golf-course property, let alone anything farther afield. We drive by the Olympic Village. This is April, and the whole site is ringed by a blue fence, barbed wire and security guards, but you can easily see the magnificent Bird's Nest and the funky, glow-in-the-dark National Aquatic Center.

It's a week after the farcical Olympic torch relays in London, Paris and San Francisco that were disrupted by pro-Tibet protestors. I was told that the Chinese were shown sanitized versions of the relays, with all dissent erased; that access to various Western news websites such as CNN and the BBC was forbidden; that Googling, say, "Tibet," would cause your Internet connection to be severed. None of this turns out to be true. Undoubtedly there is censorship and propaganda, but everyone I speak to knows all about the protests and Western calls to boycott the Olympics. In a country that participates so enthusiastically in the globalized economy, and that has a vast global diaspora, it's impossible to keep 1.3 billion people in the dark. China is not North Korea.

Clearly there are issues. China has an unelected and unaccountable one-party state, one that has enormous powers -- perfect conditions for corruption and waste. There's the Tibet question. Human-rights violations. Repression. Executions. The memory, still fresh, of tanks in Tiananmen Square. Extreme inequality, the result of a kind of worst-of-both-worlds authoritarian consumerism. Unrest, especially in rural areas. (Even official government figures acknowledge that there were 74,000 "mass incidents" -- riots and demonstrations -- in China in 2004.) Its relationship with Sudan (which caused Steven Spielberg to step down as "artistic advisor" for the Olympics). Enormous environmental challenges -- polluted cities, polluted rivers, rampant desertification. (More than a quarter of the country is now sand.) A lot of Chinese, however, seem to regard the West's criticism of their nation as simple geopolitics: imperialism in disguise. One Beijing businessman tells me that he and his friends sometimes take the attacks personally, and that they only serve to make people feel more united, and that some of the countries doing the criticizing should take a look in the mirror. China is opening up to the world, and to itself, he says. The West needs to learn to live with China, and vice versa.

I called best-selling globalization commentator Thomas Friedman before I left for China and asked him what he thought of the Beijing Olympics. "Personally I'm in favor of it," he said. "It's a net plus. It's caused them to open up more." Friedman joked that one strategy would be to give China the Olympics every four years to keep it in the spotlight and under scrutiny. "I have a soft spot for the Chinese people," he continued. "The modernization effort there hasn't always been pretty. There are lots of problems, of course, but a country that has lifted 300 million people out of poverty in the space of 30 years deserves some credit. We all have a vested interest in a stable China. Can you imagine if China was like, say, Iraq? The world really would be a mess, and everything, right down to your golf shoes, would be much more expensive." These days, when China sneezes, we all catch a cold.

CHINA'S GOLFING PIONEER

Back at the China Open, I meet with Zhang Lian-wei. If Liang is China's Jack Nicklaus, Zhang, 43, is its Arnold Palmer, a trailblazing pioneer who got to the top, then reluctantly had to relinquish his No. 1 position to a younger man. Zhang was a standout javelin thrower in high school, and later, while working odd jobs, the local government sports bureau recommended him for work at a new golf course that had just opened nearby, the Zhuhai Golf Club, the nation's second course, not far from Chung Shan.

"I remember it vividly," Zhang says through an interpreter. He has intense, determined eyes (Year of the Snake: graceful, solitary, strong). "I started on Aug. 1, 1985. I was 20. I had no clue what golf was at the time. I worked as a caddie, weeding the fairways, doing a bit of everything. I was paid $20 a month. My family were all against it -- I was supposed to get a good job and earn more. But I really loved that place. There were trees, grass -- the golf course was easily the prettiest place in Zhuhai. Slowly, I came to understand the game."

Zhang worked for two months before he was allowed to touch a club. When he first took a swing, he says, it "felt like a hammer." After a year, he broke 100, despite being allowed to play or practice only at the end of a day of backbreaking work, after 5 p.m. After two years, he was granted two extra hours -- he could now start his golf activities at 3 p.m. Zhang won a silver medal in golf at the 1994 Asian Games in Hiroshima and, at 29, decided to step it up -- he became the first pro from the People's Republic. His great triumph came in Singapore at the 2003 Caltex Masters, a European tour event. He played in the final round with Ernie Els, who was leading the tournament by two shots. "On the 18th, Ernie was ahead by one," recalls Zhang, his eyes on fire now. "He took an iron off the tee for safety and missed the fairway. I thought, This is my only opening. This is my chance. So I took a driver and made a birdie to win. I beat Ernie when he was at his best -- he won two weeks before, and he won the week after. I was very excited and very proud."

The win earned him an invitation to the 2004 Masters -- he was the first mainland Chinese golfer to play in any of the game's four major championships. "Even now, every year when the Masters comes on TV, I remember how I played certain holes, the mistakes I made, the things I would do different if I played again," he says. "I remember every shot. Someday I would love to see a Chinese player walk up that 18th fairway and win the green jacket. That would be the proudest moment in my life."

Zhang expects to see a Chinese player win a major in his lifetime. That person will owe him some sort of debt. "Of course the road for me has been difficult," he admits. "No one had taken that road before. It all comes down to a love of the game. That is what has carried me through, and led me. I was happy earning $20 a month, because I could play golf in the evenings. I came through because I love this game."

There are many parallels between Zhang and Liang. Both come from peasant families. Both stumbled into golf because they happened to live near a new golf course -- the first two courses built in modern China. They both were naturally gifted and largely self-taught. They both scored a big win in Singapore, became No. 1 in China, and got to play in the Masters. They both have made efforts to promote junior golf in their homeland. And they both have a son who loves golf, too. Zhang gave his son, age 3, the English name Tiger. (He has played with Woods three times.) Liang's son, 3 in August, has the nickname Leo. Perhaps 25 years from now, Tiger Zhang and Leo Liang will be battling it out on the fairways of Augusta.

Zhang also has a daughter, Apple, age 7, but she's not interested in golf. Earlier in the week, I asked a young Beijing woman called Lilly why some people had several children, given that the government has had a one-child policy in effect since the late '70s. "If you already have a child and you get pregnant again, you have two choices," she explained. "You can have the baby and pay a fine. The fine varies across the country but in Beijing it's 300,000 RMB [about $43,000]. The second child gets no state benefits, so you have to pay for education and health care. It's only for the rich. The other option is to have an abortion, which the government will pay for." Because so many female babies are aborted, and because baby girls have higher mortality rates than boys owing to greater neglect, there are now 119 Chinese boys for every 100 Chinese girls. There are thus tens of millions of "missing women," and by 2020 there will be 30 million unmarried men, or "bare branches" as they are known. No one yet knows the effect on the national psyche of having a citizenry made up almost entirely of only children, a lot of whom will have been variously pampered and pressured by indulgent parents. Lilly did not mention it, but there is also a third option: Have the baby and discreetly hand it over to an orphanage. According to some sources there are 15 million orphans in China. In 2006, almost 6,500 children from China were adopted by Americans -- almost all girls. You wonder what Confucius would have made of it all.

FACTORY TO THE WORLD

An hour or so from Beijing are stretches of the Great Wall of China, that unfathomable product of stone, flesh and blood that is draped over the dusty landscape for 4,000 miles, like a giant strand of tagliatelle. Some of it is more than 7,000 years old. In the words of Richard Nixon, during his historic trip to China in 1972: "It sure is a great wall." On the way back to town, you can stop at the Ming Tombs and visit the restored catacomb of the 13th Ming Emperor -- he was buried here, alongside his wife and the favorite of his 3,000 concubines. At a nearby jade store, I ask a saleswoman if she has heard of Tiger Woods. "Oh, yes," she says. "He is very famous golf player. I like." She consults a Chinese zodiac chart and tells me that Tiger was not in fact born in the Year of the Tiger, but the Year of the Rabbit. This, she says, means that he is "quiet, gracious, lucky and kind."

China has plenty of history, but right now this is a country in the midst of a massive, frenetic makeover. You realize this the moment you arrive at Beijing's swanky new airport terminal -- the world's biggest. Fifty years after Mao's disastrous Great Leap Forward, in which tens of millions perished in famines, there's a real great leap this time. Freed from the straightjacket of the mandatory blue Mao suit, decades of repressed desires have been unleashed. Suddenly, there's a freedom to try to do something with your life rather than simply endure it. An entrepreneurial spirit combined with a talent for hard work has led to great wealth for some (but not, of course, for most -- average wage figures in China, though notoriously unreliable, are estimated to be $100 to $200 a month). Communism perhaps officially died when the man credited with the economic reforms, former Chinese premier Deng Xiaoping, said in 1993, "To get rich is glorious."

The figures are dizzying. China uses about a third of the world's steel and almost half of its concrete. According to various sources, 40 percent of the world's TVs, 49 percent of its DVD players, 50 percent of its cameras, 60 percent of its buttons, 70 percent of its sex toys, 70 percent of its umbrellas, 75 percent of its watches and clocks, and 83 percent of its tractors are made in China. The country is a factory for the golf industry -- an estimated 80 percent of all clubs are made all or in part in China. The economy is barreling along, growing at a rate of about 10 percent a year, and is expected to overtake the United States within a decade. This land is full of vast cities that most people in the West have never heard of, such as the exploding megalopolis of Chongqing, the biggest municipality in the world, with almost 32 million inhabitants -- the same as Canada. The World Tourism Organization predicts that by 2020 there will be 100 million Chinese tourists traveling overseas. As Friedman says: "Try getting a tee time at St. Andrews when that happens."

In Beijing, old neighborhoods -- and habits -- are destroyed to make way for the new. Venturing out of the hotel on my first morning, jet-lagged and disoriented, in an hour's stroll I meet all kinds of enthusiastic people. Some of them are definitely scam artists, but not all of them are. A nurse introduces herself -- she is learning how to do acupuncture and wants to know if anyone in the West does it. A woman asks if I'd mind having my picture taken with her two sons, who are busy grouting the walls of what is to be a Häagen-Dazs ice-cream store. A tourist from Inner Mongolia offers to teach me a few words of Mandarin. A guy in a baseball jacket wants to show me his artwork. A street vendor offers me grilled snake. A TV news editor offers me her cell-phone number in case I get lost. They are all friendly, curious and eager to practice their already near-perfect English.

Any trip to the capital city should start right in the middle, at the Forbidden City, the nucleus of Beijing, the epicenter of the Chinese empire or, in the minds of the Ming Emperors who lived there for five centuries, the entire universe. The epic grandeur of the place is breathtaking. On previous visits I had enjoyed the Roger Moore audio guide, with arch comments about the career choice of becoming a court eunuch, and a Starbucks coffee shop in the middle of all the palaces. Such Western vulgarities are gone now. Adjoining the Forbidden City is Tiananmen Square where, from The Gate of Heavenly Peace, Mao proclaimed the founding of the People's Republic in 1949, and where, 40 years later, the tanks rolled in to quell a student uprising.

My friend and translator wanted to show me the National Museum, right on the square. Inside are two paintings that claim to prove the Chinese invented golf. "The Autumn Banquet," from the 14th century, depicts a farewell party for an official in which all kinds of activities are taking place: drinking, chess and a golf-like activity, with people hitting a ball toward a hole in the ground. The "Wall Painting of Chuiwan" dates from the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and shows people engaged in a game called chuiwan, which looks just like golf, and which some claim was played in China as early as the 10th century. Alas, a sign outside the museum says it is closed for refurbishment until 2010.

Instead, we hail a taxi outside China's first Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet, circa 1987, and go for a spin. There used to be nine million bicycles in Beijing; now most of them have been replaced by cars. There are 3.3 million of them in Beijing, and 1,350 new ones on the road on average every day. China is predicted to have more cars than the United States by 2025, but for now this is a nation of learner drivers. According to the World Health Organization, in 2004 China had 3 percent of the world's cars and 21 percent of the world's car fatalities. We arrive in one piece, however, at Beijing Chaoyang Kosaido Golf Club, the closest thing the city has to an affordable public course. It's also the city's second-oldest course, opened in 1987, a year after Beijing International. (A 1936 map of old Peking shows two courses west of the city, near a cemetery for eunuchs and a horse-racing track -- these, however, were swept away, like so much else, by the Japanese invasion, China's Civil War and Mao's Cultural Revolution.) When the Beijing Chaoyang Kosaido course was built, it was in the country, surrounded by fields. Now it's practically downtown, the closest course to the center of the city, five miles from the Forbidden City, just outside the third ring road. (There are six ring roads radiating from the city center -- any address inside the third ring is solid gold.)

There's a restaurant that serves a decent lunch, and a 200-yard range where a 5-year-old with a junior Ping bag is whacking 50-yard drives under the tutelage of his father. The course is tiny, wedged into a pocket-size piece of land: nine holes, six of them par 3s, 1,895 yards from the tips, par 30. It's not on anyone's list of great anythings, but anyone who can afford it can pitch up here, pay 230 RMB ($33), and play.

Later, we go to the Silk Street Pearl Market, which is now a giant shopping mall, with insistent young saleswomen in each booth. One of them, adamant that I should buy a fake Louis Vuitton bag, grabs my hand and won't let go. A corridor upstairs is devoted to golf equipment, mostly knockoff clubs. A TaylorMade r7 driver has a sticker price of 650 RMB, which is readily reduced to 300, which means I probably could have gotten it for 200 -- about $30. The shop assistant assures me it's the real thing -- yeah, right. (Earlier I'd seen the same driver at a legitimate golf store in Beijing's Chaoyang district, and it had a sticker price of 4,800 RMB -- almost $700.) A charming woman called Lucy is selling some very good quality fake Cleveland wedges -- even some fairly lackadaisical haggling could get the price down to 100 RMB, about $14. But all I buy is a sleeve of Chinese golf balls for 20 RMB -- about $3. They're like rubber, but the box is cool.

Later, we drive through some security gates into the massive campus of the government Sports Bureau, where the National Olympic Sports Training Center is located. Thirteen sports are administered from here, and more than 1,000 athletes are housed and trained on site, all at the expense of the state. In the middle of the dark government buildings, swimming pools and running tracks, next to the table-tennis center and weightlifting building, is the National Training Center Golf Driving Range. A lot of the Olympic hopefuls come here to unwind and have some fun. The table-tennis players are said to be the most fanatical golfers, but some of the most skilled are gymnasts. (Li Ning, the legendary gymnast turned sporting-goods entrepreneur, who won three gold medals at the 1984 Olympics, is an excellent golfer, as is double gold-medal-winning gymnast Li Xiaoshuang.) The range isn't just for athletes -- it's open to the public, too. We watch two brothers, whose English nicknames are Aston and Martin. Aston Chung, 7, has a perfect swing. He holds his finish like a pro as he watches his drives land 100 yards out, after a textbook draw. He says his best score is 111. Martin, 5, is more shy. We give him a copy of Golf Digest. Does he know the guy on the cover? Of course he does: "Tiger."

This is the closest form of golf to the center of the city, located inside the second ring road. There aren't yet many other downtown ranges, like you find in so many Asian cities. (Two years ago Peking University shelved plans to open a driving range on campus because of fierce opposition -- it was accused of fostering elitism.) Tonight, every bay is full. The man in charge says they're pretty much always full, every day, from 8:30 in the morning to 10 at night.

THE FUTURE: A NEW FRONTIER

It's noon on the first day of the China Open. The silver-haired starter, Ivor Robson, announces Liang Wen-chong onto the first tee. A smattering of applause, then a crack like a rifle shot from his driver. We follow along for a few holes. The sound of horns from the nearby Beijing-to-Shenyang highway punctuates the dense, dead air. The three-year-old course is flat, but pleasant. Fifty thousand large trees were planted around the holes during construction. They -- and the smog -- help to obscure the looming smokestacks in the distance. The gallery is modest -- just a few dozen people are following Liang. Entrance is free for spectators, but there are no signs on the street outside the course advertising the event. Liang's swing is simple, workmanlike, but effective. He seems to have a great, unflappable attitude. He makes eight pars and a birdie on the front nine. He later admitted that he was finding it hard to concentrate after a week at the Masters. He would end the tournament tied for eighth place, the leading performance among the 26 Chinese players in the field.

If Liang is the man of the moment, and Zhang's best days are perhaps behind him, the future belongs to 18-year-old amateur Hu Mu. When Hu was 11, he broke 70 for the first time, in the China Junior Open. His family realized that this was a special talent, so they packed their bags and moved to the other side of the world, to a better climate for such talents, to Florida. (Mu's father is in the elevator business in Shenzhen -- in one of the world's fastest-growing cities, home to 10 million souls, this is a very good business to be in.) Hu started at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, then moved to Orlando to work with David Leadbetter. He was speaking English within a couple of months and was fluent within a year. He's friends with another Leadbetter student, Michelle Wie -- the two phenoms were born three days apart.

Hu sits down for a chat, tucking into a pot of ice cream as he recounts his achievements. At 15, he had won four times on the U.S. junior circuit. In one event, he shot a 62, his best-ever score. "I made 20 birdies in 31 holes," he recalls proudly. He seems self-contained, and quietly confident, like any nice, typical American kid (Year of the Snake, like Zhang -- and Arnold Palmer).

But he's not American. He has a green card, and could apply for U.S. citizenship, but that would mean relinquishing his Chinese passport. Which will he choose? "China, for sure," he says without hesitating. "Other than golf, I like China way more. I miss it -- the whole environment. The food. Everything. There's no way I'd ever give up my Chinese passport."

Later, we follow Hu on the back nine with his mother, Jenny Wang, who has attended to her son's every need in Florida for the past seven years. This fall, having just graduated high school, Hu will become a freshman at the University of Florida, and Jenny and her husband will return to China for good. "I think it will be good for him to go to college," she says. "To learn to look after himself. How to cook, how to do laundry. How to find his way."

Hu's swing looks athletic, technically spot-on, except when he tries for something big. On 18, into the wind, he makes a slashing move at the ball, with a dramatic, Arnold Palmer-like follow-through.

"He's a really talented youngster," Leadbetter says later by phone. "Very focused, and an extremely hard worker. A lot of these kids actually work too hard -- they just go and go and go at it 110 percent, heart and soul, hitting thousands and thousands of balls every day, and don't know when to stop. You need to have a bit of balance. A lot of them suffer injuries through overuse. That's what happened with Michelle Wie's wrist. And Hu has a bit of a shoulder injury. But I think he's going to do great."

Hu would make the cut but finish well down the field. He has a tendency to get dispirited, some people told me, to follow a bad shot with another bad shot. But he'll figure it out. I'd asked him how long China will have to wait to produce its first major champion. "You'll have to wait till I graduate from college," he said. He was only half-joking. "OK, maybe give me about 10 years. I'll have a good chance."

The China Open, sponsored by Volvo, started in 1995. It is the country's oldest pro tournament, its national championship. These are humble beginnings. Mel Pyatt, who for 20 years was in charge of Volvo's event management, well remembers the inaugural event, at Beijing International Golf Club, not far from the Ming Tombs. It took two hours to get to the course along small, potholed roads (now there's a fast highway). Three journalists were in attendance. A TV cameraman rode down the fairways on a motorbike. In a pre-game promotional photo shoot, Daniel Chopra, Sandy Lyle and Gary Nicklaus became the first people to hit golf balls off the Great Wall. Paraguay's Raul Fretes was the first winner, scooping up the $72,000 first prize and entering the record book as a latter-day Horace Rawlins, who won the first U.S. Open in 1895.

Could the China Open, like the U.S. Open, be a major someday, despite America's 100-year head start? I'd asked Zhang if he thought so. "Yes, one day, for sure," he said laughing. "Everyone will want to play it." It would have to get the backing of the government, the golf association, and lose its title sponsor. It would take a long time. But I certainly wouldn't bet against it.

For now, however, it's one of five co-sanctioned European PGA Tour events in China. (The others, too, are sponsored by Western companies: HSBC, UBS, BMW, Omega.) And it's the only one that doesn't pay large appearance fees to attract big-name players. "Once you get into the buying of players, they become the identity," explains Alistair Polson of Richtone, which runs the tournament. "We want the event itself to be the identity."

The HSBC tournament is being considered for a World Golf Championship event. The LPGA makes its debut in China this October with the $1.8 million Grand China Air tournament in Hainan Island. There's also the fledgling Omega China Tour, launched in 2005, which has a lively cast of characters. "We've got a lot of youngsters playing," says tournament director Charles Kuo Tsung-Tai. "We've got people from the martial arts, other sports, the national rowing champion, acrobats, chefs -- all sorts who've decided to become professional golfers and join our tour."

There might be about 200 male golf pros in China today, and less than 100 women. Perhaps a dozen make a living from playing golf. Aside from Liang and Zhang, there are players like Beijing's Li Chao: young, tall, athletic, recruited to golf from soccer when he was 16, who won three of the eight China Tour events in 2007 to top the Order of Merit with almost $100,000 in prize money. In 2004, Yang Hong Mei became the first Chinese player to win a pro golf tournament in the United States, a Futures Tour event in El Paso. At the LPGA Tour qualifying school last year, Feng Shanshan, now 19, became the first Chinese player to earn full playing privileges in the United States. As of early June, 26-year-old Beijing pro Zhang Na was ranked 28th in the world in women's golf, with wins in Japan and China. These players are true pioneers. They, and the likes of Liang, Hu and Zhang Lian-wei, are the first raindrops of a coming monsoon.

Roughly 8 percent of Americans play golf. Extrapolate that to China and you have a nation of potentially 100 million golfers. But there are two major obstacles to golf in China continuing to grow, let alone ever getting anywhere near that lofty figure. The first is that most of the golf courses so far are high-end private preserves, catering only to wealthy business types -- there are virtually no municipal or public courses, few junior programs or caddie programs, no access for ordinary Chinese. The second is that the government doesn't support the sport and actively inhibits it via the golf-course ban and a 20-percent "entertainment" tax on golf facilities. Jack Nicklaus (Year of the Rabbit -- like Tiger Woods) was in China on the same day as the first round of the China Open, 1,200 miles away at Mission Hills. "The government subsidizes track and field, all these sports in this country," Nicklaus told reporters. "The government needs to be involved with golf, too."

I put those two points, lack of access and lack of government support, to Zhang, who like Liang found golf and prospered despite them. "You're right," he said. "Those are the two obstacles. But these obstacles are only temporary. Things are changing. Everything is changing."

In a lot of other countries, golf began as an elite sport that is slowly becoming more democratic and accessible, such as in the United States, England, Germany, Italy, Korea and Japan. A few countries have followed a more bottom-up development path: Scotland, Ireland, the Scandinavian nations. Eventually, all these places -- and China, too -- will end up in a broad middle ground, where a range of market segments is catered to. China's lower-end, semiprivate courses will inexorably become more public, and golf, like tennis, will open up and become just another sport that will be played by many kinds of people.

As for the government's role, a lot of people think that will change, too, especially if golf becomes an Olympic sport in 2016 (see "Golf in the Olympics?"). The golf-course "ban" could be quietly dropped long before that. "After the Olympics, there'll be a lot of sponsorship money available in China," says Patrick Wang-yu, a leading sportswriter in China. (He was the first Chinese reporter to cover the Masters and the first to cover NBA star Yao Ming in Houston when he joined the Rockets.) "A lot of that money will go into other sports, sports that aren't traditionally played in China. There'll be a big push in China for golf, because there's such a huge international market for it."

"Golf is going to be a big thing in China in the future," says Aylwin Tai, the man who discovered Liang Wen-chong and who has played such a pivotal role in the game's early development in China. "Once the government knows about golf and realizes the economic impact of the game, it will take off. A golf industry can have a massive positive economic impact in a way that, say, a tennis industry can't. If the government really gets behind it, like with other sports such as gymnastics, golf in China will outstrip golf in America in 10 years."

Tai says that if the government really set its mind to attacking the world golf rankings, the top 10 in the world would eventually be Chinese, though he more realistically expects there to be no more than 20 in the world top 100 in 10 years. (Leadbetter, who calls China "the new frontier," estimates the number will be "half a dozen.") "Maybe the government's cautious position is good, a blessing in disguise," continues Tai. "It means we can develop and grow golf the right way, in a healthy way, slowly and with stability. We don't want golf to turn into a bubble."

Long term, China is uniquely suited to golf. One theory is that the nation's vast numbers of only children might naturally take to individual, solitary sports like golf, in the manner of famous only children like, say, Tiger Woods, Nick Faldo, Lance Armstrong. "We've got the golf courses, the weather, the people," says Tai. "This is not a physical-contact sport -- it's a mental sport. The Chinese will excel. Golf in China will take over the world."

In Chinese astrology, this is the Year of the Rat. The woman in the jade store, the Tiger Woods fan, had told me that this means it is a year for hard work, for change and for a fresh start -- a mission statement for a grand renaissance. For Beijing, golf and everything else in China, these are interesting times.