Listen to this article
In 1995, Zhou Xunshu dropped out of security guard school in the province of Guizhou and made his way south to Guangdong, China’s manufacturing heartland. With almost no money in his pocket, he was following the well-worn tracks of millions of young migrant workers hoping to escape rural poverty.
He got a job working as a security guard at a golf club, one of an estimated 15 courses that existed in China at the time. Still, the athletic young man was not content. He desperately wanted to play golf but faced serious obstacles: he had no money and the club only allowed managers to use the course. “It was like having a delicious piece of meat in your mouth but not being able to eat it,” Zhou tells journalist Dan Washburn, who recounts the story in his excellent book The Forbidden Game.
After several years, a manager takes a risk and allows Zhou to swing an expensive driver. He is soon outdriving everyone at the club. A decade later – and following many trials and tribulations – Zhou in 2008 achieved his dream of becoming a professional golfer, playing a sport that most people in China have never seen.
Zhou is one of three people whose narratives are woven together in Washburn’s colourful account of the rise of golf in China. After Mao came to power in 1949 he banned the game, which was viewed as a bourgeois pastime of western expatriates and sometimes referred to as “green opium”. It was only when Deng Xiaoping opened up China in the 1980s that golf started to re-emerge.
In the same year that Zhou arrived in Guangdong, a young American called Martin Moore landed in southwest China for a golf construction job. Over the next two decades, Moore became one of the country’s most prolific course builders. He worked on Mission Hills, which has 12 immaculate courses at the largest club in the world across the border from Hong Kong, and another 10 on the southern tropical island of Hainan. At one point, Moore tells Washburn that everyone was “whoring for the business”.
But one contradiction raised questions about how China could build so many courses: in 2004, the central government banned their construction. Despite this, developers added roughly 400 between 2004 and 2009, tripling the number of fairways in the country.
To outsiders that seems incongruous. But Washburn says the answer is obvious to anyone who has lived in China. To explain, he cites Chinese sayings such as “where there are policies from above, there are counter-policies from below” and “the mountain is high and the emperor is far away.” What he means is that there is often a disconnect between national policy and local governments who raise revenue by selling their most abundant commodity: land.
This is where the third character comes in. Wang Libo is a lychee farmer who concludes – rightly – that he has little choice but to accept the money offered by the Hainan government for his land, which it has already sold from under him to Mission Hills. Farmers who refuse to give up their land end up the losers in a battle that benefits corrupt officials. And even when villagers do play along, they are often not paid anywhere near the amount that the government received from the developer.
This, China’s “ugly side”, as Washburn puts it, appears to have steeled Beijing into enforcing its prohibition on new courses more tightly, which would seem in step with Chinese president Xi Jinping’s push to stamp out corruption.
Despite the fact that China got its own PGA tour in 2014, and young world-class stars are emerging to eclipse self-taught golfers such as Zhou, according to Moore the construction market is looking “shaky”. “The government is being more aggressive now than I’ve ever seen them,” he says.
Demetri Sevastopulo is the FT’s south China correspondent
Get alerts on Non-Fiction when a new story is published