Afew weeks ago, some young Chinese women wearing identical red uniforms were walking across the countryside near Beijing. It was a fine afternoon but a bitter north wind whipped across from the mountains in the distance and they looked cold as they paused every few yards to listen to a man in white overalls giving instructions. A couple of decades ago they might have been party members receiving education.
But these young women weren’t being indoctrinated with the teachings of Mao. The fields they were crossing were perfectly manicured and the rites they were learning were those of a very capitalist recreation. At Beijing Willow Golf Club, not far from the Summer Palace, caddies train for three months before they carry anyone’s clubs and they receive two more months on-course supervision before they are allowed out on their own with golfers.
Plenty of clubs elsewhere in the world are less fastidious about the caddies they inflict on paying visitors. This professionalism, backed up by plenty of hard cash, is characteristic of the People’s Republic’s approach to golf. It may also be why the first ever match between a team of American and European golfers against the Rest of the World is taking place next week at Mission Hills, near Shenzhen in mainland China.
The teams are captained by Scot Colin Montgomerie, Europe’s most famous nearly man, and South African Retief Goosen, twice US Open Champion, but it’s easy to imagine, a decade from now, the Rest of the World being led by a Chinese-born golfer. The game may be in its infancy in this fast-changing country, and at present largely confined to the business community, but it is taking root and the emergence of indigenous golfing stars is only a few years away.
Next November, one of the prestigious World Golf Championships events, the elite series that brings together the best players from the American and European tours, will be held at the bunker-strewn Olazábal course at Mission Hills. Even if the claims that golf began in the far east rather than in Europe are flimsily based, the way the world’s most populous country is taking to golf can only be good for the game. China may even soon be competing with more traditional golfing destinations such is the rate at which new courses are being built.
Willow Golf Club is 40 minutes from downtown Beijing, a journey that costs only £5 by taxi. It opened four years ago and the first nine holes are floodlit, allowing night golf between May and October against a backdrop of apartment blocks. After you’ve played these on foot, your caddy fetches a cart and drives you across a bridge over an eight-lane highway to the more scenic and peaceful back nine, closer to the mountains and further from the city.
Charlie Zhang, the club’s friendly executive manager, told me that 400 members each pay an annual subscription of £30,000. For this, they get a well-maintained, high quality 18-hole course with another nine holes planned and the services of 300 staff, two thirds of whom are caddies. The two-storey clubhouse is as comfortable as any in Europe and the practice ground is conveniently close. Like most Chinese clubs, it’s expensive, service oriented and professional.
My game at Willow was part of a journey of discovery about how golf is developing in China. Two hundred courses have been built here in the past decade, a boom reminiscent of 19th-century Britain and America in the 1920s. My tour started at one of the oldest, Fanling in Hong Kong, where the game was first played 100 years ago and where little has changed since the 1997 handover.
Only when you cross into China itself does evidence of the new interest in golf hit you. At Shenzhen, the first advertisement, even before the official poster showing male and female police officers saying “Welcome to China”, is one promoting the ten courses at Mission Hills. The strap line is “World’s No One” and the ad features golfer Vijay Singh, designer of one of the courses. Mission Hills is proud to be recognised by The Guinness Book of Records as the world’s largest golf complex.
Like other Chinese cities, Shenzhen has grown apace, spawning tower blocks and heavy lorries. After battling through Friday afternoon traffic, I finally reached Mission Hills, where sentries saluted smartly as I entered the gates.
Everything at Mission Hills is vast, from my suite overlooking two floodlit courses to the ballroom in the clubhouse by the 18th fairway of the Olazábal course, where 3,000 can sit down to dinner. The courses, were each designed by leading golfers including Jack Nicklaus, Nick Faldo and Annika Sörenstam. At their opening, the designers were invited to perform karaoke at the celebration dinner. Only Singh refused, giving rise to the nickname Vijay “No Sing”.
The countryside is hilly with mature trees and ideal for golf but using fertile terrain for a land-hungry sport is controversial. Both the environmental lobby and the government disapprove, the latter discouraging officials from playing. This attitude, coupled with the cost of the game, means that at present it mainly attracts wealthy businesspeople, a category whose ranks are swelling on the back of the growing economy.
Golf on the scale of Mission Hills only pays through property development and 2,000 villas are sold or under construction. I went by caddy cart past more saluting sentries to a 9,000 sq ft show house where I had to step on a machine that automatically wrapped my shoes in a protective cover before I was allowed inside. The property contained a cinema, mahjong room, pool table and lift.
Not having brought along $300,000 in cash for the deposit, I didn’t join the throng of buyers next afternoon when 160 building plots were released at prices of $1m to $3m apiece.
By then I had enjoyed a round on the Olazábal course, beautifully situated in the mountains 15 minutes from the hotel. My host Charles Cheung, group chief executive, invited Singapore’s consul general in Hong Kong and the vice-chairman of Goldman Sachs Asia to form what is probably a typical four-ball match here.
Our progress was smoothed by uniformed sentries at every crossing point, their elaborate hand gestures indicating where we should go. The pleasure of the round was greatly enhanced by Lud, my elite gold class caddy, in her uniform of baggy red trousers, gold jacket and broad-brimmed white helmet, who rode perilously on the back of the caddy cart as we hurtled from hole to hole.
From Mission Hills, I flew to Shanghai. Arriving after dark with suitcases, laptop and golf clubs, I sought a taxi. Although this was the international airport, no drivers spoke English and it took me some time to find one who could read the name of my hotel. Next morning, at his modern office near the Bund, Yongie Fu, the urbane chairman of Binhai Golf, gave me a PowerPoint analysis of the 16 courses around Shanghai, broken down by distance in miles and time from the centre and by prices for members and visitors, a typically hard-headed approach.
His driver then whisked me past Pudong to Binhai where I played a Peter Thompson-designed course, which used the flat countryside to create a linksy feel. It was in good condition with firm true greens and a charming 21-year-old caddy, who described each hole as we stood on the tee rather as the waitresses at Prestwick run through the choices for lunch.
The facilities are aimed at corporate events of which, given Shanghai’s headlong growth, there are plenty to support the third course that is under construction. Weddings are also held here, a useful arrangement that might catch on since it enables golf-mad grooms to abandon their brides and guests in favour of golf as soon as the ceremony is over. Fu said houses might be built here though none had been started so far.
From Shanghai, I headed to Beijing where I encountered a rare taxi driver trying to rip off an innocent foreigner on my way to the Beijing Links Club. This isn’t a links in the British sense since it’s in a built-up area and miles from the sea. It’s not the most scenic course but, in the VIP locker room, a smiling male attendant, with whom I shared not a syllable of common language, ministered to my every need, lovingly folded up my discarded boxers and dried my feet when I came out of the shower.
An explanation for this attentiveness was provided at my next stop, Beijing CBD International, a smart layout close to the centre of town that was in remarkable condition for a course that’s only been open a year. CBD’s manager Connie Jlang, a golf addict who studied hospitality management at Thames Valley University in London, told me the staff liked western visitors because they treated them well, a thinly veiled hint that some of the nouveau riche golfers from closer to home did not.
This club has 500 members paying $65,000 a year each. Houses are being built around the course and those facing north and south, thereby enjoying good feng shui, are already sold. The Volvo China Open, co-sponsored by the PGA European Tour and the Asia Tour, will be played here just before the Beijing Olympics in 2008.
I had not sought any prior introduction or special treatment at CBD, simply faxing a request for a tee time to test how unsolicited visitors were treated. Both the smiling receptionists in an entrance hall that resembled a large hotel and the course starter, who doubles as caddy mistress, were as welcoming as they could be, an object lesson in friendliness that a few club staff in other parts of the world would do well to emulate.
CBD is controlled by property tycoon Li Hao, who also owns Beijing Honghua International, designed by Nick Faldo and the venue for the 2006 Volvo China Open. Mel Pyatt, who runs Volvo’s event management operations worldwide and has championed the growth of professional competition here, invited me to this event, which he hopes to make Asia’s premier golf championship, an aspiration likely to be challenged by others eyeing this market.
This was the 12th China Open and the official programme featured descriptions of the 12th US Open at Onwentsia in 1906 and the 12th British Open at Prestwick in 1872. Although the galleries were not huge, the corporate hospitality marquee behind the 18th green would not have been out of place at Wentworth.
That evening, I attended a dinner at which Pyatt announced higher prize money for the following year and Volvo’s commitment to support the event for the next decade. This year the European Tour has three official events in China and the country’s place on the professional calendar is established.
Even if it’s too far from Europe or America to become a regular holiday destination, visitors to the country who enjoy the game should make a point of experiencing the sea of smiling faces, which is my abiding memory of a remarkable fortnight’s golf and one I hope to refresh before long.
Tim Yeo’s golf column appears fortnightly
But not everyone gets golf
It's not all plain sailing for golf in China. Still seen as the epitome of capitalist pastimes, the game continues to get caught up in the shifting political mood of the country. Peking University president Xu Zhihong, for example, had no idea of the fuss he would create when he announced this summer a plan to build a golf driving range.
The idea seemed to make perfect sense: the university is one of the cradles for China's future leaders, while the high-level networking that goes with golf makes it a valuable business skill. And surely modern China is no longer worried about the "bourgeois" stigma of individual sports?
Instead Peking University, also one of the birthplaces of the Cultural Revolution, was widely accused of encouraging elitism. "I did not realise it would be so sensitive," said Xu this week when he dropped the plan.
At a time of widening inequality, golf can still raise hackles in China because it cuts across two of the most sensitive social and political issues - the scarcity of land, which is a regular source of popular protest, and growing water shortages. Over the past two years, planning officials have started to call for a halt in new courses. "The sport has come to symbolise some of the nation's biggest potential threats," the South China Morning post commented this week.
The backlash has limits, though. Xiamen University on the south-east coast announced last month that all business majors would have to take compulsory golf lessons. Construction of a campus golf course is going ahead as planned.
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