North links prove good investment

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 01 July, 1997, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 01 July, 1997, 12:00am

IT WAS on a sultry May evening in 1889 that 13 men gathered at the Hong Kong Club in response to a local newspaper advertisement 'to consider the question of starting a golf links in Hong Kong or Kowloon'.

And so it was that the Hong Kong Golf Club (HKGC) came into being.

More than 108 years on, it has grown into Hong Kong's most prestigious sporting club and one of the most famed of all golfing institutions.

Today, though, the game of golf in Hong Kong bears little resemblance to the pastime played by the privileged few who set the ball rolling.

Over the past decade, in particular, much has been done to rid the Royal and Ancient sport of the elitist, colonial image that for so long held back its development.

While golf in Hong Kong is still some way off being a sport for the masses, the golfing boom that has swept the region has, finally and firmly, taken root among the indigenous population.

With the change of sovereignty, there is no shortage of evidence to suggest that golf's surge in popularity will continue.

Long regarded as a sport for the old and the well-to-do, the perception of golf in Hong Kong has been irrevocably altered thanks to the belated construction of a public facility that ranks among the finest of its kind in the world.

'A gift from the Jockey Club to the people of Hong Kong at the behest of the Government,' was how Major-General Guy Watkins, the Hong Kong Jockey Club's former chief executive, described the $500 million Kau Sai Chau venture. With 36 holes designed by the Gary Player Group and outstanding practice facilities, the complex, built on an uninhabited island near Sai Kung, formerly used by the British Army for shelling exercises, has made golf affordable and available.

The weekday green fees of between $250 and $350 are about a fifth of what you have to pay for the privilege of a game at the established golf clubs - HKGC, Discovery Bay Golf Club, Clearwater Bay Golf & Country Club and Shek O Country Club.

All are able to enjoy the delights of golf, not just aspiring business tycoons drawn to the game by the high profile it was given by self-confessed golf-lovers Li Ka-shing, Cheng Yu-tung, Larry Yung and Raymond Chow.

It is a remarkable turnaround. Consider that 30 years ago, Hong Kong was home to just 5,000 golfers. By the mid-1980s the number of players had risen to around 12,000, most being club members, a large proportion of whom were enticed to the game by the prospect of 'making a killing' from buying club membership.

Today, Hong Kong's golfing population has swelled to 50,000 and continues to increase at a rate of more than 20 per cent a year. Significantly, there are now considerably more non-club members than vice versa.

When Bertie To, Jnr, began playing at Fanling in 1956 he recalls that there were no more than 50 Chinese families who played the game.

'It became slightly more popular over the next two decades, but it was not until 1984 that there was a real surge in interest,' said Mr To, one of the first Chinese to represent Hong Kong at international level.

The real boom, though, has been even more recent and owes much to the open-door policies of Deng Xiaoping which saw the game - previously banned and described as 'a prime example of Western decadence' - re-introduced to China in the early 1980s, primarily as a source of bringing in foreign exchange.

Following the success of the Chung Shan Hot Spring Golf Club, financed by Henry Fok Ying-tung, which opened for play in 1984, the golf course construction industry bloomed in Guangdong province.

In 1997 there are more than 20 clubs in operation within easy reach of Hong Kong. That number will double before the end of the century.

Not only has China's golf course craze proved a boon for frustrated Hong Kong golfers, but also for prominent mainland political and business figures whose status and social standing is further raised by playing golf.

Although the game remains beyond the means of most, the country has embraced golf with a vigour that indicates it will continue to prosper.

Upon assuming the position of president of the Beijing-based China Golf Association last year, Wu Shaozu, Minister of the State Sports Commission, gave his official stamp of approval to the game, saying that the development of golf was inextricably linked with the development of the economy.

Similar sentiments had been expressed by David Chu Shu-ho, before, during and after the historic staging of the World Cup of Golf at his Shenzhen Mission Hills club in 1995.

Mr Chu, a member of the National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, said he viewed the tournament as a big step in introducing China to the world's business and political leaders and leading foreign investors to China.

Said Mr Chu: 'Golf, in the context of China's open-door policy, forms an ideal bridge to attract more investors.

'Golf is a by-product of a politically and economically stable country. Even though golf in this country is still in its infancy, the tournament received worldwide attention.

The fact that we hosted the World Cup proved that China is a stable and prosperous country.' Before the tournament, course designer Jack Nicklaus said: 'I think taking the World Cup to China is a great idea. China is quickly becoming one of the fast-growing golf countries in the world.

'They are developing a golf population and golf courses to meet the growing demand. You'll see an explosion of the game like you have everywhere else. I'm very proud to be in on the ground floor.' Nicklaus might have stamped his indelible imprint even earlier. 'I was asked nine or 10 years ago if I wanted to do a golf course in Beijing . . . and I said no. I was not interested,' confessed Nicklaus.

'I mean who the hell was ever going to play it? I turned down a golf course in Russia for the same reason. But now China has opened up, people are coming in.

'They're building resorts for tourists, it's a different game - a different story.

'That's why we came back to be part of it. Maybe I was a little short-sighted nine or 10 years ago. I didn't think it was ready. It didn't seem like there was any kind of mature market there. If I'd not turned that job down, maybe I would already have completed 10 courses in China.' Now, though, Nicklaus is making up for lost time. So, too, is golf in China. For the long-term well-being of the game in Hong Kong, that has to be good.