Elite venue in a class of its own
Nothing on the drive to Pine Valley Golf Club prepares you for what you see once you pass beneath the chariot and horses and into one of Asia's premier golf addresses.
It has all happened in less than two years. Pine Valley, near Beijing, has established itself as a favourite on the Asian Tour. The Jack Nicklaus-designed course was voted 2004 Host of the Year by the players. And now it is playing host to a top-flight tournament.
Spread over 404 hectares, with a 13,000 square-metre clubhouse designed by the British firm, GA Design, access is restricted to the privileged few.
'We only have playing members here. There is no social membership. We have 10 minutes minimum between tee times. I think we can safely say there is nothing like this club in Beijing,' says Bob Guthrie, an affable southern Californian who runs the club. The clubhouse opened in March 2003 and the club officially opened for business in November 2003.
The 18-hole Pine Valley Golf Club is a Jack Nicklaus Signature course and the 27-hole links at Pine Valley is a Jack Nicklaus II design.
The course requires a variety of shots to navigate the hazards and safely reach the undulating greens where a good read and smooth and steady stroke are needed to hole out.
It's widely considered the Golden Bear's best layout in China.
Meanwhile, the 27-hole course that is under construction will open in the summer of 2005 and Guthrie says it is shaping up to be an equally challenging and beautiful layout. 'What we have done here is to create and maintain the most exclusive club for the affluent and elite in China,' says Guthrie.
'It's basically a who's who in Beijing of Fortune 500 companies and Japanese Top 100 companies. We are Beijing's most exclusive club,' Guthrie says. The location is striking, right beside the Great Wall at Badaling, around 60 kilometres west of Beijing's central business district, in the valley of the western mountain range of Beijing with panoramic views of the magnificent surroundings.
In the VIP locker room, all the lockers have individual nameplates. One of them just reads Mr Wang. In a country with millions of Wangs, this is true exclusivity. The halls are lined with famous visitors to the club, including Diego Maradona, the world's greatest footballer, who visited last year.
'He wanted to play at night, but we're not night-lit, so he headed back to town, which got the press saying he didn't like it here. But he came back the next day and I played 36 holes with him. He's a strong man. Then he stayed a couple of days as the boss's guest. So then the press said we kidnapped him,' Guthrie says.
Other famous faces line the halls, including Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, boxing promoter Don King and actor-turned-politician Arnold Schwarzenegger. The club was first set up in 1999 by the Ruoy Chai group, which belongs to the Thai-Chinese owner of Red Bull.
The course is built on a strip mine and an illegal dump. Across the road from the club you can see what the landscape used to look like - an arid expanse of industrial malaise. 'This whole area was a moonscape. We took an average of four metres of dirt off and built a Jack Nicklaus Signature course on top,' Guthrie says. 'This is the dust bowl of Beijing, with its old strip mining area. We've put in trees and greenery and we've turned unusable land into a lush environmental area.'
Guthrie demonstrates a large-scale model of what the club will look like when it's finished.
'This is the master plan,' he says, pointing to the equestrian centre, the environmental garden and the red-roofed service apartments, corporate villas and townhouses on the club grounds. We pass by a photograph of Colin Montgomerie, to whom Guthrie bears a marked resemblance.
There are 550 employees in the operation, with many more employed in construction work on the club grounds.
In the Scottish-English themed member's bar, which has a tartan motif in the carpet, impressive glassware arrangements stand out against table arrangements inspired by The Old Course at St Andrew's.
'You need to pamper the kind of people we have here. You need to get the right hardware. No red wine in a water glass here,' he says as he clinks two generously proportioned wine glasses together. 'It has a Scottish and English pub feel to it, but more of an upper-class pub,' says Guthrie. 'We have a member's tournament once a month. Sometimes we have members' only events, sometimes members and guests. We try to mix it up a lot, keep it interesting.'
Altogether there are 118 rooms and suites on the property. The star players will stay in the exclusive White House, a five-star boutique hotel made up of 13 suites.
In the five rooms of the presidential suite, which costs 33,156 yuan (HK$31,200) a night, there is a 24-hour butler service. Presumably that includes assistance in finding your way if you get lost in the huge labyrinth of rooms.
The club also has China's first world-class spa, the Ajintai Spa, with masseuses flown in from Thailand and 10 treatment rooms.
One of the highlights of the spa is what Guthrie calls Bob's cave, a discreetly lit, rock-lined room which is perfect for enjoying Thai massage, he says.
Later, after the butler escorts us into the lounge, where a humidor keeps a choice range of Cuban cigars at the exactly right temperature and humidity, Guthrie explains his philosophy.
'I've been playing golf since my 20's. I love golf,' he says. 'This way I can combine golf coaching and professional golf course management and my previous experience in sales and marketing. What anyone wants to do in life is find your passion and make your passion your business. It's not like going to work; it's living a dream. I never have a problem getting up in the morning,' he says.
He plays off a four handicap, but never on his own golf course. 'Then I'm more like a 12. You're always working when you play your own course, checking the grass, checking the flags,' he says.
The Environmental Garden contains highlights such as an 800-year-old plant, which is on sale for 68,000 yuan. The club grows its own vegetables and members have picking rights.
'What we don't consume, we sell to our members. And we have strawberries all year long,' says Guthrie. In the Environmental Garden we pass by the Princess of Wales's coach, which the owner bought at an auction in Austria and which members or visitors can hire.
'I don't think there is any place in China like this,' says Guthrie.