Fairways to heaven

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 12 November, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 12 November, 2009, 12:00am

It wasn't long ago when golf was a game of mystery in Macau and the rest of China. Courses were hard to find, finding anyone actually playing even harder, with the common perception being that golf was far beyond the reach of the common man.

But how things have changed - and fast. While China's first recognised course opened in 1984, there are now 450 across the country. The nation has fallen to the old game's charms - and Macau has been playing its part.

First there has been the confirmation of the Macau Golf and Country Club - venue for the annual Macau Open, which forms part of the Asian PGA Tour - as one of Asia's finest courses.

While that course has gone from strength to strength, the city has in more recent times welcomed the emergence of Caesars Golf Macau (formerly known as the Orient Golf Club). What's more, the Pearl River Delta has become China's hottest golfing destination - and it sits right on Macau's doorstep.

Vincent Chow helps organise golf packages and tours in the delta for Golf007 and says he had thought the game would take off in the region - but never to the extent that it has.

'It has caught a lot of people by surprise,' Chow says. 'Not so long ago there was one course in Macau, now there are two and courses are opening up all over the Pearl River Delta.

'The advantage Macau has is that there are new hotels opening up and that development is bringing more people to the city - and that means more golfers.'

The fact that the new casinos and resorts in Macau are attracting people in from all over the world has meant news has also spread about what else the city has to offer. And the local golf clubs - and operators such as Golf007 - are seeing the benefits.

'It's not only Chinese people who are making use of Macau for their golfing holidays,' Chow says. 'Foreigners not so long ago were unsure of holidays on the mainland. But more and more are coming to Macau and finding out about the courses they can play.'

A lot of the attention this year has been focused on developments at the Caesars course and its grand plans.

Michael Chen, president (Asia) of operators Harrah's Entertainment and Caesars Asia, says the interest in golf in the region has never been greater - nor indeed have the demands of golfers, who have witnessed the developments in Macau and want plenty more of the same. Caesars has already welcomed the first Asian branch of the Butch Harmon School of Golf - guided by the legendary one-time coach of Tiger Woods - while the course has been upgraded and there are plans under way to expand the clubhouse to 32,000 sqft, with a 4,000 sqft spa.

'We are in the process of building golfing facilities that Macau can be proud of and that the Macau Government Tourism Office can be proud of,' Chen says. 'When people come to Macau they want a little more during their stay and golf is playing a big part of that.

'There has been a real effort on the part of the government in Macau to diversify and the city is seeing the rewards of that now. People are being encouraged to diversify and we are playing our own little part in that.'

Chen is bullish about developments at his course - and says that like all business in Macau, they have had to adapt to the local conditions.

'What we have focused on in the initial stage is to upgrade the course itself and then to focus on the facilities,' he says. 'We are somewhat limited by our position but we compensate for that by providing the best-maintained course in the area.

'The fairways are in perfect shape, the greens are impeccable and the service is terrific. But that's how we need to be these days as golfers expect that.'

The club also has invested in establishing a club for Macau's junior golfers, which goes hand in hand with the Harmon school.

The idea is to train and educate the players of the future at the junior school - while those with a little more experience can benefit from the advice and example of Harmon and his crew of professional coaches.

It was somewhat of a coup to get Harmon to open a branch of his teaching centre and Chen says it proves Macau is on the rise in the golfing world.

'His work has been incredible,' Chen says. 'Golfers are always working on their game and the coaching really does help sort out the little problems that can add strokes to your game. The main thing these days is service, and Macau is getting things right.'