The Communist Party has banned it, but key figures still believe ‘golf will grow in China’ – here’s why
Golf remains an enigma on the mainland – it may be an Olympic sport but courses have been shut down and party members banned from playing
When the Chinese Communist Party last year banned all 88 million of its members from joining golf clubs, a stigma became attached to the game.
The newspaper of the party’s anti-graft agency opined: “Like fine liquor or tobacco, fancy cars and mansions, golf is a public relations tool that businessmen use to hook officials.”
Although there are rumours that President Xi Jinping himself used to enjoy the occasional game before he reached the top job, the central government has had a moratorium on the construction of new courses since 2004, precisely two decades after the completion of its first – the Arnold Palmer-designed Chung Shan Hot Spring in Zhongshan, Guangdong province.
Beijing, it should be said, had never been golf’s biggest fan.
The moratorium was largely ignored by all and sundry and courses sprang up all over the place. From the deserts of Xinjiang to the bays of Hainan, few provinces were left untouched by a (well-heeled) hacker’s divot and subsequent pitch mark.
Golf was – and still is – an enigma on the mainland: a sport that the political elite couldn’t be seen to publicly endorse too enthusiastically; but one which maintains a considerable following among those entrepreneurs who, likely, relied on the very same political elite to help pave their way to vast riches.
You can get a lot of business done during five hours on a course followed by a decent post-round session at the “19th hole”.
Golf’s current position – and future – is hard to fathom.
The sport’s return to the Olympics this summer, after an absence of more than a century, was expected to fuel participation, particularly among the young, in a country that places such importance on the Summer Games.
Initially, this seemed to be the case. Two-time major champion Greg Norman, who has designed numerous courses on the mainland, was brought in as a national team adviser to help build an Olympic programme.
This didn’t last long – the “Great White Shark” was relieved of his duties more than a year ago, with the Australian stating: “I can only assume [this] is due to the current sentiment for golf within the country.”
Since the Communist Party’s ban on membership came into effect in October 2015, over 60 courses have been closed by authorities.
It is uncertain how many courses have actually been built, but a conservative estimate puts the number at well above 500. The reasons for these closures are wide-ranging but most relate to permits – or lack thereof.
Beijing had suddenly become serious. The moratorium was observed. The number of rounds played at clubs across the country dropped, as did the number of flashy sedans that could be seen in clubhouse car parks.
Telephone hotlines were set up for well-minded citizens (many of whom worked at golf clubs) to report on those officials who chose to ignore the ban and carry on with their habitual Wednesday afternoon fourball.
People were found out, and they paid the price. Those in the industry worried. Western golf course architects, many of whom had set up offices in Beijing and Shanghai, left in search of pastures new.
Was this the end of golf in what was considered the world’s fastest growing market?
Absolutely not, says Simon Leach, the European Tour’s China director, from the upscale surrounds of Shenzhen Genzon Golf Club, which last month hosted the second edition of the Shenzhen International, a US$2.8 million tournament that boasted two-time Masters champion Bubba Watson and four-time Hong Kong Open winner Miguel Angel Jimenez.
“Golf is going to grow in China – that’s a fact,” said the Beijing-based Englishman, who joined the European Tour two years ago after a long stint working in China on behalf of snooker’s governing body, World Snooker Limited.
“It [the crackdown] hasn’t affected us at all. Golf in China is going through the same process that it did in the USA and the UK many decades ago … there are elite courses being built, they’re being frowned upon, and public courses are going to happen. China is no different.”
Leach’s timing was impeccable. In early April, one of the Communist Party’s numerous publications, the inspiringly named “Discipline Inspection and Supervision News”, declared that golf is “only a sport” and is “neither right nor wrong”.
What this truly means is anyone’s guess but it would seem to indicate a relaxation of sorts in the way the government views the game. But Communist Party members are still unable to join clubs without repercussions.
The Shenzhen International was the first event of the European Tour’s annual swing through the mainland and the Shenzhen Genzon Golf Club was, Leach said, absolutely in accordance with government regulations. It has the correct permits in place.
A week after the Shenzhen International, Li Haotong, a 20-year-old from Hunan with serious talent, fired a brilliant final-round 64 to beat some of the European Tour’s finest at the Volvo China Open in Beijing.
Li, a likeable young man who normally plies his trade on the Web.com Tour in the US, became the second successive Chinese player to claim his national title, following Wu Ashun’s victory a year ago.
Li’s win moved him up to No 131 in the world, making him the highest-ranked Chinese player and in prime position to earn one of the two Olympic spots the country is expected to receive in Rio this summer.
With his victory at the Topwin Country Club, another grandiose establishment that lies in the shadow of the Great Wall, Li became only the fourth mainland professional golfer, following Wu, Liang Wenchong and the country’s golfing trailblazer, Zhang Lianwei, a former caddie, to triumph on the European Tour.
In the women’s game, Feng Shanshan has four LPGA Tour victories and six European Tour wins to her credit and is ranked inside the world’s top 10.
But the fact remains: golf in China is a game largely reserved for the elite.
Li, a tall, gangly but engaging young man who seems comfortable carrying the weight of his enormous nation’s hopes, wasn’t born into poverty.
Leach talks about public courses, offering affordable green fees, coming online in the future but there is only one truly public golf facility in all of neighbouring Guangdong province – Longgang Public Golf Course – and a weekday round there costs close to 500 yuan, which is essentially equivalent to 18 midweek holes at the Jockey Club Kau Sai Chau, Hong Kong’s public golf course.
At a professional level, the PGA Tour-owned China Series, which Li graduated from two years ago, takes in more than 10 events a year, while Shanghai’s Sheshan International Golf Club has hosted the annual World Golf Championship-HSBC Champions, one of golf’s premier events outside the major championships, since 2005.
“Golf is perfect for China,” says Leach. “Players are coming through; it’s going to accelerate [growth].”
But what about the lower-ranked pros, those just getting started?
Li aside, there are only 11 other Chinese pros ranked inside the top 1,000 in the world. Compare that with the Koreans, who despite being more noted for the prowess of their female players, still boast five times that number, with An Byeong-hun leading the pack at No 24.
Asia’s best player is PGA Tour-based Hideki Matsuyama; the 24-year-old has long occupied a spot in the top 20 and is ranked 13th, 118 places above Li.
To that end, the European Tour, in partnership with the China Golf Association, has staged Challenge Tour events –2016 sees the inaugural Hainan Open take place in mid-October, a week before the Foshan Open, which has been played since 2013.
“This is the way to grow golf in China,” says Leach.“We don’t want to saturate China [with events].
“We want to present opportunities for Chinese professionals.
“These tournaments see strong representation from Europe; the best way for Chinese pros to develop is to play these tournaments and experience other Challenge Tour events overseas.”
The Shenzhen International and Foshan Open both lack a title sponsor. Money to cover the prize purse and staging costs, it would seem, is being taken care of by the local government in harness with the venue.
But Leach is unconcerned about that – and compares golf’s potential growth in China to that of football, which has seen mind-boggling investment in players. .
“Potential sponsors have been a bit wary [recently] but the fact is that viewership is up, the number of platforms [that are broadcasting golf tournaments] is up … golf is a growth market and it is confusing to me to hear people say the opposite.
“You look at how football in China was five years ago and you look at it now … the change is extraordinary and you can compare it exactly with golf.”
Leach and, by de facto, the European Tour, is clearly confident about the tour’s future in China, which is underlined by recent business developments away from the fairways.
The tour’s Chinese-language website has seen an upsurge in online purchases, and a flagship store, featuring high-end apparel is being planned to open in Beijing later this year.
The European Tour – spearheaded by chief executive Keith Pelley, a media-savvy Canadian, since 2015 – has reputedly grand plans for expansion in order to compete with the PGA Tour in the coming years.
But whether that includes the Asian Tour, the planned merger of which has fallen through, is not yet clear.
China, it seems, is very much a part of those expansion plans, regardless.
““We hope the Chinese players emerging now will push forward and help the market. The sport will grow here.
“There will be new rules and guidelines but these will help facilitate that growth. The future is bright,” said Leach.