In the hills above Shenzhen an army is at work. The early morning calm is broken by the sound of the first explosion of the day as the infantry file up the roads and dirt paths to continue an assault that has continued unabated for almost a year. They set to work on bunkers that have yet to see the first shot fired in anger. Behind the front line, calculations are being made to manage a series of logistics that defy the imagination; millions of cubic metres of earth, 500km of pipes and more than 5,000km of cables are being put in place in a bid to conquer 20 square km of territory. Throughout the ranks the same few words are uttered over and over again, 'We're building the biggest golf complex in the world,' or variations on that theme are chanted, like a mantra, time and again. The battleground lies between Guanlan and Dongguan, at the heart of Dapingzhang Forest Park, Tangsha town. The fight is to forge five new courses out of the Guangdong hillside, and the 'army' is dedicated to making Mission Hills a 180-hole Disneyworld for foreigners and mainland China's new elite. 'We want to achieve the goal of being among the first class of the world's golf clubs,' declares Mission Hills chairman David Chu, who next month will host the designers of the new courses, Annika Sorenstam, David Duval, Jose Maria Olazabal and David Leadbetter, to coincide with the scheduled opening of three of the five new layouts, which will take the club to a total of eight and parity with the planet's current behemoth, Pinehurst. By late spring next year it will stand alone, the golfing equivalent of Malaysia's Petronas Towers. 'We've used some of the most famous golfers in the world and their designs will attract more people and attract attention to the development of golf in China.' The scale and ambition of the project seemingly knows no bounds. In two-thirds of the time that it normally takes to fashion one functional round, Mission Hills has set its sights on finishing five courses. Everything about the project, which, while the golf may be the focus, will succeed or fail around its residential complexes, is enormous including the investment - a cool US$100 million. 'It's a town that we're creating. It's a master plan with commercial, residential elements,' explained the chairman's son, vice-chairman Ken Chu Ting-kin. 'In the coming five years we definitely expect to have recouped the outlay.' Ambition has been the fuel that has driven the whole Mission Hills project from its inception, through the opening of the first two courses in December 1994 to the current push for global status. 'In terms of putting China and Asia on the world golfing map no one else competes,' says Spencer Robinson, the publisher of Asian Golf Monthly, a magazine that, it should be noted, carries a considerable amount of advertising for the Guangdong club. 'They've been first at so much. In all my time I have seen nothing that comes close to the size and magnitude of what they're doing. 'I remember when they set up; from day one David Chu always said 'we want to be the biggest and the best'. Ten years on you can say he's been true to his word, but 10 years ago people didn't take that seriously. It's great vision. They've anticipated the growing middle classes and the growth of Dongguan, Guangzhou and Shenzhen and they've got the location perfect. They looked into the future and got it right.' Even now the extent of the vision behind the original plan is mind-boggling. Despite the explosive growth of Shenzhen and the surrounding cities - which boast skylines equally modern and skyward-aspiring to Hong Kong's - one doesn't have to look far off the beaten track to see where the region was when David Chu's Mission Hills idea first became a blueprint. 'I think it was guts. A lot of friends 10 to 12 years ago said don't pour your money into the city, but he believed in himself and the reform of China. He believed in China's growth and he had the faith and guts to develop this,' says Ken Chu, a 30-year-old who grew up and was educated in Canada before his family returned to the mainland 10 years ago. 'Back in the 1980s when the political party went down to Shenzhen and said they wanted to reform Shenzhen as a special economic zone, my father believed that with the flow of new visitors there needed to be a flow of facilities. Many people would have used the land we acquired for factories, but he had the vision to understand the need for leisure facilities.' The result is that rather than scrambling to meet an escalating demand, the club is ahead of the region's development, in terms of providing that lightning rod for the upwardly mobile, golf. 'We're creating the market. We're developing the market,' said the vice-chairman. 'The year after we hosted the 1995 World Cup, the golf population in China shot up from 100,000 to 250,000. Before Tiger Woods visited in 2001, it was 600,000, now there are around one million golfers. It's such a trendy sport and it's a business language. Almost everyone at all the functions I attend in business circles plays golf. If I invite people for a lunch there are always conflicts in their diaries, but if I suggest golf everyone's free.' That there are enough golfers in the region who can spare a membership fee of HK$350,000, not including monthly dues, to fill the new courses is something that the golf club is gambling on, but as Mission Hills vice-president David Lim Seng Wai points out, they have a huge potential pool to draw from. 'It's 30 minutes from 12 million people in Shenzhen,' he says. 'We're near the busiest and third busiest ports in China. It's an hour from 12 to 13 million people in Guangzhou. Within a 21/2-hour drive you're looking at around 120 million people. That's 40 per cent of the American population.' The downside to such a massive operation is that, despite the quality of the courses, which remain in remarkably good shape considering the direct hit from Typhoon Dujuan that wiped out around 4,000 planted trees and 40,000 natural trees, the individual can feel lost in a golfing sausage factory. 'When you come here you have to understand you are part of a 90-hole process,' explained Ken Chu. 'There's nothing we can do about the arrival feeling. People have to come here in buses because of the nature of the border. We will have 2,500 caddies by the time all the courses open and we're already the biggest golf-cart customer in the world.' To some of Hong Kong's expatriate golfers, especially those from more mature golfing countries where the charm of golf includes a degree of isolation from the outside world, there is a certain aversion to being part of such a vast process. But China doesn't have the luxury of the 100-year-old courses and besides the average gweilo golfer could be accused of failing to comprehend the aspirational appeal of Mission Hills. 'What we're creating here isn't just a golf club, although it has been marketed as that. It's a premier lifestyle and recreation facility, an exclusive gated residential community, which is important in China where crime is still rife,' explains David Lim. 'We've a five-star hotel, which with our new extension has over 500 rooms. We've a 51-court tennis facility, the largest in Asia, and we'll soon have the largest golf complex in the world. The vision of the place is to be the world's greatest golf centre - it's the core component considering the money we've spent building it up - but it's the lifestyle that you can't get anywhere else in the world.'