How golf has boomed in China despite a freeze on new courses

Having witnessed the mainland's golf boom first hand, an American has written a book exploring its growth and the country's muddled business politics

PUBLISHED : Friday, 27 March, 2015, 6:30am
UPDATED : Friday, 27 March, 2015, 6:30am

For someone who has written a book about golf, it may come as a surprise to learn that Dan Washburn is rarely one to hit the greens. That's because Washburn is not so much a golfer as an observer of how the game has exploded in China. In focusing on golf, his book, The Forbidden Game, also delves into the nature of growth in the country.

The boom has occurred despite a freeze on the construction of golf courses, and various facets of development on the mainland are reflected in the lives of the three characters forming his tale.

"Golf is a topic where you would expect the person writing the book to be a participant, but the book is also about China, that uses golf as an accessible way into the story," says Washburn, who was in Hong Kong recently to speak about his book.

A former sports writer for a US newspaper, Washburn went to China in 2002 in search of his next adventure. He was feeling restless and wanted to try living abroad, he says. His father, a college professor, had just been on a tour of mainland universities and provided some contacts. Before long he was teaching conversational English and American literature in Shanghai.

On a trip to visit his brother in Hawaii, he bumped into the then golf editor at ESPN.com who was keen to cover the major tournaments in China and hired him for the assignment in 2005.

"We wanted to find out what these big tournaments were doing in China where, statistically, no one plays the game," Washburn recalls.

He was just a few months into the job when he attended the inaugural HSBC Champions event in Shanghai, which also marked Tiger Woods' debut in the tournament. Searching for a different take on the golf story, Washburn wandered outside the Sheshan Golf Club where it was held and came across villages just outside the grounds.

At one village, he found some migrant workers who had been forced to go on two weeks' unpaid leave during the event.

"They were working in a nearby door- and window-making factory, but weren't allowed to work because [tournament] organisers were worried the noise would distract the golfers," he says.

The workers had no idea what was going on, nor did they know who Woods was.

"It was eye-opening, seeing these people living in shacks literally living in shadows of mansions, a picture that encapsulated China at the time," says Washburn, now chief content editor with the Asia Society in New York.

While media attention focused on the leading professionals who were joining the China circuit, a little-noticed domestic tour was emerging.

"It was made up of blue-collar workers whose stories were unheard in the PGA", he says. "They had poor backgrounds and stumbled on the game randomly. They thought of golf as a profession: it was a way for them to make more money, as many were coaches at the time."

Among the players he met was Zhou Xunshu, whose life story could easily be developed into a movie. Growing up in a mountain village in Guizhou, Zhou decided as a teenager that he had to escape the rural poverty trap. He eventually got a job as a security guard at the Guangzhou International Golf Club, where he would follow groups of golfers around.

As he told Washburn, Zhou didn't know what golf was, but the game looked oddly familiar: while helping to graze cattle as a child, he and his friends devised a game that involved them using sticks to hit a ball made of paper into a hole dug into the ground.

"It drove him crazy that he couldn't play golf because he's an athlete and very competitive. He would devise ways to train in secret, taking discarded clubs and putting them together to use. He promised maintenance staff that if he broke any windows he would help fix them," Washburn says.

Mission Hills Haikou is a huge development and, like all golf courses it's technically illegal - hence the code name [Project 791]
Dan Washburn

"He would roll the ball on the green in the moonlight so that he could see what direction it rolled. It took several years, but once he was able to play on the green he became quite good and became an instructor, and a year later was playing on the China tour."

Another character in Washburn's golfing story was Wang Libo, a peasant whose tiny village on Hainan Island was having to give way to a massive golfing development given the code name Project 791. The course and facilities, which covered an area the size of Hong Kong Island, was later unveiled as Mission Hills Haikou.

Wang and his fellow villagers "were desperate for people to hear their story", he says, because they were facing insurmountable odds against the government.

"Mission Hills Haikou is a huge development and, like all golf courses, it's technically illegal - hence the code name. But it's hard to keep a project one and a half times the size of Manhattan quiet," Washburn says.

Still under construction, the complex on Hainan Island will feature 22 golf courses and luxury hotels when completed. Washburn says he contacted Mission Hills China at the time, but the sports and leisure group denied it had plans in Hainan.

Through the final character, golf course contractor Martin Moore, readers see other contradictions in the industry: although Beijing has imposed a ban on building golf courses since 2004 to protect limited land and water resources, many local governments not only defied the restriction, they became partners in golfing developments.

"Beijing will say one thing while local governments will interpret it another way," says Washburn. "None of the golf courses can be built without local government approval and they want them built because they attract well-heeled clientele, and it helps increase the tax base because the government owns the land. They just don't call it a golf course."

The Mission Hills Haikou project, for example, was described as an "ecological restoration".

He adds: "There's a legal grey area. Moore's story is crucial because it's a literal ground-level look at how to do business in China, how the labyrinth is legally nebulous, and readers can see how complex business can be there."

Although Moore was initially reluctant to work in China, the projects were too lucrative to turn down and he soon became one of the first to see an opening in China in the 1990s when most didn't even give the country a second thought, he says.

"You learn to be adaptable, come in with an open mind and be willing to change the ways you've done things in the past. You also need to be very patient - there were many others who came in, and got frustrated and angry because they were used to working in the US," says Washburn.

His book also discusses the corruption that has oiled the rapid expansion of the golf business in China, particularly in the development of golf courses. But while President Xi Jinping's sweeping anti-graft campaign seems to have stopped many questionable projects in their tracks, Washburn is keen to see more transparent regulation of the business.

"The political atmosphere has changed things and the rumour last year was that close to 100 golf courses were being shut down, but in the industry you always hear rumours," he says. "When Xi was set to become the president, there was optimism for the new leadership. There were hopes he would legitimise golf so they know what hoops to jump through and not have to watch behind their backs all the time."

Certainly, it is difficult to control and supervise golf developments when no one knows for sure how many there are in the country: "There are estimates of 600 to 1,000, compared to 16,000 in the US," Washburn says.

He still keeps in touch with key characters such as Zhou. The Chinese pro is scheduled to go the US in summer and Washburn hopes they can meet when he plays at Hilton Head in South Carolina.

Part of the country's first generation of pro golfers, Zhou became an embodiment of the "Chinese Dream", someone who has worked hard and created a better life for himself and his family. He now owns a car, three properties and hopes to enrol his son in a university in the US.