Chu family still devoted to spreading golf

Family aims to transform world's largest golf complex into a 24/7 entertainment zone with the help of 'Mr Lan Kwai Fong'

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 04 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 04 November, 2012, 2:15am

Ken Chu has a tough act to follow after taking over the Mission Hills empire from his late father, David Chu Shu-ho. One of the most powerful men in the game at the time of his death in August last year, Chu senior became known as "the father of Chinese golf" after turning a patch of wasteland in rural Shenzhen into the world's biggest golf complex.

That vision was seen as madness, not least by his sons. But 20 years later, the Mission Hills resort encompasses 12 golf courses, 50 tennis courses, apartments and villas, a five-star hotel and convention centre, all sprawling across 40 square kilometres in Shenzhen and Dongguan.

The brand has expanded into Hainan with a similarly huge development, while the courses host major events such as the Omega Mission Hills World Cup and the WGC-HSBC Champions, which finishes today.

Ken Chu and his brother, Tenniel, are now charged with looking after the brand but the sporting and leisure landscape on the mainland has changed as drastically as Hainan's when 11 million cubic metres of volcanic rock and dirt were moved to create Mission Hills Haikou.

Ken Chu, the chairman and CEO, insists he will continue his father's commitment to developing golf, but admitted diversification was necessary. "We will continue to host many international tournaments," says Chu.

"One thing my father has done is grass-roots training for junior golfers and I will continue to work with all the junior series we conduct on a monthly basis.

"Every international tournament we host will be televised live internationally to 140 or 150 countries, so that will help put Chinese golf on the world map. It's a chance for the juniors to see their idols, especially now golf has returned to the Olympics.

"We don't have a Chinese hero for golf like Yao Ming in basketball, therefore this will be a catalyst to help popularise the game."

Chu, 38, says hosting more high-profile tournaments is not part of the plan. "You can't do it all … we do have the facilities but we shouldn't."

And he admits none of their tournaments has ever made a profit. "Zero. In fact, it's a deficit. It's part of the goodwill. It is goodwill in promoting the game, popularising the game for China … because we're the hosting nation we have wild cards. Otherwise, the Chinese players wouldn't even make it into the WGC. They're not in that calibre. Same thing with all the other tournaments we have hosted."

Chu says "goodwill" might not be the only benefit, but insists the marketing benefits of having his brand and logo broadcast around the world are just "a bonus".

One relatively new tournament is the Celebrity Pro-am in Haikou. While the event, which featured the likes of Yao Ming, Andy Garcia, Pat Cash and Ronaldo, is of little interest to golf aficionados, that doesn't matter to Chu.

"This week's tournament, if you're not a golfer you won't be interested," he says. "But for the pro-am we're opening up the market to everyone. Everyone likes celebrities.

"With that you don't just hit golf news or sporting news - you hit entertainment news or social news. Then you see even the spectators that we drew, like 60 per cent of them are non-golfers. They have no insight or understanding of what golf is. They just come for the stars, but from there you introduce them to what golf is, the etiquette, what a course looks like and the industry in China."

Chu is looking to spread his customer base in other areas as well. The Hong Kong native is teaming up with Allan Zeman to produce the mainland's second Lan Kwai Fong development as part of an expansion of shopping, hotels and entertainment at the Haikou centre, while a massive new US$800 million entertainment area called Centreville in Longhua New District will see an Imax cinema, bowling alley, shopping mall, luxury car showrooms, hotels and office space bolted on to the Shenzhen complex.

"I'm a day-club operator, I operate day clubs, whereas Allan operates night clubs - I think that's the perfect marriage - it's a 24-hour business."

And following a moratorium on building new golf courses introduced by the government in 2004, Chu says he had to seek new avenues of expansion.

"We have to grow the business somehow, right? [Shenzhen] needs [the Centreville facilities] to begin with and I want to grow the Mission Hills brand and business model. I am diversifying."

Chu claims real estate prices have rocketed with the announcement of his new developments, and his company will employ up to 30,000 people when they are completed in the next two to three years (he says 12,000 are currently employed).

Golf is still very much a game for the elite in China, as two minutes in the car park at Mission Hills attests, but Chu insists he's helping to spread it to the grass roots at Haikou, even if some locals might quibble with his definition of cheap.

"You know where the largest public golf facility in the world is? Haikou Mission Hills. This place [Dongguan] is elite … you have to pay like 2 million RMB to have the right to play golf in a membership club. But in Haikou it's public golf.

"You can pay 2,500 RMB for a round of golf [there] if you want more exclusive, 'five-star restaurant' golf. But there's also 'cafeteria golf' where you pay 480 for a round … so that's what I'm doing right now by promoting the game, making the game financially accessible to the public."

James Porteous