Golf in China

Why finding China's first global golf star is simply good business sense

Mission Hills chiefs Ken and Tenniel Chu are focusing on youth development rather than professional tournaments

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 05 November, 2013, 10:58am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 06 November, 2013, 11:37am

Fans frustrated by the sinking status of the Hong Kong Open and keen to see major professional events return to the sprawling Mission Hills complex just over the border in Shenzhen will be disappointed after the Chu family admitted they are happy to let others in the mainland march over the trail they blazed.

Mission Hills, founded by China's "Mr Golf" David Chu Shu-ho, has been instrumental in establishing the sport on the mainland. But the late Chu's sons, group chairman and chief executive Ken and group vice-chairman Tenniel, told the Sunday Morning Post at their Haikou complex last week that further celeb-driven events such as Monday's exhibition between Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy, or last year's celebrity pro-am, are more likelier than sanctioned tour events as they seek to develop a more family-oriented brand - and position Hainan as a global tourism destination.

But this doesn't mean a family synonymous with golf in China has given up on the game. The brothers insist they are determined to help produce China's first global star, admitting that an upsurge in the game can only be good for business.

"Whatever we have done we have been the first or the biggest," says Tenniel. "I don't think any club has hosted the World Cup five times. It really redefined the positioning of China golf. It stimulated a whole bunch of companies like BMW, HSBC, to get involved and do more professional events in this part of the world.

"We were the pioneers and now to move forward, we've done it, got the T-shirt, what's next? That's why we're moving on to the [more celeb-driven events] to get a much bigger perspective to grow the game of golf in China.

"It's our social responsibility to help grow the game … from the country's perspective it's not just about Mission Hills growing, it's how can we prosper the whole industry, how can we complement each other."

Both men have gatefold business cards, such is the plethora of roles they hold in mainland and Hong Kong government and sporting circles. Ken is a national committee member of the CPPCC and heavily involved in Hainan politics and development, while Tenniel is similarly involved on the Shenzhen side of things.

So splashing out US$3 million to US$4 million to bring Woods and McIlroy to Haikou, was not just good publicity for the resort, but hopefully for the island, which has little name recognition outside China, says Ken admitting the powerbrokers are keen to position it as a global destination along the lines of Bali, Phuket or Hawaii.

Ken talks of the "three Hs" and "three As" of his business strategy, how he wants his resort to be "four generations happy together" in line with a Chinese proverb, "bringing Hong Kong LKF nightlife to Haikou" and so on. But amid the marketing mumbo-jumbo and synergistic branding, both men insist youth development is a top priority.

The brothers say their resorts host 65 junior tournaments a year; two courses in Haikou and one in Shenzhen are free for under-16s.

"We never wanted to be a monopoly [of pro tour events in China]," says Ken.

"People have seen the success of [our] story … and doing [similar] - that's fine, that creates a bigger piece for everyone. What we are so focused on right now is junior golf development.

"Now that golf is an Olympic sport we must be able to have our next heroes to represent China. Junior golf development, amateur golf development, [this is the reason for] the number of [youth] tournaments we host, just to stimulate the growth so we can have a Chinese hero."

Tenniel: "[Last week] we've been working with Mr Zhang Xiaoning, the China Golf Association chief executive, to bring in 20 top CGA junior players to have Tiger and Rory work together with them, to teach them and share with them different life skills and hopefully they can be the future stars of tomorrow."

One of Tenniel's many hats is deputy commissioner of OneAsia, seen by some as an upstart rival to the older Asian Tour. He insists unity of governance in the region is not vital to this goal of producing future stars.

"Look at the first generation in China from Zhang Lianwei to Liang Wenchong now to Guan Tianlang, how it stimulated a whole new country of golf - that's my vision to do the same for all of Asia-Pacific.

"Kyi Hla Han [the Asian Tour chairman] I've known for over 15, 16 years, we've done many great events together even before my role at OneAsia. I just think there's a lot of room to grow in Asia-Pacific.

"I don't believe there has to be ultimately one tour, we are all in the same boat together, but his perspective is more on the players running a tour. OneAsia is more of a platform, creating the ultimate tournament platform so players have freedom to choose - we don't go against our players saying, 'You have to choose one or the other [tour],' it's about creating more opportunities that anyone can benefit from."

The Asian Tour might disagree, but one thing that seems beyond argument is Tenniel's prediction for the future of golf on the mainland.

"Without a doubt China will be the world's biggest golfing population," he says. "When you look at the US I think 14 to 15 per cent play golf and that's already the world's largest population of golfers. China with 1.3 billion people, all it takes is 1-2 per cent and it will be the world's biggest.

"Without a doubt China has the biggest prospects for future star golfers in the world.

"Why is the US tour so successful - one country one language. China … one day, one tour, one language, can you imagine the potential of the tour, and then having their own national hero?"

And Tenniel freely admits there's more than pure altruism to the Chu brothers' desire to see a Chinese golfer become a global star: an explosion in mainland golf equals an explosion in Mission Hills customers.

"All the Fortune 500 companies are positioning to have a foot in China, sub offices and so forth. I think [China's golf boom] is a matter of time and that's why I'm so keen to develop national heroes," Tenniel adds.

"Why am I hosting so many junior tournaments, why am I freeing my golf courses, why am I bringing the best branded academies in the world to come to China - the John Jacobs, David Leadbetters, the Hank Haneys, the Cindy Reids?

"Even the current coach of John Daly is teaching in our academies at the moment, we're the only [place] affiliated with the oldest PGA in the world, the British PGA, where you can get Class A Professional training at Mission Hills in China, where else can you do that except the UK?

"We are trying to groom the next generation, create our own heroes so that one day the sponsors, the public will be even more attracted [to] and focused [on the game].

"Sport is the most neutral ground for people to connect, just like with the US and China and ping-pong diplomacy. Now I'm using golf to bring the world to China and China to the world."