50 more golf courses to feel the backlash of Xi Jinping’s crackdown
Clubs will be forced to close because they are no longer profitable businesses, says aficionado Aylwin Tai
From a moratorium on building new courses to a ban on Communist Party officials playing and “being led astray”, golf has suffered the brunt of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s crackdown on all things unsavoury.
Lumped together with drugs, gambling, prostitution, ill-gotten wealth and conspicuous consumption, the game has been portrayed as a vice in mainland China, a temptation to hook officials.
Since the party’s ban on membership came into effect in October 2015, over 60 courses have been closed by authorities.
And at least another 50 are in danger of disappearing because they are no longer profitable enterprises, says Aylwin Tai, an authority on the game in China.
“The government is not encouraging the game, so it’s a challenging time for all whose focus is golf,” says Tai, a Hongkonger who is president of the Club Managers Association of China.
“The government is very careful; they’re not showing support and are seeing how the market reacts.
“The market, it would appear, is not reacting all that positively, at least when it comes to the business of running golf clubs.
“The tax on golf is high, water [for irrigation] is expensive, as are labour costs,” says Tai, who managed Chung Shan Hot Spring in Guangdong province upon its opening in 1984 and whose company, Richtone Worldwide, organised 15 editions of the Volvo China Open.
He also says the game’s status as an Olympic sport has had a negligible effect on membership sales in the country.
“There could be another 50 or 60 courses that close in the next year, not by the government but because for many clubs golf isn’t a profitable business.”
High construction and operating costs, combined with the government’s general antipathy, meant public courses aren’t likely to be on the golfing radar any time soon, despite mainland star Li Haotong winning China’s national open last month, says Tai.
“It was a great performance but can the public relate to Li Haotong? If the public can’t relate then the impact of his win will be limited to the second generation of rich Chinese [who play golf],” said Tai. “Land is the big issue [going forward]. Unless the government is going to give away free land for the development of public golf courses, they’re not going to happen.”
But it’s not all doom and gloom.
While Tai argues that golf’s popularity among the middle classes has also been hit by a plethora of other sporting and leisure options now available to them, the current situation could be of long-term benefit to the sport’s health.
“It’s a good way for China to reposition itself in terms of golf,” he said. “We’ve seen Korea bounce back [after an uncertain period] and now we see that Singapore is reducing the number of courses.
“It’s not just China that has these issues; the whole of Asia is re-evaluating the game.”