Game of Golf Becoming Big Business Across China

BEIJING — In golf, an 8 — the dreaded snowman — is usually a number to be avoided. But at 8 past 8, more or less, on Friday morning — 12 hours before the opening ceremony at the Bird’s Nest, and just about when thousands of couples were lining up at the marriage bureau to tie the knot on that most auspicious of days — Qinghe Bay Golf Club in Beijing officially opened.

A couple of dozen V.I.P.’s marched down the clubhouse steps, between two rows of bowing caddies, posed for some photos, then climbed into golf carts and sped off to an assigned tee. By 8:18, the first ball had plopped into the drink; a flailing tee shot had failed to carry the water on the 390-yard 10th on the club’s west course. Players on the east course stayed dry a little longer.

Some Chinese scholars say that the Chinese invented golf, and that the game was played here during the Song Dynasty in the 10th century. But golf probably arrived here with the British, who built clubs in Shanghai and Beijing in the 1920s. The most famous of them, Hungjao in Shanghai, was paved over after the Communist Revolution and turned into a zoo.

The first modern golf course in China, Hot Spring, an Arnold Palmer design in Zhongshan, was built in 1984. There are now more than 400, including a dozen 18-hole layouts at Mission Hills, an industrial-size complex in Shenzhen that is the largest golf resort in the world. In 1997, there were only 10 golf courses in the Beijing area, said Sophie Liu, assistant to the general manager at Qinghe Bay. Her club now brings the number to about 50.

Officially, the Chinese government still frowns on golf, because it is Western and capitalist, and shows its disapproval by taxing golf courses at the same rate as nightclubs. But in reality some government officials are enthusiastic players, and even those who are not cannot fail to notice that golf has become a magnet for investors. The number of active players is growing by 25 or 30 percent a year.

Golf in China is a game for the well-heeled, who flock to expensive country clubs for the same reason that some Americans do: to flaunt their wealth and status, and because the golf course can be a good place to do business. The game really started to take off in China after the SARS epidemic in 2003, when businessmen were avoiding their offices and the karaoke bars where they used to make deals.

The Qinghe Bay club, which is northwest of the city on the far bank of the Qin River, about three miles from the Bird’s Nest, is fairly typical of the new Chinese clubs. A family membership costs about $100,000 — in a city where the average wage is roughly $500 a month — with annual dues of about $900. The clubhouse from the outside looks like a cross between a five-star hotel and a mausoleum. Inside, there are columns, sconces and chandeliers, and the walls and the floors are paved in polished marble.

You have to hire a caddie — lugging your own bag is unthinkable — and at Qinghe Bay, as is customary throughout Asia, the caddies are mostly women. They wear uniforms and long-billed hardhats and ride on the back of your golf cart like liveried footmen, scurrying back and forth from cart to golfer bearing armfuls of clubs.

At Qinghe Bay, their nerves probably need calming. There is a kind of arms race among Beijing clubs, Liu explained, with each new course vying to be more challenging than the last. Because the game is so new here, Chinese golfers tend to be self-taught, with short, quick swings, and to judge from the groans and cries of pain issuing from the fairways Monday morning, the Qinghe Bay courses may be more than a match for some of the members. Designed by Mark E. Hollinger, an American who also built the highly regarded Jian Lake course in Zhejiang, the two layouts measure 7,212 and 7,108 yards from the tips, and feature water, often a carry off the tee, on almost every hole.

Qinghe Bay was built on land that used to be a dump, but you would never know it now, except for the power lines and the apartment blocks looming in the muggy morning haze. The courses, fastidiously maintained, are already quite pretty, and will only get more so as the hundreds of newly planted trees mature. The fairways, which are bountifully splashed with bunkers, dip and twist and grow devilishly narrow just where your ball is apt to land. Miss a green right or left and — kerplunk! — time for a new pellet. That may be why the balls in the pro shop are so cheap. A dozen Pro V1s here sets you back about $30, or a third less than they cost in the United States.

(New York Times)

No comments: