China’s golf boom mirrors the economy of a nation of soaring ambition and massive change
China’s golf boom is a perfect mirror of the nation’s hard-charging economy
IN 1995 American golf course designer Martin Moore was looking forward to spending time on the Gold Coast as project manager for a new course designed by Jack Nicklaus. He was already “daydreaming of topless beaches and snorkelling on the Great Barrier Reef” when he received a call from a Singaporean businessman asking him to help oversee the construction of a course in Kunming, in southwestern China. After refusing several times Moore put a high price for his services which the businessman agreed to pay. He didn’t know what to expect, other than that there wasn’t much golf in China.
Moore, who went on to develop a career in the exploding business of developing courses in China over the next two decades, is one of the three people whose stories are told by journalist Dan Washburn about the bizarre rise of the game. The other two are Chinese – one young man, Zhou, from a peasant family, who went on to scrape out a living as a professional golfer, and Wang, a lychee farmer on China’s tropical Hainan Island, whose land is confiscated for a golf resort but who manages to set up a kiosk for its workers.
An award-winning American reporter who lived in China for 10 years, Washburn uses stories about these people involved in the booming golf business to provide an insight into the China dream that has had a tectonic impact on the world, and the Australian economy in particular. Anyone trying to come to grips with the rise of modern China or thinking about doing business there will receive some comfort that they are not alone in their confusion about how the place works.
The book opens on the premise that golf was “officially taboo” in China, looked down on as a “rich man’s game”. “From 2005 to 2010, the number of Chinese courses tripled to more than six hundred,” Washburn notes. “An impressive feat, especially when you consider that building new golf courses in China has been technically illegal since 2004.”
Written with a wry sense of humour about the contradictions of modern China, it chronicles a country in a hurry, where official edicts from Beijing are ignored or circumvented – confirming the old Chinese saying that “the mountain is high and the emperor is far away”, where fast moving operators in the know can make their fortune while poor peasants can find their livelihoods crushed underfoot. We follow the story of how Moore is drawn into the Chinese golf business, including a perplexing rush to build five new courses at the Mission Hills complex in Shenzhen, across the border from Hong Kong, in 18 months, doubling the existing supply.
One was designed by Australian golfer Greg Norman and his team, who are astounded at the break-neck speed at which it has been developed. Just as Moore has finished the work in 2003, Beijing released an edict banning the construction of new courses. That doesn’t stop Moore being asked to build more courses and seeing Hainan Island being developed as a golf and leisure resort. However, it does see other new courses bulldozed and other developments subject to aggressive inspection by “golf police”. He learns it is all part of doing business in China.
The reader is drawn into the very human story of Zhou, who escapes his peasant background to become a security guard at a golf course and falls in love with the game which he pursues with a fierce determination – against all odds. Zhou chases his dream of becoming a professional golfer, a job which is a lot less glamorous than its sounds. And it is his story that epitomises the China dream. Through a combination of hard work, diligence and hope, he drives himself onwards, becoming one the top 20 players in China. Increasingly affluent, somehow he never relaxes in his determination to better himself and life for his family.
In Hainan, former farmer Wang also learns that it is far better to go with the flow and adapt to the constant changes in his village by setting up a new business than fight the developers who have bought out his land for a resort.
The book shows how the opening up of China has unleashed a fierce determination among the people – or sizeable proportion of the population at least – to seize the chance to better themselves with hard work, initiative and a dash of rat cunning.
Sitting back in comfortable Australia it’s a bit of a wake up call about where China is going as the breakneck change of the past two decades continues.
Tiger Woods, left, and Rory McIlroy go head-to-head at the Mission Hills course at Haikou on Hainan Island
The Forbidden Game. Golf and the Chinese Dream Dan Washburn. Bloomsbury. $ 29.99.