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China’s golf boom mir­rors the econ­omy of a na­tion of soar­ing am­bi­tion and mas­sive change

The Australian - The Deal - - News -

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.

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