THE GOLF PLAY
WORLD-CLASS GOLF COURSES HAVE TRANSFORMED A SLEEPY TROPICAL ISLAND IN THE SOUTH CHINA SEA INTO THE GO-TO DESTINATION FOR GOLFERS, DISCOVERS MERAJ SHAH
The Chinese have a penchant for the grandiose. But there's nothing ostentatious or pompous about Mission Hills' new golf resort in Hainan, though it is a testament to the equally legendary Chinese efficiency. Its genesis is the now typical China success story: 5,000 acres of land, roughly the size of Hong Kong, savaged by half a century of stone quarrying and blanketed by lava rock, transformed in a mere matter of 18 months into a worldclass property with as many as ten golf courses, a five-star hotel, several clubhouses, even a spa.
How do they do it? "We have many hands in China," says Dr. Ken Chu, Vice Chairman of Mission Hills, with a grin. Chu knows what he's talking about. Mission Hills is the biggest developer of golf courses in China, and the jewel-inthe-crown resort at Shenzhen, on the mainland, is home to a staggering 27 courses built by Jack Nicklaus, Ernie Els, Nick Faldo and Greg Norman, amongst other celebrated players-turned-designers.
The city of Haikou seems an obscure place for a project of this magnitude till you consider the relative proximity to Taiwan and Korea, both nations besotted by golf. "It's not just the Koreans and the Japanese, although they do constitute the majority of our visitors. We've started getting visitors from Europe and even the United States," he says.
It doesn't take long to figure out why the resort registers almost 800 rounds a day. The top-notch Blackstone course, spread over 350 acres is a serious championship layout, comparable to the best courses in Asia. It's obvious, even at first glance, that the course, with its natural amphitheater green settings, has been designed with significant numbers of spectators in mind. It's by no means a walk in the park as far as players are concerned. The difficult greens and se-
rious length, a full 7,800 yards from the tips, mean that the more forgiving white tees are the only option for the mid- or high-handicapper.
Hainan has a dramatic volcanic landscape and the course designers, the Arizona-based firm of SchmidtCurley Golf Design, have attempted to incorporate the inherent character of the dramatic rock into the courses. It's probably the only common thread linking otherwise very diverse designs. "As the volcanic rock was so prominent, it just made sense, from both an aesthetic and economic standpoints, to weave it into each golf course to varying degrees," explains Brian Curley.
The courses are very distinct in all other aspects. "This project is a celebration of my appreciation for golf's great history and the many genres of courses found around the world," Curley says.
Sandbelt Trails is inspired by Australia's Sandbelt courses, and is highlighted by large, distinctive bunkers and eucalyptus trees, while The Preserve is a user-friendly course with a more modern feel. Another striking configuration is The Vintage, which is fashioned after turn of the (20th) century courses with a natural undisturbed terrain. Wicker tee markers and wicker baskets for pins add to the old-world authenticity. "The oldest course in China is a new course in Haikou," is Curley's take on The Vintage.
Lava Fields at 7,400 yards is no pushover either. The course gets especially tricky, especially when the wind picks up. Compared to Blackstone, there is hard-
ly any tree cover, and the feel of big open spaces is exaggerated. The first hole is a mammoth 585-yard, par 4 which affords great views of the Haikou skyline. It's a good time to get used to practicing a lay up on a par 4. Rest assured, you'll end up doing that quite a few times on this new and somewhat tricky course.
After you're done with the day's golf it's a good idea to head to the colossal spa for a traditional Chinese massage. Mission Hills-hainan is certainly a complete package. It's not likely, thought, to catch up with Thailand as the preferred golfing destination for Indian players for a while. There are no direct flights from India to Hainan and the trip via Hong Kong or Bangkok takes close to 12 hours.
Language can become another issue, especially if you want to step out of the Mission Hills premises and explore Haikou. The neighbouring city of Sanya with its sun-kissed beaches and gamut of water sports is an good getaway from a frustrating day on the greens.
If you're an inveterate golfer, simply the surfeit of courses within golf-cart riding distance is heady stuff. For the sheer variety and convenience, Mission Hills-hainan is in a league of its own in Asia.
The enthusiastic team on the greens greet golfers with a cheer (above); The lobby of the hotel at Mission Hills-haina reflects the pared down, contemporary aesthetic of the property
There is hardly any tree cover on the course and the first course affrods great views of the city skyline