Forget Scotland: China stakes its claim to golf

China hasn't produced a Jack Nicklaus yet, but give it time

Jone Satran Fulkerson By Jone Satran Fulkerson

Golf is almost by definition a sport for the country club set, but in the last couple of decades the countries in the club have greatly expanded.

The Mission Hills golf club, in Guangdong Province, China. The Chinese government has an official ban on building golf courses, in part over concern for displacing citizens. But they keep being built. (Reuters)

So has the money — the Players Championship, which starts today in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, is not one of Golf’s Grand Slam, but its roughly $9.5 million purse makes it the richest.

The winner will take home nearly $2 million, not the biggest prize in sports by a long spot (Floyd Mayweather, a boxer, just earned a minimum of $32 million in a prize fight). But compare this year’s Players to 1970, when, if you’d managed to win all four majors —  the Masters, the British and U.S. Opens and the PGA Championship – you would have earned a total of $107,600, about a twentieth of this year’s take at the Players tournament.

Global moneyball

Times have certainly changed in golf, and money is just one aspect of that. The sport for the past couple hundred years was mainly an American and European affair. An American won the Players for the first 12 years it was held – 1974 to 1986, starting with the iconic Jack Nicklaus. The last time an American won was in 2007 (Phil Mickelson). Last year’s winner was K. J. Choi, a South Korean.  Choi, incidentally, this year brought along 6,000 Choco-Pies (a chocolate/marshmallow Korean creation) to give to volunteers at the course.

Johan Edfors of Sweden watches his shot from the eighth tee during the Omega Dubai Desert Classic at the Emirates Golf Course in Dubai in February. (Reuters/Nikhil Monteiro)

The PGA has become international; there are PGA Tours in most parts of the world, including Latin America and across the Middle East. The PGA has ‘partners’ in China, South Korea and China. Asia in many ways looks like golf’s future.

Kàn qiú (that is, fore!)

China hasn’t produced an international golf superstar yet. Nobody from China is even playing in this year’s Players Championship. Zhang Lian-Wie was the first Chinese golfer to achieve international success. In 2003, he became the first Chinese to win on a European Tour and he competed in the Masters in 2004.

But give it time.

China didn’t get its first modern golf course until 1984. The sport has since caught on big-time: By the end of 2009, there were about 600 courses, according to the Financial Times, even though eight years ago the country imposed an official ban on building golf courses in an attempt to protect dwindling farmland, save water and keep rural residents from being displaced. The ban is being ignored. Corruption, the Times reported, is at the heart of the problem.

The Wall Street Journal reported in 2010 that China is one of the few places where golf courses are being built at a rapid pace. The target? Millions of potential golfers, especially in prosperous areas like Beijing and Hainan. They have some local incentive to improve: One of the richest tournaments in golf is the HSBC Champions event (part of the PGA), held in Guangdong in November. The purse is about $7 million.

China and golf — the MacMings or the MacSongs?

Several accounts indicate that golf might actually have originated in China, not Scotland, as most believe (the issue is much debated) — a Ming Dynasty scroll dating to 1368 entitled “The Autumn Banquet,” according to the Sports Web Portal, shows a member of the Chinese Imperial Court swinging what appears to be a golf club at a small ball with the aim of sinking it into a hole. Another account, in Athnet, a website that focuses on athletic scholarships, says golf was traced back even earlier, to the Song Dynasty during the years 960 to 1279.

The Chinese obviously didn’t follow up, as with gunpowder, ice cream and other inventions. But they’ve already achieved a first in one aspect of golf.

Caddies at the Mission Hills golf club in China wait to provide rides for players at the largest golf course in the world. Rapid economic development in China since the 1980s, especially in southern cities, has enriched many Chinese. A growing number now hold memberships at golf clubs. (Reuters)

The world’s largest golf club, according to the Guinness World Records, is Mission Hills in Shenzhen, Guangdong Province, China (the site of the upcoming HSBC Champions). It must be a sight to behold —  it has a dozen 18-hole golf courses — on 20 square kilometers — 4,942 acres! (We think one would need golf carts for this place.) As the PGA Tour describes it, the facility hosts three golf academies, a five-star hotel and is in a setting of “vast, lava-strewn landscape of undulating terrain punctuated by ancient trees and sweeping wetlands.” (Book our tickets!)

But even in less well-off parts of Asia, golf is on the rise. In Laos, there’s no pro shop, no golf school. But there now is golf, at eight courses near the capital of Vientiane. And the first Laotian golf tournament recently took place, in  Luang Prabang. According to France24, the tournament was held along the banks of the Mekong River, as fishermen puttered with their nets beside the course. A family appeared on the back nine and offered the players a Buddhist greeting.

The prize? The equivalent of $13,000. In Laos, — a country still now emerging from its poverty-stricken, repressive past — a $13,000 purse is a lot of money. For the 45-year-old who won the competition, that was equal to 13 years’ income for the average Laotian.

Golf’s country club mentality is changing, even where there aren’t millions of dollars at stake. The sport has caught on in a way that nobody, probably, in 1970 — or 960 — could have imagined.