China A Golf Market but a Narrow One
BEIJING, China -- It's a beautiful view off the elevated first tee at Beijing International Golf Club. But you better be economically elevated if you want to get there.
And yes, you can hit a sand wedge off the Great Wall of China -- I did, twice -- and you will get some odd looks. But you will get some interest too.
In this fascinating country of 1.3 billion people, golf is reserved for the economic and governmental power elite, at least so far. This isn't a matter of discrimination, but rather pure economics. The centralized Communist government is charging ahead into market-based capitalism on some fronts, to be sure -- the coastal south, especially near Hong Kong, is rife with develoment and its attendant riches -- but the greater part of the country struggles with the juxtaposition of modern and ancient.
That means that at the bottom of the perilous, bumpy road down the mountains from the Great Wall, a golf course appears out of nowhere, a broad swath of green next to scrubby apple orchards and a reservoir. Bunker shine like diamonds among jade next to a broad avenue leading into Beijing's northern suburbs. Street vendors sell persimmons, picked and ready for drying and baking into traditional Chinese cakes, as Mercedes and Volkswagens glide past a course's front gates.
But in Shenzhen, just onto the mainland from Hong Kong, where development approaches religion and the enormous building cranes punctuate the view in every direction, China boasts one of the world's most extensive golf facilities. Mission Hills, which by the end of this month will have eight courses open and two more on the way, is a mecca for the economic power brokers of the south coast. The grill room is crowded, the three-level pro shop (really a golf department store) is well-stocked, and the courses are pristine. Women caddies in red sweatsuits (in any weather) and big kerchiefs attend group after group well into the afternoon. Billboards annouce upcoming clinics and openings by Sorenstam, Olazabal, Leadbetter -- and Tiger Woods' recent visit is memorialized by what can only be called a shrine.
It is in the industrial south that companies such as Winn Grips, Advance Multitech (clubheads) and Fujikura (shafts) run modern factories with high quality control standards, taking advantage of the plentiful and inexpensive labor. Dormitories right next to the factories house the young workers, and cafeterias feed them three meals a day from kitchens equipped with massive woks and crate upon crate of fresh food. Most of the workers send their money back to their families in the provinces of China. The government's labor department helps Chinese companies find and hire the workers.
What golf has here, both industrially and recreationally, can best be called a foothold. But it's a strong one. Many companies have realized the benefits of manufacturing here -- indeed, at more than 8 yuan to the dollar, the United States trade authorities insist the yuan is undervalued. And people playing golf here, whether visiting or local, seem to be having a great time. If China can avoid the diseases of what some critics call a bubble economy, golf may be able to add to its family from the biggest population pool in the world.
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Hadwin returns to site of last year's 59
Adam Hadwin had a career season last year, one that included shooting a 59 and winning a PGA Tour event. But those two achievements didn't occur in the same week.
While Hadwin's breakthrough victory came at the Valspar Championship in March, it was at the CareerBuilder Challenge in January when he first made headlines with a third-round 59 at La Quinta Country Club. Hadwin took a lead into the final round as a result, but he ultimately couldn't keep pace with Hudson Swafford.
He went on to earn a spot at the Tour Championship, and Hadwin made his first career Presidents Cup appearance in October. Now the Canadian returns to Palm Springs, eager to improve on last year's result and hoping to earn a spot in the final group for a third straight year after a T-6 finish in 2016.
"A lot of good memories here in the desert," Hadwin told reporters. "I feel very comfortable here, very at home. Lots of Canadians, so it's always fun to play well in front of those crowds and hopefully looking forward to another good week."
Hadwin's 59 last year was somewhat overshadowed, both by the fact that he didn't win the event and that it came just one week after Justin Thomas shot a 59 en route to victory at the Sony Open. But he's still among an exclusive club of just eight players to have broken 60 in competition on Tour and he's eager to get another crack at La Quinta on Saturday.
"If I'm in the same position on 18, I'm gunning for 58 this year," Hadwin said, "not playing safe for 59."
Rahm: If I thought like Phil, I could not hit a shot
When it comes to Jon Rahm and Phil Mickelson, there are plenty of common bonds. Both starred at Arizona State, both are now repped by the same agency and Rahm's former college coach and agent, Tim Mickelson, now serves full-time as his brother's caddie.
Those commonalities mean the two men have played plenty of practice rounds together, but the roads quickly diverge when it comes to on-course behavior. Rahm is quick, fiery and decisive; Mickelson is one of the most analytical players on Tour. And as Rahm told reporters Wednesday at the CareerBuilder Challenge, those differences won't end anytime soon.
"I don't need much. 'OK, it's like 120 (yards), this shot, right," Rahm said. "And then you have Phil, it's like, 'Oh, this shot, the moisture, this going on, this is like one mile an hour wind sideways, it's going to affect it one yard. This green is soft, this trajectory. They're thinking, and I'm like, 'I'm lost.' I'm like, 'God if I do that thought process, I could not hit a golf shot.'"
The tactics may be more simplified, but Rahm can't argue with the results. While Mickelson is in the midst of a winless drought that is approaching five years, Rahm won three times around the world last year and will defend a PGA Tour title for the first time next week at Torrey Pines.
Both men are in the field this week in Palm Springs, where Mickelson will make his 2018 debut with what Rahm fully expects to be another dose of high-level analytics for the five-time major winner with his brother on the bag.
"It's funny, he gets to the green and then it's the same thing. He's very detail-oriented," Rahm said of Mickelson. "I'm there listening and I'm like, 'Man, I hope we're never paired together for anything because I can't think like this. I would not be able to play golf like that. But for me to listen to all that is really fun."
DJ changes tune on golf ball distance debate
World No. 1 Dustin Johnson is already one of the longest hitters in golf, so he's not looking for any changes to be made to golf ball technology - despite comments from him that hinted at just such a notion two months ago.
Johnson is in the Middle East this week for the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, and he told BBC Sport Wednesday that he wouldn't be in favor of making changes to the golf ball in order to remedy some of the eye-popping distances players are hitting the ball with ever-increasing frequency.
"It's not like we are dominating golf courses," Johnson said. "When was the last time you saw someone make the game too easy? I don't really understand what all the debate is about because it doesn't matter how far it goes; it is about getting it in the hole."
Johnson's rhetorical question might be answered simply by looking back at his performance at the Sentry Tournament of Champions earlier this month, an eight-shot romp that featured a tee shot on the 433-yard 12th hole that bounded down a slope to within inches of the hole.
Johnson appeared much more willing to consider a reduced-distance ball option at the Hero World Challenge in November, when he sat next to tournament host Tiger Woods and supported Woods' notion that the ball should be addressed.
"I don't mind seeing every other professional sport, they play with one ball. All the pros play with the same ball," Johnson said. "In baseball, the guys that are bigger and stronger, they can hit a baseball a lot further than the smaller guys. ... I think there should be some kind of an advantage for guys who work on hitting it far and getting that speed that's needed, so having a ball, like the same ball that everyone plays, there's going to be, you're going to have more of an advantage."
Speaking Wednesday in Abu Dhabi, Johnson stood by the notion that regardless of whether the rules change or stay the same, he plans to have a leg up on the competition.
"If the ball is limited then it is going to limit everyone," he said. "I'm still going to hit it that much further than I guess the average Tour player."
LPGA lists April date for new LA event
The LPGA’s return to Los Angeles will come with the new Hugel-JTBC Open being played at Wilshire Country Club April 19-22, the tour announced Wednesday.
When the LPGA originally released its schedule, it listed the Los Angeles event with the site to be announced at a later date.
The Hugel-JTBC Open will feature a 144-player field and a $1.5 million purse. It expands the tour’s West Coast swing, which will now be made up of four events in California in March and April.
The LPGA last played in Los Angeles in 2005. Wilshire Country Club hosted The Office Depot in 2001, with Annika Sorenstam winning there.