China Where Clubs Are Born Every Day

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ZENG CHENG, China ' The controlling question is always, What would the ancient Scots have thought?

As I have watched the modern game develop into everything from desert golf to titanium shafts to titanium heads to launch monitors and beyond, I have always wondered how the 15th-century hawthorn-stick crowd would have reacted to the spread of the pastoral little pastime they came up with. It must have all seemed so simple then. Need a whippier shaft? Shave a little off the back. Ball not springy enough? Stuff a new one. And even by the early 19th century, golfs reach didnt extend much farther than a dozen or so courses in eastern Scotland, known only to the games handful of enthusiasts.

Likely thoughts as your driver bullets you down a boulevard in southeastern China, where traffic control devices, if they exist at all, are the merest decoration. We are here, about 45 minutes from Guangzhou, Chinas third-largest city, to shoot a show on the birth of a golf club. But we are far beyond blackthorn trees and blacksmiths.

A few blocks from one of five plants Sino Golf Manufacturing operates in this area, we have just dispensed with todays Were Gonna Die Moment. Our driver held his own against a truck that interfered with our left turn, and all is well again. Down to business.

With officials from Nickent Golf, we walk the highly organized plant floor. John Hoeflich, the noted club designer for Nickent, is watching his 4DX driver head come to life in its 1,700 Celsius nursery ' Chinas biggest vacuum furnace.

We had a lot of success with the weight ports in our hybrids, Hoeflich says. We want to transfer that same technology to drivers.

That takes a complicated mold, made from a steel master known in the industry as a tool. There is some tension as the first prototypes are tried, and not just because of the intricacy of the tool. Theres also the titanium, which is more spongy than liquid when molten. It cant be poured into a casting mold the way steel can. So it has to be forced into every corner of every mold. Thats where Sinos expertise comes in.

Theres a huge wheel in there, where the molds are, says Simon Chu, Sinos executive director and our tour guide. The titanium ingot melts, and the wheel spins the molds at up to 300 rpm. The titanium gets where its supposed to go.

It better, because the titanium crown on this driver is only 0.4 mm thick, a little thinner than a business card. That will leave some room in the overall clubhead weight for the ports, which get some mass low and back, consistent with Hoeflichs plan and the well-proven laws of center-of-gravity in clubheads. Inside the furnace, viewed through a tiny porthole, is the silvery ingot, descending into a white-hot inferno. From this otherworldly realm will come the reality that was no more than a napkin drawing just months ago. For Hoeflich, who had a hand in designing such club stalwarts as the Titleist DCI irons, the Tommy Armour 845s, and numerous products for TaylorMade and others, this is how the modern development game plays out.

And increasingly, this is where it plays out. The playing of the game is certainly global, at least at the professional level. Golfs purveyors look at this country of 1.2 billion and salivate at the potential market. But for now, the consumer end of the business in China has yet to take off. A growing middle class will help, especially in the cities, but most wise heads in golf agree that those awaiting golfs golden era as a participatory sport in China will need patience.

But the B-to-B golf world is thriving here, as foundries such as Sino compete for the business of all manner of club companies. Labor costs are an issue, to be sure, but the desire to have clubs made here goes beyond the economics. With foundries competing, club developers who come to China can forge partnerships in development instead of just vendor relationships ' and that leads to quality for the consumer. What the Chinese companies have been willing to learn and do for the golf club developers has made its way into some top clubs. And while there will always be a component of the consumer population that prefers to buy domestic product, Chinese manufacturing has become a fact of golf equipment life.

We get a great deal out of our partnership with Sino, Hoeflich says. They understand what were trying to do with this club.

On the street outside Sino, Zeng Chengs day continues, enriched by the curiosity of rarely seen TV cameras. Two schoolboys, age about 10, smile as I say Ni hao, and muster the courage to say Hi. They laugh at the exotic joy of speaking a little English to the enormous stranger, with his badly accented Mandarin. Down the dusty street, a nonchalant dog continues his trot across the truck lane, ignoring horns: he knows his timing. A woman in red velvet slippers pedaling a bicycle cart overloaded with textiles stares at our cameras, sees us staring back, and instantly turns away in shyness.

We are 10,000 miles and centuries away from the origins of the game we serve, but not more than 100 feet from its spread. Which is probably what the ancient Scots would have thought.