Chinese Golf Great Steps Forward

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As you descend the sloping road into the northern reaches of Beijing, the Great Wall is still visible in the distance out the vans back window ' two or three versions, actually, because your head may still be spinning from the speedy, horn-shrieking drive down the hairpins and switchbacks that take you from the walls heights to the citys basin. And coming into town, one of the first things you see isa golf course.
 
As dizzying as the drive is Chinas progress toward modernization, toward the benefits of a market economy under a totalitarian government that is redefining Communism, toward a society that may allow leisure pursuits such as golf to flourish in the decades ahead. The course you see when entering Beijing, mostly empty now, could one day be filled with more than the occasional foursome of political and economic elite who now make up most of Chinas small golfing population.
 
Depending on whose estimate you accept, that population could be a million, or a thousand ' either way, its a thin slice of the countrys general population of about 1 billion. The eyebrow-raiser in golf and related industries is the potential. By most estimates, there are about 50 million golfers in the world (although some experts consider that number generous because it includes very occasional players). If even 1 percent of Chinese end up as habitual golfers, the world golf total goes up by 10 million, or 20 percent. And they all spend.
 
What it will take is a strong middle class, said Wally Uihlein, chief executive of the Acushnet companies (Titleist, FootJoy and Cobra), who has traveled extensively in China. That, plus a cadre of playing pros and teachers to set the right example and make the game a target of aspiration for a broad audience, Uihlein said.
 
Throughout history, Uihlein noted, middle classes ' managers, up-and-coming executives, creative services experts, and others ' have broadened the reach of sports started by an economic or political elite. The middle class brings the disposable income, the desire for leisure activities, and the numbers.
 
And their numbers are said to be growing. U.S. news reports tout Western-style housing developments going up near big cities such as Beijing and Shanghai (the nations ' and one of Asias ' major financial centers). Grocery stores instead of mom-and-pops, a greater demand for cars, other markers of a burgeoning middle class ' they all point to potential for golf.
 
So does the countrys initial interest in the game, which comports with Chinas current romance with the trappings of Western economies. The PGA European Tour plays this week on Hainan Island, a popular South China Sea resort. Chinas tireless, can-do manufacturing community has become a dominant player in the making of golf club heads, shafts, and grips, by some estimates displacing Taiwan and Japan as major centers of golf equipment manufacturing.
 
But new Chinese golfers will need places to play. There are already some big golf developments in China, such as the $400 million, 10-course Mission Hills resort, near industrially rich Shenzhen on the countrys southern coast. What China needs, say observers, is courses for the non-elite. In short, daily fees, upscale and otherwise.
 
That need and some good timing has led George Peper, former editor of GOLF Magazine and probably the most popular American resident of St. Andrews, Scotland, to start a business as liaison between U.S. golf course architects and Chinese developers. Pepers ChinaLinks Golf Consulting, formed with his colleagues at the Chinese version of GOLF, will help bridge cultural and geographical gaps that had kept developers and architects from finding and knowing each other. At a conference in Beijing this May, seven architects ' Mike Devries, Dana Fry, Don Knott, Mark McCumber, Kyle Phillips, Baxter Spann, and Peter Thomson ' will form the coming-out party.
 
The conference has the support of the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, which has made a priority of world golf development (indeed, R&A chief Peter Dawson will speak in Beijing) and the China Golf Association. The CGA knows the intimate workings of the Chinese government, whose cooperation is crucial to any development process.
 
Its booming over there, but theres more enthusiasm than knowledge and contact with best practices, Peper said by phone from St. Andrews. The very high-end architects already have a foothold in Asia, Peper said, and they have picked off some of the larger, more visible projects. But developers of courses for the middle-class masses, whose participation is seen by some as vital to the games success, have other economic priorities.
 
Some developers dont want to spend the million-plus [that a Nicklaus or Dye would cost] at this juncture, Peper said, but theyre not averse to spending close to that. Real estate based golf developments, also feeding middle class desires, are a likely avenue for many new courses.
 
So Peper and his partners could be sitting on a win-win proposition, with the architects, Chinese golf, and the world golf industry benefiting. And some good courses could be laid down in the process. Phillips, for example, designed the universally praised Kingsbarns, just down the road from St. Andrews.
 
The forecast is for up to 1,000 courses to be built in China over the next ten years, Peper said. The potential upshot for golf is ' well, dizzying.
 
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