Sheshan Golf Club Chinas secluded little world of golf

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Sheshan International Golf Club
The beautiful Sheshan International Golf Club sits only 45 minutes from downtown Shanghai.

With the WGC-HSBC Champions returning to Shanghai's Sheshan International Golf Club, the golf world takes a look at this far east classic.

SHANGHAI, China – Five years ago, when Sheshan Golf Club opened for business, General Manger Roger Foo asked himself, 'Should I leave the course be, or transform it into a challenging destination for the world's best golfers?'

Foo decided to go big. But early modifications didn't keep David Howell, winner of Sheshan's inaugural HSBC Champions tournament, from finishing at 20 under. Too easy, Foo said. Could his groundskeepers push back three tee boxes, grow out the rough and tweak the greens? They did, and in 2007 tournament champion Phil Mickelson finished at 10 under. Around the same time, club members began to complain that the course was too hard.

On a muggy morning in June, Foo sipped espresso in Sheshan's wood-veneered cigar bar, where a waitress carried cocktails to a trio of exhausted member-golfers. Sunlight flashed across a plush blue carpet, upon the old-world-style furniture, against a rack of wine glasses. As the golfers discussed their morning round, Foo, a slender fellow wearing designer glasses, explained that Sheshan has earned a reputation for having some of the best greens in the world.

Indeed, he says, 'We're quite proud of the transformation that's taken place over the last five years.'

Sheshan Golf Club: 'Not a bad hole on the course'
You might not guess that Sheshan sits 45 minutes from downtown Shanghai. The private club overlooks a vast, alluvial plain, and its roughly 360-acre property includes villas, townhouses and mansions built in French, Spanish, Tuscan and 'Palazzo' architectural styles. (A club spokesperson wouldn't say which mansion is reserved for Tiger Woods during the HSBC tournament.)

The course has 60,000 trees with names like 'cuckoo,' 'yulan' and 'sweet-scented osmanthus.' Hole four features a 1000-year-old ginkgo. Holes 16 and 17 span a 50-meter-deep rock quarry and overlook the historic Basillica of our Lady of Sheshan.

'There isn't really a bad hole on the golf course,' Director of Golf James Brown told me before smacking a tee shot on 16. 'It's a secluded little world: You feel like you're not in China.'

Don't get too distracted by Sheshan Golf Club's elegance, because the course requires your concentration. Brown said the course's fairways are narrow for amateurs. And its greens, which Roger Foo said reach speeds of 11 or 12 during HSBC play, make you wish you had lingered on the practice green. When I played Sheshan Golf Club in June, several well-placed approach shots veered into greenside bunkers, as if at the whim of a cruel and invisible wizard. Fortunately the rough grass was really short. (Fairways and tee boxes were in transition from Rye to Paspalum grass.)

Sheshan Golf Club pulls out the aesthetic stops on its final holes. The 12th green borders a moat, which encircles 20 European-looking mansions. After wending along for a few holes, the moat gives way to a view of Sheshan's famous basilica. The impressive rock quarry that confronts golfers on 16 almost takes your breath away. When you turn to face it again on 17, you're also admiring a pretty clock tower. The 18th green – where Sergio Garcia ousted Oliver Wilson in a show-stopping 2008 playoff – offers a lovely view of Sheshan's Tuscan-style clubhouse.

It's clear that architects and groundskeepers are working hard. During our round, droves of workers were laying wood chips to make the course more playable. A few weeks later, they would install two industrial fans on every green to keep Sheshan's bentgrass from withering in 40-degree (Celsius) heat.

As Brown said: 'The course is always beautifully maintained, even in high summer.'

Sheshan's roughly 1,000 golfing members appear to like their club: In 2008, a membership here sold for more than $200,000. When I strolled the grounds after my round, even frustrated novices were smiling as they returned to Sheshan Golf Club's posh, sweet-smelling clubhouse.

That's the idea, Foo said. Pro tournaments notwithstanding, he explained, Sheshan is a 'high-end' club for businessmen, and his main objective is keeping them comfortable. Accordingly, they enjoy access to a golf lodge (rooms start at about $100 per night), ping-pong tables, tennis courts, indoor and outdoor swimming pools, an Italian restaurant, a pro shop, a swanky health club with floor-to-ceiling mirrors, a spa, and a conference center with leather chairs, polished tables and two-way mirrors.

'Most members bring clients for entertainment,' Foo said. In other words: Golf takes a backseat to networking.

Gazing out the window, the slim GM said he would consider making Sheshan harder for future HSBC tournaments. (There is room to push other tee boxes back.) But Foo doesn't want to make Sheshan Golf Club too tricky – and alienate his clients in the process.

At this, James Brown, drinking tea across the table, looked up and smiled. 'After all,' he said, 'it's just a game.'