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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