While the construction of new golf courses is banned in China, it’s one of the few countries in the world where courses are still being built.

Ever since the Communist revolution of 1949, the Chinese government has had a complicated relationship with the sport of golf. For years, it was banned and viewed as elitist. But when China began to open its economy to the world in the 1980s, it also opened its first golf course in Zhongshan, Guangdong.

About a decade later in 1995, Mission Hills in Shenzhen, Guangdong hosted the PGA Tour’s World Cup, the first major international golf event in China. The sport is becoming more popular in China, but the country lacks affordable public courses and the game is still played mostly by the wealthy. At the same time, wary of the gap between rich and poor and the adverse environmental effects sometimes associated with building courses, the central government continues to scrutinize the construction of new golf courses.

The “boom” in golf courses

In 2004, the central government placed a moratorium on the construction of new golf courses across the country because of environmental concerns, such as water scarcity and China’s lack of arable land, and to stem illegal land grabs by local governments who use the money as a source of revenue. However, golf industry experts say the ban is now loosely enforced.

“Ironically, the big boom occurred, in golf courses at least, after new golf courses were deemed illegal,” says Dan Washburn, a longtime sports writer in China who pens a blog called “Par for China.”  “China is one of the only countries building golf courses, even though they are technically illegal.”

Washburn, who is writing a book on the development of golf in China, estimates that there are about 600 golf courses in China. “No one really knows,” he says. Before the moratorium, he says there were less than 200.

Architect Brian Curley of Scottsdale, Ariz.-based Schmidt-Curley Golf Design, which has offices in Kunming, Yunnan and Hainan, is one of the pioneers of the golf course construction industry in China. Curley’s team has been building courses in China since the late 1990s—skirting the ban by building relationships with local officials—and his team has designed more than 40 courses throughout China. “Typically, the local governments are 100 percent behind it,” Curley says.

While trying to deal with environmental challenges, the Chinese government is also encouraging tourism in certain areas of China. Most golf courses are being built as part of resorts to attract tourists from around the world. Curley says he’s turned his focus to Hainan where the ban has been lifted, and he says he’s free to build. “Hainan has been declared an international tourist destination,” Curley says.

Bringing the PGA Tour to China

While the development of golf in China is still in its early stages, the PGA Tour has taken notice and will be opening its first office in Beijing later this year. The PGA Tour already has a media presence with China Central Television (CCTV) and a Golf Channel affiliate in China as well as approximately 50 retail stores with a Chinese partner Oriental Albatross.

“Golf is a sport that tends to follow and parallel economic development,” says Tom Wade, global commercial officer for the PGA Tour in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. “As China has experienced what they have from an economic standpoint, golf has grown along with that.”

Currently, of the approximately 200 players on the PGA Tour, 86 come from outside the United States, and only a few come from Asia. Wade says the PGA Tour is targeting Asia and China in particular for future growth.

As part of its 2013-14 season, the PGA Tour will hold the HSBC Champions tournament in Shanghai that will count for the first time in the official standing for the FedEx Cup, the PGA Tour’s season-long points competition. The HSBC Champions tournament has been played in Shenzhen but not as an official PGA Tour event. “We’re gradually growing our brand presence there, but we’re still very much in the early stages,” Wade says.

Growing the game in China presents unique challenges because it’s still much more expensive to play in China than in other parts of the world. According to a report issued by KPMG in 2008 (the latest data available), 97 percent of golf courses in China require an initiation fee for all members or at least a certain type of membership. The average price for a membership is $53,000, and some clubs charge more than $100,000. That’s far higher than courses in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa charge. According to the survey, the cost of golf course membership in China is four times higher than Spain and five times higher than Switzerland.

The PGA Tour says it’s working with the China Golf Association to make the game more accessible. Without affordable public courses, Washburn says he’s skeptical that the average Chinese citizen will be able to afford and really embrace the game.

“It’s an exorbitantly expensive activity that only the very rich can afford,” Washburn says. “Where in some countries it’s viewed as an elitist activity, but there are still relatively affordable ways for the average man to play, in China, it remains prohibitively expensive.”

In June, Chinese golf veteran Zhang Lianwei told the South China Morning Post that the Chinese government should build more public courses. “I’ve been talking to the government about building public golf courses and there are three potential sites. I am keen to push this through as this is the only way to get more young golfers to pick up and learn the game.”

Developing competitive golfers in China

Another potential boost for golf in China will be the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, the first time golf will be recognized as an Olympic sport. “There’s definitely more attention from China on golf now that it’s an Olympic sport,” Washburn says. But since the field is expected to be chosen using world golf rankings, few Chinese golfers will likely qualify.

Hypothetically, if golf had been an official sport in the 2012 Olympics in London, only one male Chinese golfer, Liang Wen-Chong, and one female, Feng Shanshan, would have made the cut, according to an analysis in July 2012 by the Florida Times-Union.

Chinese golfers have not had much success on the international stage. A male Chinese player has never won a major on the PGA Tour, and Feng is the only female to have done so. (Feng won last year’s LPGA Championship in New York.) To date, the most well-known Chinese golfer may be 14-year-old Guan Tianlang who became the youngest player to ever qualify and make the cut at the Masters this year. For golf to really take off in China, experts say an internationally recognizable Chinese player must emerge, much like what Yao Ming did in the NBA.

“We believe that there’s a lot of passion for the game in China, and as with any other sport, the thing that will make it even bigger is when they will have world-class Chinese players and national heroes,” Wade says. “We expect to see numerous world-class players coming out of China at some point.”

[author] Ben Baden ([email protected]) is a former associate editor of the China Business Review. [/author]

(Photo by Dan Washburn)

Posted by Christina Nelson