It’s a perfect day for golf, and I’ve joined a multicultural throng of players outside the world’s largest clubhouse, which, in turn, houses the world’s largest pro shop. We assemble in a vast staging area where rows upon rows of power carts and squadrons of caddies await. I can hardly believe the scale, but, then again, we’re in the world’s largest country, at least when it comes to population.
The People’s Republic of China might not seem an obvious choice for a golf trip. But I’d heard that the bourgeois sport is in full flower here, especially at Mission Hills Shenzhen, this golf resort located near the southern industrial city of Dongguan. With 12 courses designed by such luminaries as Jack Nicklaus, Nick Faldo and José María Olazábal, Mission Hills Shenzhen holds the Guinness World Record as the planet’s largest golf facility. The stats alone are enough to make your head spin: There are 7,000 employees, 360 kilometres of cart paths, 1,500 golf carts. The Western pastime has found an improbable new home in this part of the Pearl River Delta (a.k.a. the World’s Factory), but there’s a lot of the East to be found here: Feng shui experts vet the clubhouse structures, and the King Gibson balls I buy at the pro shop promote “harmony.” Along with the sheer size of the enterprise – anything the West can do, the East can do bigger – there is also a sense of purpose. Never before have I been routinely saluted by liveried staff for simply exiting an elevator.
As I tee off on the tough Greg Norman course – a lush realm of mountains and valleys animated with the soundtrack of invisible birds and a million cicadas – my caddy tells me exactly where to drive the ball. Mission Hills Shenzhen has 3,000 pith-helmeted female caddies, and I soon come to trust everything my own smiling but stern looper, Emily, instructs me to do. For me, as for many of the country’s new golfers, it’s welcome help. With the state’s implementation of the 40-hour workweek along with an abundance of national holidays and shuang xiu ri (double leisure days – i.e., weekends), the burgeoning Chinese middle class now has time to sample the fruits of a booming economy. For golf, that means soaring participation; the China Golf Association predicts there will be 20 million players by 2020.
The next day, I shuttle over to Shenzhen, formerly a fishing village and now a throbbing industrial city of 9 million, to play Mission Hills’ Jumbo Ozaki course. It’s a gentler challenge that wends its way alongside a succession of luxury villas. There’s no time to hit one of the 51 tennis courts – the central government is still slightly more comfortable with this other bourgeois sport than with golf – but at day’s end, I reflect that in 36 hours I’ve played a Scottish game on a golf course designed by an Australian and another by a Japanese, eaten ham and eggs and congee for breakfast, sushi for lunch and Chinese pork dishes for supper, seen a bit of CNN and am now sipping a Tsingtao in a lobby bar with an apt French name: Mélange.
In other words, golf here has come a long way in a short time. Chairman Mao banned the sport, declaring it elitist and decadent, but after his death, when the state welcomed capitalism into the Middle Kingdom in the 1970s, the leisure industry wasn’t far behind. By 1984, the first modern-era Chinese golf course, designed by Arnold Palmer, had opened. Yet the game remained a puzzle to many Chinese: When Palmer presented a commemorative golf ball to one of the workers on the project, the man tried to bite into it.
“Superman!” says my latest caddy, Fu, as a playing partner launches a mighty tee shot. The cultural overlap has followed me to remote Hainan Island, a short flight from Shenzhen, where Mission Hills has just completed a second mammoth resort. The island, located in the southernmost part of China, is touted by Beijing as the Chinese Hawaii. For its own well-being, the central government has 1.3 billion reasons to ensure the continued improvement of its citizens’ standard of living, and, lately, it has promoted domestic tourism as not only good for the economy but patriotic as well.
Between rounds on the resort’s freshly minted Blackstone, Vintage and Preserve courses, all created by the American firm Schmidt-Curley Design, I bump into several Chinese patriots who are enjoying their double leisure days in the transformed lava fields of Mission Hills Haikou. If you tire of playing the 10 courses, where you still hear roosters from the nearby villages and see former peasant workers in traditional conical hats maintaining the greens and bunkers and flower beds, you can always lounge in mineral springs, hit the resort’s upscale shops or even take the new bullet train south to the famous beaches of Sanya. Unlike on the mainland, where Kenneth Chu, the Canada-educated executive vice-chairman of Mission Hills Group, dreams of putting stock-market tickers and iPhone chargers in golf carts to keep his business clientele happy, on Hainan Island the emphasis is on entertaining the entire family. Says Chu, “There are no golf widows in China.”
About an hour from the resort in Haikou, the province of Hainan’s hopping capital city where young people ride three to a motorbike, I take in Impression Hainan, an outdoor musical entertainment by noted director Zhang Yimou. Part chamber of commerce, part Communist Manifesto and part Cirque du Soleil, the show recounts with much visual pomp the history of the place. An exultant, bare-chested young man repeatedly screams in Mandarin “I am on an island!” and scores of bikini-clad girls cavort in formation, as though in a Busby Berkeley film. More bizarrely, an oversize golf club makes an appearance, signalling the importance of the game to the province’s economy.
Ironically, since 2004, Beijing has imposed bans on golf course construction, citing golf’s hijacking of arable land and overuse of precious water. Yet construction continues to grow apace, thanks to a complex dance between local entrepreneurs and public officials who play the game but do not want to be seen doing so. Indeed, as Chu explained to me while sipping tea, his family’s “mission” in creating Mission Hills was to bring golf to China on a larger scale and give the nation a “world presence” in the game. Now, with golf’s reinstatement as an Olympic discipline in Rio de Janeiro in 2016, the country is anxious to cultivate future champions. At Mission Hills Shenzhen, I even caught a glimpse of a red-shirted Tiger Woods, on hand for an afternoon to give a junior clinic before a frenzied crowd. The game may still be perceived as elitist, but as Chu says, the Chinese “like to win gold.”
I mull these things over one morning in the Tai Chi Spring – one cold pool, one hot – at Mission Hills Haikou’s volcanic mineral springs, a sprawling water complex with global themes. You could spend an entire leisure day here moving from one pool to the next, even stopping to play a little chess while soaking in half a metre of water. There was nothing about this sort of hedonism in the Little Red Book. But then, like the game of golf itself, this country is full of big surprises.
Mission Hills Shenzhen
Mission Hills Rd., Shenzhen, 86-755-2802-0888,
Mission Hills Haikou
No. 1 Mission Hills Blvd., Haikou, Hainan, 86-898-6868-3888
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Shenzhen, Dongguan, Hainan via Hong Kong
Air Canada offers daily non-stop service to Hong Kong from Toronto and Vancouver. From Hong Kong, reach Shenzhen, Donguan and Hainan by car, train or airplane.