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Ironies and Outcomes of China’s Crackdown on Golf

Ironies and Outcomes of China’s Crackdown on Golf

Paul Myers

October 29th, 2017

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By Paul Myers

There was an elephant in the room at the HSBC World Golf Championship in Shanghai, China that concluded on Sunday with Justin Rose victorious.

Not remotely mentioned or even hinted at before, during or after the event was China’s official war on golf. It’s a war that began 13 years ago, but has been massively escalated at the behest of the Middle Kingdom’s chairman Xi Jinping since he came to power in 2012.

Xi’s disdain for golf is manifested not by the game itself, but by corruption associated with golf course and resort developments, mostly in provinces that, pre-Xi, were far from Beijing’s scrutiny. So far the crackdown has closed 111 courses or about 16 percent of the 683 built in China since golf was reintroduced in 1984 after being banned during the Cultural Revolution.

The irony of China’s demonisation of golf is inescapable. There, in its second largest city during this past week, was a World Golf Championship event with prizemoney of USD9.75 million, being held in a country that has shunned its official nose at the game. Not just by closing courses, but also by a decree that Communist Party members, of which there are 88 million, should not flaunt their status and wealth by playing golf! Oh really?

An even greater irony is that the Chinese elite flaunt their wealth more extravagantly than most. You only have to stand at the club drop-off area at Mission Hills Shenzen for 20 minutes any morning of the week to witness the procession of ultra-expensive luxury cars arriving with their immaculately-attired owners at the helm. Or venture inside the clubhouse where you’ll find gold-plated Honma clubs for sale at USD75,000-plus a set, Lamborghini watches for USD10,000 and more, and a bevy of other merchandise requiring the deepest of deep pockets.

It begs the question: how does this unbridled exhibition of golf wealth and status remain intact while other complexes are bulldozed?

It requires little imagination to understand how golf course/resort corruption occurred. Provincial authorities were quick to issue permits to developers for new courses on land under their jurisdiction. The payoffs for approvals made many a multi-millionaire … until Beijing mandated that all courses built since about 2004 must be officially approved before becoming legal and, subsequently, receiving official playing/membership sign-off.

The official reason was golf courses were using land and water that should be devoted to other purposes, like agriculture and the environment. But it was really about systemic graft and corruption.

The trap snared many high-profile developments, none more so than Stoneforest International Country Club near Kunming in south-west China, and the Dalian Wanda Group’s two layouts near Beijing.

Allegedly built in a National Park, Stoneforest’s two public and one member courses were among the finest in the country —until the sledgehammer of disapproval forced their closure.

More’s the pity. As much as the corruption that allowed developments like Stoneforest can’t be condoned, the loss of world-class golf facilities that were putting China on the world golfing map is tragic.

People in the know say there is no prospect of any change in the hard-line attitude against golf while Xi remains in power. That means at least another five years – longer if he extends his Communist Party leadership beyond the 10-year limit.

Indeed, with China reverting to a more fundamentalist approach to official policy under Xi, golf could be on the outer for decades.

Golf is not – and never has been – a high priority sport in China; far less than football or basketball that require little land, appeal to the masses and in which China aspires to excel on the world stage.

Golf’s readmission to the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro last year was supposed to be a signal for China to gradually ease its disapproval of the game. But it didn’t happen.

The China PGA Tour, which began in 2014, was scrapped this year and is supposedly set to resume in 2018. Perhaps.

In 33 years since golf was re-introduced, China has produced few world-class golfers. Only one male, Liang Wengchong, has reached the world top 100, while Shanshan Feng – who has lived in the US since she was 10– is currently ranked 6th, the only player from China in the women’s top 100. By comparison, 40 of the world’s top 100 female golfers are from Korea, 11 are from Japan and three from Thailand.

So only a handful of Chinese male and female professionals are currently able to mix it at the elite level.

Don’t hold your breath waiting for China to produce a Major champion, let alone a PGA Tour star – even though three of the top four places at the Asia Pacific amateur championship in New Zealand last weekend originally hailed from China.

Perhaps for the sake of golf’s future there, it would be well worth the Beijing hierarchy observing one of Confucius’s famous sayings: Everything has its beauty, but not everyone sees it. 

For the record, the leading Chinese players at the HSBC-WGC event in China in recent years have been:

2017 – Wu, Ashun (eq. 20th)

2016 – Zhang, Xinjun (eq. 21st)

2015 – Li, Hatong (eq. 7th)

2014 – Wu, Ashun (eq. 14th)

2013 – Liang, Wengchong (eq. 15th)

2012 – Liang, Wengchong (eq. 24th)

2011 – Zhang, Xinjun (eq. 13th)

2010 – Liang, Wengchong (eq. 63rd)

Photo: The 7th hole at Stoneforest International Country Club’s A Course — now closed.

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