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China S World
Into the Rough: Xi Takes a Swing at Golf
From the Wall Street Journal of Tue, 23 Dec 2014 05:10:37 EST
An illegal golf course which was demolished and turned into a cornfield is seen through a fence in the suburbs of Beijing.
An illegal golf course which was demolished and turned into a cornfield is seen through a fence in the suburbs of Beijing. Reuters

BEIJING—When Asia Pacific government leaders and business executives gathered recently on the outskirts of Beijing, their summit venue boasted a luxury golf course designed by golfing legend Gary Player.

But an early-morning round wasn’t an option for U.S. President Barack Obama and other golf-playing members of this elite crowd.

The just-completed Yanqi Lake course, with views of the Great Wall, was closed. Like almost all of China’s 600-odd golf courses, it’s technically illegal. Allowing delegates to the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum to tee off would have sent all the wrong signals.

President Xi Jinping has had the same effect on golf in China as a weekend thunderstorm: The entire game is on hold.

In China, golf has long been considered a bourgeois pastime. After the 1949 revolution, Mao had all the courses dug up and forbid government officials from playing—a ban never officially lifted.

A tiny handful of golf courses were allowed in the early 1980s when China opened its doors to foreign investment. Then, unlicensed courses started popping up as golf’s popularity took off among the middle classes. That led to a 2004 blanket ban on construction of new courses to preserve arable land. Ironically, most of China’s golf courses have been built since then.

But under Mr. Xi, the country is starting to take the rules seriously.

Just a few months ago, members of a newly opened Jack Nicklaus signature course in the Beijing suburbs woke up to discover the venue had been ordered shut amid a government audit of all of the city’s clubs. It was allowed to reopen after a few weeks, but only for members, not their guests. A nearby club didn’t get off so lightly: it had to plow up its immaculate greens and close permanently.

This isn’t a passing shower. Golf, as it’s now played in China, doesn’t have a promising future.

For a start, it’s almost exclusively a rich man’s game. A weekend round in Beijing easily costs $250.

And in a country with chronic water shortages, golf adds to the environmental stress. Parts of the North China plain on which Beijing sits are so arid that water availability per person has dropped to Saudi Arabia levels.

Courses eat up scarce farmland and farmers get booted off their fields by developers, often with minimal compensation. As in the U.S., many courses are simply adornments for luxury real-estate projects; the real money is in the bricks and mortar, not the greens and fairways.

And since any new course is strictly speaking illegal, not a single bulldozer can start work without a bribe of some kind changing hands.

According to the journalist Dan Washburn, author of “The Forbidden Game: Golf And The Chinese Dream,” Mr. Xi is rumored to have had a liking for golf when he was an official in coastal Fujian province.

Now, the game is the antithesis of almost everything that Mr. Xi publicly stands for as he tackles yawning wealth disparities, environmental disaster, rural “land grabs” and, above all, rampant corruption in government.

The Communist Party has never reversed its view of the game. But that hasn’t stopped senior officials from playing. The emerald fairways of courses like the Yanqi Lake resort, managed by Kempinski Hotels, became convivial spots for murky deal-making between government officials and private businesspeople.

High officials loved being fussed over by caddies, some dressed up in plaid knickerbockers and almost all adept at improving the lie of a ball and flattering a scorecard.

Some officials would hack around wearing two white gloves to avoid coming to work on Monday with a tell-tale golfer’s tan.

But since Mr. Xi took office two years ago, fewer officials dare to sneak out for a round.

All of this has consequences for the global future of golf. With the game in decline in the U.S., where public enthusiasm is waning along with the sinking form of Tiger Woods , the industry has been pinning its hopes on China where golf has become a fitting expression of the aspirational ideals of a rising middle class.

Growing numbers of wealthy Chinese are picking up the sport. No country on earth has been building so many top-notch courses at such breakneck speed, with developers blithely ignoring the ban on new construction.

Golf academies are sprouting everywhere, producing young stars like Guan Tianlang, who at 14 became the youngest competitor to make the cut at the U.S. Masters last year.

And China has become a mecca for international golf course designers, like Mr. Player.

Surprisingly, perhaps, he isn’t dismayed by the recent crackdown on golf. “I’m all in favor of what China is doing,” he says.

How’s that? Mr. Player reckons that China should rethink the game to make it sustainable.

By that he means all courses should use only effluent water. And he’s a great proponent of natural fertilizer, which he uses on his farm in South Africa where he raises thoroughbred racehorses.

Beyond that, Mr. Player would like to see public courses built to open the game to ordinary Chinese.

In fact, the audit of Beijing’s golf courses, and the selective closure of some venues, suggest that authorities are moving in the direction of this kind of regulation rather than an outright ban.

Golfers hope that’s the case: A recovery of golf in China is far more important to the global game than whether Mr. Woods can retool his broken swing.

NOTICE TO READERS: Andrew Browne will be on vacation next week. The China’s World column will return in the new year.

Write to Andrew Browne at andrew.browne@wsj.com



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