As China’s Elite Take Up Golf, Lavish Courses Bloom

A round of golf at the exclusive Mission Hills Resort in Haikou, China Photograph by Brent Lewin/Bloomberg

Jeffrey Brauer, former president of the American Society of Golf Course Architects, makes a living designing golf courses. As demand for new courses in the U.S. has slowed in recent years, he considers himself fortunate to have a fast-expanding list of clients in China, where golf’s popularity among the elite is growing quickly.

“Golf in China is definitely modeled after the modern U.S. golf industry,” Brauer wrote in his April 10 column in Golf Course Industry magazine. “They mostly use U.S. architects, including those at the top of their game, like Bill Coore, ASGCA and Ben Crenshaw.” New golf courses in China, which are mostly clustered on the southeastern seaboard, are typically private and often lavish: “On a spectacular ocean-front site at Shankqin Bay, on Hainan Island”—China’s Hawaii—“they designed a course that deserves early inclusion in several World Top 100 lists.”

According to a March 2014 industry report from China-based Huidian Research, China’s golf industry was worth 6.4 billion yuan ($1.03 billion) in 2013, up 10 percent from 2012. The report estimated that China is home to as many as 1.1 million golfers, including 386,000 active participants.

While course design is still evolving, in some regards China’s new golfing enthusiasts prefer supersize amenities. “Given it is generally a sport of the wealthy, they want what they perceive to be ‘the best’ and generally can afford it,” writes Brauer. “Each player gets his own cart and a caddie who rides with them. … The clubhouses are also typically oversized, providing excellent amenities and service levels, because they say the ‘culture’ demands it. On many days, staff outnumbers players.”

The locations chosen for golf courses in China—often along hilly or mountainous seaside terrain—can require significant investment in construction, with the potential for large environmental impacts. “Typically, they move 1-2 million cubic meters of earth, at least five times more than typical on U.S. courses,” Brauer notes.

Yet despite the additional perks and touches of luxury and excess, it would be wrong to assume that Chinese golfers are soft or unserious players. In fact, the opposite is true. In his work in China, Brauer has noticed a keen hunger for a challenge. “Water hazards and heavy bunkering are prevalent, making many courses too tough for average players,” he writes. “However, they seem to like such difficulty” and may scorn courses seen as “too easy.”

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