Appeared in Winter 2013 LINKS
This being our Architecture Issue, I thought it was time to reveal the news that there’s a golf course out there with my name on it. Way out there. In China. Remote China. Several years ago, I became involved with a group of Chinese businessmen, led by the publisher of GOLF Magazine China, Wang Zhigang (“Call me Ernie”). During the 2005 Open Championship at St. Andrews, he approached me with the notion of starting a company that would enlist American architects for design projects in golf-booming China. We named our company Engage, both because it reflected our role as matchmakers and because the word was an anagram of the first names of the six principals involved in the company: Ernie, Nan, George, Andy, Geoff, and Emma. Cute, huh?
I thought so, and for a while things worked out nicely. I was able to entice a few good architects, my partners made the introductions, and today more than a dozen courses in China are the result of our dealings. Our most successful architect, Dana Fry, actually has moved his headquarters from Columbus, Ohio, to Hong Kong.
Then, a couple of years ago, I became a bit more involved with the other “G” in Engage, Wang Guang Lin (“Call me Geoff”), a medical doctor who had somehow morphed into one of the movers and shakers of Chinese golf development. His construction company had built several courses in the Middle Kingdom, including a couple by Jack Nicklaus, and he had learned a thing or two himself about how to design a course.
So I was all ears when, one evening in Beijing after a long and bibulous dinner, he said to me, “I have a proposal for you. I have a course in progress, just outside Beijing. I designed it and it’s pretty good, but I think you could make it much better. Come up there, take a look, make some changes, and we’ll open it as a Geoff Wang/George Peper course. I also have land for a second course we can design from scratch.” Then he offered me a fee that suggested he was either very serious or very drunk.
Three months later, I returned to China to check out the nascent North Course at Moon Island Golf Club, near the ancient city of Qiqihar. “Just outside Beijing” turned out to be 700 miles to the northeast, literally on the edge of Siberia. Still, it was a bustling city of 1.5 million with way more BMWs than rickshaws.
Moon Island, by contrast, was uninhabited and at that time reachable only by a 10-minute boat ride. What I found, however, actually was a first-rate golf course, most of its holes graded and a few even beginning to grow in. The property was dead flat but Geoff had done a fair amount of cutting and filling of the sand-based turf to create rolling, shouldered, links-like fairways and greens that were imaginatively contoured without being contrived. He’d also brought water into play on more than half the holes. There was plenty of variety in hole lengths, good pacing—never three par fours in a row—and multiple tees insured the course would be enjoyable by all levels of players. Frankly, I was both stunned and intimidated. Since what I don’t know about course design could fill an encyclopedia, I wondered exactly what I’d be able to offer in the way of improvement.
But as I began to walk the course, ideas started to come to me: Maybe add a bunker here to keep balls from running into the water; or shave that mound for better visibility; or back that tee around the lake a bit to create more risk/reward for the long hitters. My boldest moves were to change the green complexes on two par threes, one to a Redan and the other to a simulation of the 11th on the Old Course. When it was over I’d suggested changes to 13 of the 18 holes.
A week later, I sent Geoff a 12-page document detailing my suggestions. Two weeks after that he astounded me by replying that he liked all my changes and would be implementing them in the coming months. We agreed that I would be back at least twice to supervise the work in progress and also make time to come to the grand opening where he and I would join hands to cut the ribbon.
And that’s the last I heard from him. Over the next two years, Geoff disappeared, both from my life and from the Engage partnership. Occasionally someone would track him down and learn of some calamity in his life—a lawsuit, bankruptcy, marital strife—and the more I heard the less I believed any of it was true. He never directly paid me a cent, but my pal Ernie the publisher somehow succeeded in squeezing some of my fee out of him.
What I do know is that the Wang/Peper course has opened, apparently with my revisions. I know this only because a Google search brought me to the Moon Island Golf website, www.moonislandgolf.com, where I was able to cut and paste the Chinese text into another website that translated it.
The section on course history referred to a “Mr. George Pepperdine,” among whose credentials was an apparent stint as “head of the U.S. National Golf Foundation.” Good for me!
I’m relatively sure I’ll never play my course, but if you ever get to Qiqihar, by all means check it out and let me know what you think.
Note: Beginning now, the title of this column is “Dogged Victim.” The term may be familiar to some of you from Dan Jenkins’s hilarious book The Dogged Victims of Inexorable Fate. But lest you think I’ve stolen the title from Dan, know that it was he who stole it from Bobby Jones, who once wrote: “On the golf course, a man may be the dogged victim of inexorable fate, be struck down by an appalling stroke of tragedy, become the hero of unbelievable melodrama, or the clown in a sidesplitting comedy—any of these within a few hours, and all without having to bury a corpse or repair a tangled personality.” I figure it fits.