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The China Syndrome

By: Hal Phillips

Appeared in the Winter 2014 issue of LINKS.

Through six holes of the Olazabal Course at Mission Hills Shenzhen, my caddie and I pretty much had the run of the place, which is saying quite a lot. Aggressively branded by its owners as the largest golf club in the world, Mission Hills Shenzhen is also among the busiest. And with 12 separate courses, it’s probably the most diverse. In any case, it’s not the sort of place one necessarily expects to find solace.

The Mission Hills development on China’s mainland actually is two facilities in one, Dongguan and Shenzhen/Mid-Valley, connected by a fleet of buses that shuttle golfers and staff the 10 kilometers between properties. It’s a private club but resort guests are perfectly welcome—with 12 courses, there’s always a place to put them, always a course or two to be cordoned off for the members.

In Dongguan, there are five separate tracks, including the Olazabal, host of the World Cup from 2007–09. These multiple layouts do not necessarily occupy distinct parcels of land: The Annika, Olazabal, Leadbetter, and Rose-Poulter courses, for example, weave in and out of one another in a dizzying labyrinth of golf holes and cart paths. If some prankster were to go out one night and remove the ubiquitous signage, a monumental morning traffic jam would ensue.

As it is, the place runs—as so many outsized Chinese enterprises do—like a clock, or rather an expensive Swiss watch (the likes of which are on sale in the many upscale boutiques that grace the expansive hotels and clubhouse lobbies). Westerners may ponder the idea of a 12-course golf club that doubles as a hugely popular resort and jump to one conclusion: chaos. 

But the Chinese don’t see it this way. After all, they’ve grown up in this hyper-populous environment. One suspects that golf’s relative solitude is a big reason they’ve taken to the game with such ardor, for even a five-hour round on a packed course pales beside the bustle of a workday on the streets of Shenzhen or Hong Kong. While it may jar Western visitors to navigate the staging area in Shenzhen/Mid-Valley—where, every hour, hundreds of caddies pair off with hundreds of golf bags on a fleet of carts headed out to seven different courses—the Chinese merely shrug and set about mastering the details.

 “The operation of our golf club is much like an airport,” explains Ken Chu, CEO of the Mission Hills Group and one of two brothers who own and administer it all. “On any day, the complex logistics chain, to transport 3,000 golf bags on a fleet of 1,700 golf carts matched with a team of 4,000 caddies, has got to be seamless so that each player, cart, and caddie is at the right 1st tee at the right tee time.”

The sheer scope of this operation could strike one as impersonal. It’s so big, there are so many players out on the courses, so many restaurants, hotel rooms, and private homes to retreat to after a round, it’s difficult to bond with fellow golfers. Even when foursomes meet up on a tee, little is said. But the Olazabal Course itself—designed by the two-time Masters champion in collaboration with American architect Brian Curley—is a first-class private golf experience, gamboling over terrain that is unstintingly verdant, wooded, and heaving with elevation changes. 

The Dongguan and Shenzhen/Mid-Valley properties occupy nearly 5,000 acres that rise and fall in the folds of steep foothills north of Shenzhen, which is itself about 25 miles north of Hong Kong. It is parkland terrain on steroids, but Curley, who designed multiple courses here in collaboration with various tour luminaries (some more involved than others), made the most of it. His routing of so many intermingling courses in Dongguan should rank among the most impressive logistic accomplishments in golf-design history.

The building of a single course on such terrain in the West might well be deemed too expensive to undertake. Navigating such steep terrain, the plethora of cuts and fills, is expensive. In China, however, developers simply do not think this way. Workers are plentiful and they come at relatively low cost. The scale of each course is a testimony to this dynamic. And lest we forget, there are 12 of them here, and 10 more (and counting) at Mission Hills Haikou, a purely resort venture on Hainan Island (known as China’s Hawaii). 

Mission Hills employs more than 14,000 people at Shenzhen/Mid-Valley, Dongguan, and Haikou. Those are numbers worthy of a public works project, but it’s all the brainchild of one man: David Chu got the ball rolling with development of the World Cup Course, opened in time to host that event back in 1995. Sons Ken and Tenniel preside over the enterprise today and, frankly, they don’t see Mission Hills as anything more than an effort to satisfy market forces. 

“Golf in China is still at infancy stage but growing at a snowball speed,” Ken Chu says. “Thus, it was not just sheer desire for grandeur that convinced us to plot the world’s biggest golf complex in this area. Granted, one important consideration was to cater to the anticipated demand for a growing affluent class in this region. But there is enormous room for growth. By 2020, the China Golf Association predicts there will be about 20 million Chinese golfers. 

The sixth hole on the Olazabal course is a beautiful, brawny, 476-yard par four that plays slightly uphill before bending left and finishing at an elevated green, open at the front but smartly angled away to the right, bringing several deep greenside bunkers into the approach equation. It was here, pondering this difficult second, that I caught the threesome playing ahead of me. On the following hole, another single rolled up in his cart (most of the Mission Hills tracks are unwalkable), so I invited him to join me.

Jackie is a Mission Hills member; it was good to have some company (and local knowledge) along for the ride. Like 30 percent of the members, he resides in Hong Kong. He generally plays on weekends, rising early, traveling the 90 minutes to Shenzhen by car, then zipping home in time for dinner.

About 60 percent of the members are domestic golfers who hail from major Chinese cities. This makes perfect sense: Shenzhen is the booming, commercial epicenter of the mainland south, and Chinese travel from all points to do business here. This further explains the thousands of homes (some of them super-sized, in the McMansion tradition) that line many of the courses but rarely intrude on the golfer’s view. The property is so big there is plenty of room for outlying, outsized homes. But the courses, especially at Shenzhen/Mid-Valley, are largely “core” affairs, with homes occupying the development’s many thoroughfares, the way one would expect to see them in a suburban neighborhood.

Ken Chu reports that more than 5,000 housing units have been sold to date. Hundreds more have been built and await buyers, particularly at Mission Hills Haikou, which is the newer development (opened in 2007).  

“Real estate is one of the six core businesses of Mission Hills and each business module contributes greatly to the overall success of the group,” Chu says. “Properties at the Pearl River Delta regions of China are relatively larger in floor area as to accommodate living, leisure, and gatherings in-house. As you may be aware, Chinese are very hospitable and hosting dinners and events at one’s own property is a gesture of close friendship. 

“Properties in Haikou, on the other hand, cater more to recreation and leisure. Hainan is a popular holiday destination in China and a great winter getaway and vacation home for many Chinese.” 

Mission Hills Haikou is indeed a very different animal. Though it’s Hainan’s largest city, Haikou is small- to mid-sized by Chinese standards (only two million inhabitants). This property was chosen by the Chus because of its proximity to the airport (15–20 minutes by car), the relatively undeveloped nature of surrounding land, and the presence of volcanic hot springs that well up from beneath the underlying lava rock. The result is no mere spa but a sprawling, aquatic theme park with separate spa experiences representing five continents (the North American theme, for example, leans heavily on a melange of Aztec and Mayan iconography). 

Next door are a 518-room hotel, another gargantuan clubhouse, and 10 golf courses, all open to public play. Haikou is a resort venture, pure and simple. Mission Hills foresees similarly outsized demand for resort play emanating from China and across Asia, and it’s here in Haikou that they’ve determined to stay ahead of that demand. 

“In China, you can build ahead of the curve and wait for the people to come,” says Curley. “You can wait because the players will eventually be there…There are times when I say to myself, ‘Wow, that’s a lot of golf courses.’ But in the case of Mission Hills, I expect to eventually say to myself, ‘Well, good thing there’s a lot of golf courses.’ 

“No one’s really living there at Haikou right now,” he adds, “but in five years, 10 years, they’ll be getting not just local play, tourist play, and hotel play, but you’re going to see a tremendous increase in residents.” When fully built out, the sprawling Mission Hills Haikou project will be roughly one and a half times the size of Manhattan Island. 

Curley does not conform to one’s conventional notion of a course architect, and that would appear to suit him just fine. He’s a Pebble Beach native who cut his teeth working for a developer, Landmark Land Co., before joining with former Nicklaus associate Lee Schmidt to form Schmidt Curley Design. He’s glib, outspoken, and often sits in at Double Happiness, a club in Kunming, where he plays “boozy, bluesy, Americana rock” on his acoustic guitar. He’s also the fortunate soul who hooked up with China’s most prolific, deep-pocketed course developer. No one has designed more courses in China, and it’s hard to imagine the firm’s work will ever fully outgrow its association with Mission Hills.

Some might assume that real estate is the tail that wags the dog at Mission Hills, but this would seem to be another bias North Americans bring to the table. Are the Mission Hills projects real-estate driven? Only if one is prepared to discount all the rounds they’re accommodating (350,000 annually at the 10 courses in Haikou), the massive convention business they do in Dongguan, Asia’s largest tennis center (at Shenzhen/Mid-Valley), and the pure club experience members like Jackie are prepared to pay for—and drive 90 minutes each way for. 

And let’s not confuse residential real estate with commercial real estate. The clubhouses and hotel lobbies in Shenzhen/Mid-Valley, Dongguan, and Haikou are replete with name-brand boutiques. The provision of shopping and killer spa facilities are two effective nods to the family-friendly, family-spending experience Mission Hills is wont to foster. 

In Shenzhen, 2014 will see the opening of Mission Hills Centreville, a free-standing complex offering all manner of hotels, offices, parks, shopping malls, convention centers, and apartments. More than two and one-half million square feet of shopping, entertainment, cultural, and dining attractions are planned, along with Ritz-Carlton and Hard Rock hotels. 

On Hainan, a movie-themed entertainment and commercial district is also set to open next year. It will accommodate a whopping 10 million square feet of commercial diversions.

Some purists may sniff at golf being bundled with such unabashedly commercial diversions. The size of these facilities does not encourage golfer interaction: I’d gladly trade one of the many restaurants at each property for a cozy, grotto-like bar. But to dispatch the Mission Hills experience as a mere front or a device to sell villas is to sell it well short. This mix of private and resort play, this leveraging of leisure to fuel both residential and commercial development, is one example of how the Chinese have made the game their own—very convincingly, and in a very short period of time. 

Jackie shared a wealth of similarly practical information during our round, and we had plenty of time to talk as the group in front of us (now down to two) proved mighty deliberate and none too interested in chatting us up, much less inviting us to play along/through. 

Jackie plays the Olazabal course as his first choice, though he likes the Leadbetter nearly as well. The Norman is spectacular but too difficult. The Faldo and Dye courses are very good, he reported, but his level of membership does not entitle him to weekend tee times there. 

When we arrived at Olazabal’s 15th—its “signature hole,” a downhill par five that doglegs left through a gauntlet of bunkers to a peninsular green—we bounded onto the tee and found our obstinate twosome still in the midst of multiple practice swings. Jackie pulled me aside.

“Our caddies have talked to their caddies. We’re going to play with them.”

Fair enough. I went over and introduced myself, but their English was about as good as my Mandarin, which is to say, basically non-existent. One of our new playing partners had a bit of a nightmare on the green at 15, skulling balls back and forth across the putting surface, bunker to bunker, before eventually telling us to go ahead and hole out. We did, and Jackie again pulled me aside. “Let’s go.” As a guest, I did what I was told. 

Jackie went straight to the 16th tee, put his peg in the ground, and drilled one down the right side. “Uh, Jackie: What just happened there?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, we just joined those two guys, and now we’re going through them? Did our caddies talk to their caddies or something? Did you talk to one of the guys? I mean, was anything said?”

Jackie broke out in a wide grin. “Nothing was said. This is China!”                            

Hal Phillips is a Maine-based freelance writer and former editor-in-chief of Golf Course News. 

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