China is a fascinating place….the history, the population, the geography, the culture, the politics, the food….if you’ve been there, you know that everything is completely different from our world in the west.
I made my first trip to China in 2003 and my last of over 20 visits in 2015, and the changes I saw in that relatively brief time were staggering. I recall the airport in Nanning having gates with plywood doors and padlocks, and of course very little security. Beijing’s airport at the time was not much more advanced. Fast forward five short years to the hosting of the 2008 Summer Olympics, and Beijing’s new Terminal 3 was world-class, state-of-the-art, and big enough to encompass all five terminals of London Heathrow under one roof.
As China’s economy experienced incredible and well-documented growth, small cities seemed to sprout up from nowhere. Industries exploded. Countless multi-millionaires were born. It really didn’t seem like a communist society. Fortunately for our industry, golf became the sport of choice for the growing elite. Nearly 600 courses would be built in a relatively short period of time, and as President of Gary Player Design, I wanted to join the party. Of course, as both the economy and growth of golf began to slow in the US, every other golf course architect of note wanted to join the party as well. I recall literally running into my counterparts at Nicklaus Design, Arnold Palmer Design, Greg Norman Golf Course Design, and others, in airports and on flights around China. It was a good time for all of us.
But suddenly, the party was over. Construction of new golf courses was absolutely out of control, and many were built without any local, regional, or national approvals. In 2014, the Chinese government shut down all golf development as part of an anti-corruption campaign and actually bulldozed over 100 courses around Beijing. Effectively, a badly needed revenue source for the golf course design and construction industries vanished overnight.
Like many things in China, this drastic action didn’t make any sense as part of an anti-grafting policy. I believe golf was a casualty of the traditionally communist mentality that it is an elitist sport. A particularly peculiar thing happened to Gary Player Design during the shutdown…..we designed and built a course FOR the Chinese government. It was near Beijing, and you could see the Great Wall from the course. The client decided not to open the course until the storm blows over, and even planted wildflowers in the bunkers to make it look like a park. Only in China!
Where do we go from here? There needs to be method to the madness, and I believe it will come. Since the shutdown in 2014, the Chinese government has been indicating that it will establish rules and regulations for golf course development. Only then will developers and investors be willing to take the risk associated with a golf course project. They need to know that the government will not interfere if they follow the regulations set.
While the Chinese government is very non-committal on a timeline for these regulations, there are many conditions that have already and will continue to motivate them to do so. First, that culture is incredibly competitive when it comes to global sporting events. China was second to the US in the overall medal count at the 2016 Summer Olympics. As everyone in our industry knows, those games in Rio featured the first golf competition since 1904, and the Tokyo games in 2020 will also host golf. This global exposure can only help the growth of the game, particularly in countries that have had little exposure in the past. Media, both traditional and social, is reaching huge numbers of people in countries like China like never before. If a Chinese golfer has success at the 2020 Olympics, or on any global golf tour for that matter, a sense of pride could drive a ground swell for the sport. Watch for the name Haotong Li, who is currently ranked 42nd in the Official World Golf Ranking.
I believe that this exposure, coupled with the growing middle class in China, will be the combination we’ve been waiting for. When you have 1.3 billion people, it does not take a very large percentage to make a huge market. Currently, 9.6% of the US population plays golf. If we were to ever get to that percentage in China, there would be over 125 million golfers. That would be quite an industry for all of us to serve! I expect big things from China in the years to come and am keeping my fingers crossed.
Scott Ferrell has over 25 years of industry experience, including 16 years traveling the globe running Gary Player’s’ golf course design business and over 10 years with the PGA TOUR. He is now helping bring needed efficiencies to golf operations by exposing OnLink to the marketplace and serving on the company’s Board. In Scott’s Corner, he will share his view on a variety of topics such as global golf trends, golf course architecture, competitions, and the business of golf.