Golf in China–a function of numbers and opportunities

Young Tigers

Young Tigers

Ron Sirak pens a nice piece (“Ready To Shine?”) on golf’s growth in China.

While it would be a stretch to say China is ready to trade Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book for Harvey Penick’s version, there are signs China is finessing the political opponents of golf and preparing to make the game a key part of the country’s nascent tourist economy as well as developing world-class players.

Sirak talks to Ziding Han, the CEO of Guangdong Golf Channel Co., Ltd, which used a content-licensing arrangement with the American-owned Golf Channel to broadcast 37 PGA, European and LPGA tour events in 2006, and this year will televise as many as 86 live events plus highlights from the Asia, Nationwide and Champions tours.

“The next 10 to 20 years will still be a high-growth period [for golf in China],” says Han.  “The growth rate [of players] right now is 25 to 30 percent per year. The government says it is against [the game], but there are billions of dollars in private money invested in golf right now. No other sport in China has that [level of private investment].” Han says one obstacle is the 24 percent tax imposed on golf clubs, the same as nightclubs, an indication some still see the game as a symbol of “Western decadence.”

China currently has around 400 courses, including a dozen 18-hole tracks at the Mission Hills Resort in Shenzhen, “the crown jewel of Chinese golf,” writes Sirak.  In May 2005, Mission Hills successfully surpassed the Pinehurst Golf Course in America to becoming the world’s No.1 (most expansive) Golf Club, according to the Guinness World Records.  But that’s not it:

More courses are on the way, especially on Hainan Island in southern China, off the Vietnam coast, which the government is trying to turn into the Hawaii of China—a tropical tourist haven. “There are 18 courses on Hainan Island,” Han says. “In five years there will be 100.”

Of course, building ultra posh resorts is not necessarily the way to grow the game.  It has to take hold on a grassroots level.  But China seems to have that covered as well.

While the number of tournaments in China is growing, the potential on the participatory side barely has been scratched. According to an R&A study, there are 250,000 golfers with a registered handicap among China’s 1.3 billion people. The United States has 4 million registered golfers, and 32 million total golfers, in a population of 304 million. If China had the same per capita participation as the United States, it would have nearly 17 million registered golfers and the total number of golfers would exceed 130 million.

A key path to this growth involves junior programs, which are in their infancy. The R&A, UBS and the Mission Hills resort support the Faldo Series Asia, a 12-tournament circuit with four in China. Last year the China Golf Association, HSBC, the R&A and IMG jointly launched the HSBC China Junior Golf Program, the only officially sanctioned junior program. This year the program put golf in physical education classes in 40 schools—sort of a Chinese version of The First Tee.

IMG?  In fact, IMG has long had its foot in the door–always trying to cultivate and identify young talent.

Wealthy Chinese juniors also have discovered the American path. The Hank Haney International Junior Golf Academy in Hilton Head, which produced Shanshan Feng, the only LPGA player from China, currently has Xin Wang, a 13-year-old girl, and Yifan Liu, 15, who has played 12 IJGT boys’ events this year and placed in the top 10 every time, with one victory. There are also about a half-dozen Chinese players at the IMG David Leadbetter Academy in Florida.

“With a population of 1.3 billion and an exploding interest in golf, it won’t be long before China makes a huge impact on the game internationally,” says Haney. “There’s every reason to believe the country will produce great players. It’s just a function of numbers and opportunities.”

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