Westwood ho

New number one holds position at HSBC Champions

Westwood ho

Good female driver: Zeta-Jones

Last weekend almost all of the world’s top golfers made a beeline for Shanghai to play in what is now being billed as the sport’s ‘fifth major’. No doubt the merchandising lure of the China market is one reason why so many were keen to tee off at the HSBC Champions event. The $7 million in prize money on offer will have helped too.

Another reason for four of the top players to bring their best form to the Sheshan course was that a tournament victory would also have meant becoming world number one.

These included last year’s winner, Phil Mickelson, as well as former number one, Tiger Woods and US PGA champion, Martin Kaymer.

But, in the end, none came close to taking the top ranking from the man who had been crowned number one just a few days earlier. Lee Westwood’s second place finish – one shot behind Italy’s Francesco Molinari, but 11 better than Woods – ensured he boarded the plane out of Pudong as number one (the first Englishman to hold the honour since Nick Faldo).

What of the HSBC Champions event itself? Golf Magazine noted that the tournament has matured over its six year record, with one local journalist describing a transition from “an exhibition and commercial-like event to a leading golf tournament with worldwide impact.”

However, the magazine also noted rumours that the tournament’s Shanghai location may be under threat.

“10,000 spectators is close to capacity for the Sheshan International Golf Club, which is not an ideal venue for such a big event. The cart paths are narrow and fan-viewing areas are limited. Only three fairways allow fans to stand on either side and many greens are built right against the water. The 18th green is surrounded by water on two sides and the grandstand behind the green seats only 200. It is the only grandstand on the course. When Tiger’s group played 18, there was hardly any space for the thousands of fans to watch.”

One rumour is that the event will leave Shanghai and could move next year to Mission Hills Haikou, a huge new golf resort in Hainan.

Indeed, as an event held at Mission Hills Haikou the previous weekend made clear, that venue does not lack ambition. The first Star Trophy on the course was billed by Hainan Daily as a “golf carnival” featuring not only well known golfers, but also Hollywood stars like Catherine Zeta-Jones, Hugh Grant and Matthew McConnaughey. Even Olympic swimming phenomenon Michael Phelps put in an appearance.

Thanks to the pulling power of the 20 celebrities and 20 golfing greats, the inaugural event attracted 120,000 spectators. “80% of those spectators don’t know much about golf,” admitted Mission Hills executive vice-chairman, Zhu Dingjian, “but this event makes them at least become interested and enjoy the charm of the sport.”

Lorena Ochoa, the prolific ladies golfing champion, came out of retirement to win the $1.28 million first spot – which according to the World Golf website is “the richest individual prize in Asian golf”.

The provincial bosses of Hainan, a southern island with a tropical climate, clearly think such purses worthwhile. With almost year-round sunshine and a focus on tourism, Hainan has declared its ambition of becoming the ‘golf capital of China’. As WiC has previously reported, construction of new golf courses has been banned in China in recent years – due to worries about the loss of agricultural land as the nation urbanises.

However, Hainan seems to have got special dispensation to go on a binge of course construction. Apart from the Mission Hills course in Haikou, at least 12 others have been built. And more are to come: including next month a 41 hole mega-resort called The Dunes, constructed by top US course architect Tom Weiskopf (designer of the Loch Lomond course in Scotland, plus 40 others).

The strategy may make sense. Liu Binghe, who runs the BFA International Convention Centre Golf Club, estimates that golfers spend “5 to 10 times” as much as ordinary tourists.

For the organisers of the Star Trophy there was a certain amount of relief that the event went off so successfully. That’s because only a couple of weeks earlier, Hainan had experienced serious flooding after nine days of rain. It was the worst downpour the island had experienced since 1951 and led to economic losses of Rmb11.45 billion (the deluge dropped an equivalent of Shanghai’s annual rainfall in just over a week).

What made matters worse, the flooding coincided with one of Hainan’s peak tourism periods – the Golden Week following the National Day holiday on October 1. The extreme weather saw many tourists stranded, their hotels under water and got blanket media coverage. The high profile businessman, Pan Shiyi (see WiC52) even blogged that it was a life threatening experience.

With such bad publicity so fresh in the public mind, the Star Trophy’s promoters feared that the event might end up spectatorless.

But according to the Nanguo Metropolis Daily the thought of seeing Catherine Zeta-Jones hole her six-foot putts was enough to attract the tourists.

For many environmentalists, this is less good news. A recent article by Time Weekly says they blame the severity of the flooding, in part, on the rampant “and disorderly” property development in Hainan (see WiC48 for more on the island’s bubbly real estate market).

In particular Professor Zhou Yuwen from the School of Architecture and Civil Engineering in Beijing points to the island’s low standards for constructing drainage. Liu Futang, a former provincial bureaucrat, agrees with this verdict. However, he further adds that Hainan’s natural drainage has also been weakened by coastal deforestation, with mangroves cleared to make way for luxury hotels and – you guessed it – golf courses.

But it’s hard to see plans for the development of the island slowing down. In spite of environmental concerns, floods as severe as this year’s remains a rare event. As Hainan seeks to become China’s ultimate golf destination, expect more mangrove forests to make way for fairways.

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