Sport

Hainan’s holes

Southern island is now China’s top golf destination

You could be in Scotland...

Building a golf course in China is surprisingly hard. This is not due to any lack of construction skill or paucity of demand. The reason, as WiC has detailed as far back as issue 14, is that for many years the government has made it all but impossible. The game’s elitist whiff, combined with a desire to halt the loss of agricultural land, saw developers barred from opening new courses.

The inclusion of golf as an Olympic sport has changed attitudes somewhat. Likewise, regional development policies have started to have an impact too, most especially in Hainan. With Beijing’s blessing, the island has been designated as one of China’s tourism hotspots. With its ever-increasing roster of five star resorts, beaches and a tropical climate, local Hainanese officials are encouraging their fellow citizens to come to Sanya instead of going to Phuket or Bali.

But what will they do when they get there, apart from soak up the rays by the pool and enjoy a massage? That’s where golf comes in. With tourism now so central to the province’s growth, local officials seem to have been given special dispensation to build new courses. A lot of new courses. In fact, so many are now under construction that a local golf pro says he’s lost track. Hainan – with its year-round playing environment – evidently hopes to become China’s golfing capital.

In WiC85 we mentioned how film stars such as Catherine Zeta-Jones and Hugh Grant had visited the island to play in a pro-am tournament at the new Mission Hills course in Haikou. To draw attention to that course, the Star Tournament paid winner Lorena Ochoa $1.28 million – significantly, that’s the highest purse for any Asian golf event. Around 120,000 spectators showed up.

Ever ready to investigate a new trend, WiC spent a few days of its Christmas break at one of the newest courses, The Dunes at the Shenzhou Peninsula. In fact, the course is not officially open and remains a work in progress – the clubhouse and adjacent hotels will be completed by May. When finished The Dunes will have 41 holes; currently 18 are playable.

Put simply, this is a knockout set of links. As its director of golf, Stewart Kemp – a Scot – pointed out, there’s nothing else like it in China, or for that matter, Asia. In his view it is the “most Scottish course in China”.

The 16th hole is a good example. As you stand on the tee box, you have a memorable view. To the right of the fairway is beach, and up ahead a headland juts out into the South China Sea. With booming waves and often high winds the hole does have a shared affinity with the original Scottish links courses, and can play differently every minute of the day, depending on the state of the weather. It’s picturesque and challenging in equal measure (and a tough par 4 even for a scratch golfer, which WiC is not).

However, unlike those original Scottish links courses – which were created by nature – this one is pure artifice. The whole site was originally sand dunes (hence the name) and the construction of the various holes has taken upwards of three years. American engineers and heavy machinery have sculpted the landscape and painstakingly laid the turf above the sand.

The design is by former British Open winner, Tom Weiskopf and has been built by Citic Pacific. And given the manhours that must have gone into creating it, you suspect that this golf course could never recoup its build cost in its own right. A nearby apartment complex will probably help. But the ‘no expense spared’ approach goes back to the aforementioned issue of ambition. The company has added the extra five holes so it can create a special championship layout to host a major international tournament.

With speculation that the HSBC Champions may move to Hainan (see WiC85), Citic may well have its eye on The Dunes hosting the November event (often dubbed ‘the fifth major’ thanks to the top 10 field of golf stars it attracts). Even if that doesn’t happen, expect to see this golf course on your TV screens in the near future. Right now the green fees are a bargain at just Rmb500; but that price will at least triple when the clubhouse opens. If you want to play it in the meantime, contact Stewart Kemp on [email protected]


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