McIlroy to taste China tees

Why Shui On’s Vincent Lo is backing one-of-a-kind Chinese golf event

McIlroy to taste China tees

On course for China: McIlroy will play with Els, Poulter and Liang

Ji Keliang, the boss of liquor giant Moutai, loves to play. Lenovo’s founder Liu Chuanzhi is keen on a round too. Glass tycoon Cao Dewang describes it as his sole hobby, rising at 4am to play before work (in case you are wondering his staff light the course with torchlight).

Needless to say, golf has become a passion for China’s business elite. But for Vincent Lo the devotion is being taken to the next level. Not content to just play golf, he is bringing some of the world’s best players to China for a new event that will see them play 18 holes in six different parts of the country – and all in just seven days.

Hong Kong-based Lo is well known as a property developer in China – particularly for his 20,000 square metre Xintiandi complex in Shanghai. But the chairman of Shui On Group is also a keen golfer, with a handicap that has been as low as seven.

On October 10 his firm will be the title sponsor of the Shui On Land China Golf Challenge. This will see US Open champion Rory McIlroy travel round China with top Chinese golfer Liang Wen-chong and former major winner Ernie Els, as well as World Match Play winner Ian Poulter.

As Lo told the South China Morning Post: “As the tournament travels the country, we hope to show the viewers around the world a golfing experience in modern China, as well as the dynamism of Chinese cities.”

The players will face a packed schedule. Unlike a traditional tournament – where 72 holes are played on a single course – the idea behind this event is to play signature holes at a variety of courses dotted around the country.

Bombardier is a sponsor and will provide five private jets to shuttle the players and supporting TV crews between the far-flung venues.

The first tee-off is Shanghai, which will also give Lo an opportunity to show the players the bars and restaurants of his Xintiandi development.

Then they play in Nanjing and next Dalian (where Lo also has a major property project).

The route then takes them to Beijing, where Bell Helicopters (another sponsor) will fly the golfing group over the Great Wall, to a nearby course (and where, additionally, they will play two other courses in the Beijing area).

Next stop is Chongqing, where again Lo will have the chance to entertain the golfers in one of his venues (Chongqing Xintiandi, where he will take them to his bar Dancing with the Sharks, famous for housing three tiger sharks).

Then they’ll fly on to Dongguan. The final two holes will be in Macau, where the winner will be declared at the giant Venetian casino.

The idea was the brainchild of Hong Kong-based golf pro and businessman, Marc Boggia, who first discussed it with Lo last November.

It isn’t an entirely original concept. Back in 1993, a similar whistle-stop tournament was arranged in the US, in which four top golfers played 18 holes on 18 different courses.

In that case the idea had been to play the 18 most celebrated holes in America. But logistically that’s proved tough in China, hence rather than playing 18 courses in a week, players will tee-off on just eight.

Boggia says they are stunning courses, and says it’s going to be “a combination of a golf event and travelogue around China”. The sponsors see the tournament, Boggia says, as a way of showcasing China as a “vibrant, economic powerhouse”.

The television coverage will include 18 half-hour shows – to give international audiences the chance to see not only how McIlroy deals with the (occasional) bunker shot, but also how he copes with spicy hotpot in Sichuan.

Local Chinese channels CCTV5 and Shanghai Media Group have also signed up to broadcast segments to domestic audiences.

Says the golfer from Ulster: “I am always eager for a challenge, but this is different to any golf tournament I’ve competed in. For me, this will be as much about exploring China, as competing. Hopefully Liang can give us some good local tips on the best food!”

Peter Dunne, director of Great 18 Golf Championships, who is working with Boggia on the event, says: “What is interesting here for golf fans is not necessarily Rory shooting a birdie but watching these four guys on their jet and seeing what they talk about in the bar at night. The behind the scenes stuff is what fans want to see.”

Ernie Els says he’s also looking forward to participating: “I’ve only been to a couple of places in China, and we’re going to cover 4,000 miles. It’s a one-of-a-kind event. A once-in-lifetime adventure.”

Of course, apart from seeing China’s hinterland, the players have their own commercial motivations for participating. Aside from the fee they are receiving to play, the Chinese market represents a big sales opportunity. Poulter has a clothing line, and would like to dress more of China’s golfers in it. Els is interested in designing golf courses in China, as well as selling his own wine labels (he owns five vineyards).

Liang sees the event less in commercial terms and more from a patriotic angle. He will play the role of host, showing the other three around. “I am thrilled and very excited to represent China,” he says.

One thing that organisers have had to ensure: that all the golf courses selected are legally registered. WiC has mentioned the official campaign against unregistered courses in the past (as far back as issue 14). Typically, only those courses opened before the onset of a government ban in 2003 are legal.

Clearly, it wouldn’t be great publicity to have Liang, Ernie, Rory and Poulter tee-off on an illegal course.

As for the event itself, Boggia and Dunne want to make it an annual one and hope that local Chinese brands will become sponsors.

“In subsequent events the theme will change, perhaps focusing more on heritage, history and culture,” says Boggia, who is confident the inaugural tournament will be a success, thanks to Lo, who he once coached.

“Vincent has got a vested interest from a professional point of view in making this work, and also as a golfer. He is totally engaged and excited. He will travel on the same private jet as the players, and make sure they have a good time.”

October and November will be busy months for golf in China: a new event, The Lake Malaren Shanghai Masters will tee-off at the end of October, with the WGC HSBC Champions following in early November.

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