Arnold Palmer realised how little the locals knew about golf when he agreed to design the first course in China for two generations.
After years of golfing purdah, the sport was gibberish to the Chinese, something that the American golfing legend soon grasped on arriving at the proposed course in the southern province of Guangdong in 1984.
“[I] gave this man a golf ball I had in my pocket. He stared at it for a few moments and then tried to take a bite out of the cover,” Palmer recalls in his memoirs.
“‘No’, I said. ‘You don’t eat it’.”
Dan Washburn relates this tale in The Forbidden Game: Golf and the Chinese Dream. But Washburn’s own contribution to the story of golf in China turns this sense of cultural confusion on its head, arguing that the development of the game actually offers new ways of understanding some of the social and economic changes shaping the country.
Golf’s progress hints at greater social mobility and highlights China’s expanding wealth, for instance. But the boom also points to darker truths, Washburn says, like corruption, environmental neglect, land disputes and the widening gulf between rich and poor.
The idea of the sport as a parable for modern China is an ambitious one. In golfing terms, Washburn risks swinging too hard and spraying 10 different balls in 10 different directions. But he carries it off as the central theme of his book, avoiding most of the traps by telling the stories of three protagonists: a course builder from America; a migrant worker from Guizhou who ends up joining the domestic golf tour; and a farmer from Hainan whose life changes forever when local land is leased to a golf developer.
These lives are the real focus of the book and they provide the glue for the wider account of the game’s emergence in China.
As Arnold Palmer’s story suggests, when golf first reappeared in China in the mid-1980s the game was at ground zero. Mao had denounced it as a “sport for millionaires” and the few courses that had previously existed had long been ploughed over. The game’s bourgeois origins mean that this sense of taboo lives on today. There are no photos of China’s current leaders enjoying a round, for instance.
Zhou Xunshu, the peasant who turns pro, was equally ignorant of the game when he first encountered it. “What’s that?” he asks, on being told that he will be working on a course as a construction worker. But later Zhou is promoted to course security guard and golf becomes his obsession, primarily for the life that it seems to promise. “We all knew golf as a noble sport – a game for rich men,” he explains. “We all felt that just by being in that environment, we had already raised our social standing.”
Zhou learns by watching others, fashioning his own clubs from discarded or broken equipment, and sneaking onto courses to play when everyone else is asleep.
Years later his perseverance pays off when he joins the blue-collar crew of sushi chefs, motorcycle acrobats and hotel managers that made up China’s first domestic tour.
His story – similar in spirit to the struggle of millions of migrant workers to improve their lives – is the most uplifting part of the book. Yet Washburn keeps his sense of perspective, accepting that Zhou’s experience is wholly unusual, and acknowledging that talk of “golf fever” in China is exaggerated.
Even today the game is played by “zero percent of the population” in statistical terms, simply because very few Chinese can afford it.
Later, the tale switches to Hainan where a gigantic new golfing complex is being developed near the home of Wang Libo, a lychee farmer. It is through cases like this – when golf courses encroach onto rural land – that most Chinese are likely to come into contact with the game, Washburn says. Wang has little choice but to accept the arrival of a game that he is never likely to play.
These everyday realities are reflected in another of the book’s main themes: that the golf-building binge has been conducted in complete defiance of a 10-year moratorium on new course construction.
This boom-despite-a-ban is another example of a familiar story in the pages of WiC – the limitations of Beijing’s authority as local governments scheme and schmooze to evade policy directives. Despite the official embargo, the spread of a sport once denigrated as “green opium” is clear for all to see. In his case, Washburn tells the story through Martin Moore, the American contractor who learns to look out for Beijing’s “golf police”. Moore also leads the effort to add five new courses to the Mission Hills resort in Guangdong in record-breaking time 10 years ago. Why was the timeframe so compressed? The implication, Washburn believes, is that the owners had got wind that the course ban was going to be enforced and they wanted their fairways ready before the mood toughened.
Yet there isn’t much sign that the rules have been better respected in the period since. Hundreds more courses have been built, according to a report from Sina Sports last month, with another 47 new ones opening last year alone. A total of 173 new golf projects were launched in the four years before that, the report concludes, increasing the total number of courses by nearly half.
Like the spread of the more hallucinatory opium of the nineteenth century, this ‘green’ version seems hard to suppress…
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